Colombia, Political Exclusion, and Delegative Democracy

October 19, 2016

On December 9th, 2013, then mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro was dismissed from his post and subsequently banned from holding public office for 15 years.1 Petro was a former M19 guerrilla and longtime opposition leader who was known for being the highest ranking former guerilla in Colombia. The man who made the decision to fire Petro due to ‘gross mismanagement’ was Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, who has a reputation for doing away with leftist politicians. In fact, in December of 2010, Ordóñez dismissed then Senator Piedad Córdoba, a lawyer who had served as a senator since 1994, for her alleged link to the FARC. She, too, received a ban, this one for 18 years.1

Petro was officially dismissed for a scandal whereby he attempted to replace the private trash collectors in Bogotá with state owned water and sewage utility Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarillado de Bogotá.1 Trash accumulated in the streets for several weeks before the policy experiment was deemed a disaster and replaced with the original plan. While this was certainly not sound policy, observers expressed concern that the dismissal and especially the banishment from public office for 15 years, was no less than a regional coup sponsored by the Santos administration.

Last week, Colombia’s council of state upheld the Santos administration’s decision to dismiss Petro for ‘gross mismanagement,’ despite the late and desperate attempt to intervene in the decision by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR).2 It is clear now that this decision will figure prominently into Santos’ upcoming re-election bid, and it is also possible that the ousting of opposition figures may hinder ongoing peace talks with FARC in Havana. Petro was recently quoted saying, “I know that right now the easiest thing would be to stage a violent uprising,” but that he knew it was in the long term interest of stability in the country to instead call for a peaceful civil strike in order to “force the oligarchy to convene a constituent assembly.”2 A constituent assembly (or constitutional convention) is looking more and more likely for two additional reasons. First, the FARC is also negotiating to hold a constituent assembly, which raises the question of whether Petro is in direct communication with negotiators in Havana. Second, Santos may be more open to the idea of a constituent assembly at this point to make his administration appear more legitimate and to deflect FARC accusations that he is responsible for the erosion of democracy in the country.2

Possible evidence of Santos’ recent willingness to offer greater concessions than before can also be found in his invitation extended to Piedad Córdoba to the presidential palace on March 25 in order to discuss adding a line to the next ballot on May 25 to allow Colombians to express their support for a peace deal with the FARC.2 This is the same Piedad Córdoba that was ousted in December 2010 by Ordóñez for alleged connections to the FARC.

So what explains the fraught political situation in Colombia? Guillermo O’Donnell’s piece Delegative Democracy? explains a model of democratic regimes prevalent in Latin America that may illuminate some of the core issues of democratic governance and political instability in Colombia. O’Donnell and others previously thought that the most decisive factors for generating a strong democracy were related to the process of transition from authoritarian rule into democratic rule, but his work on delegative democracies finds that long-term historical factors, and the degree of the severity of socioeconomic crises inherited by new democracies, are at the root of the problem, both of which had a distinct character and influence in Colombian political development.3 For O’Donnell, strong democracies were a two stage process: authoritarian regimes evolving into weakly democratic ones, and these weak democracies becoming consolidated and institutionalized into strong democracies. Crucial to the second transition is whether institutions have  the following six functions in place to adequately distribute the flow of political power3:

  • Incorporation and exclusion

  • Shape the probability of distribution of outcomes

  • Aggregate the level of action and organization of agents acting within them

  • Induce patterns of representation

  • Stabilize agents and expectations

  • Lengthen time horizons

A cursory view of the contemporary political situation, as characterized by the ousting of the former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro, demonstrates that Colombian political institutions are lacking in some, and probably all, of these “essential” functions. In terms of incorporation and exclusion, properly functioning political institutions should incorporate those duly elected and exclude those who lack a public mandate, the reverse of the situation with Gustavo Petro. The patterns of representation are also disrupted by this “regional coup” that received such a strong condemnation from the IAHCR, which Santos believes is a body unfit to criticize Colombia.2 Surely citizens of Bogotá were unhappy with Petro’s unsuccessful trash collection policy, but removing Petro and replacing him with an unelected mayor is not a legitimate form of democratic representation. It is also easy to see how the current atmosphere has destabilized agents and their expectations, and shortened the time horizons of elected officials.

In O’Donnell’s description of delegative democracies, the relationships between the three branches of government are degraded, leaving no incentive for political cooperation.3 I believe that this same analysis can apply vertically within the executive branch in a federal system, rather than just horizontally across branches. Other opposition mayors will certainly find it more difficult to work with Santos on a variety of pressing policy matters, and there may be more dismissals to come. Finally, O’Donnell’s characterization of the climate of instability within which presidents of delegative democracies operate, does not bode well for Santos’ upcoming election, although surely Santos will emphasize his economic and social policies that have apparently helped poor and middle class voters.

O’Donnell predicts that the structural inequalities that allowed delegative democracies to emerge in the first place will continue to make it difficult for the emergence of stable and representative “second transition” democracies.3 Indeed, it is difficult to see what could bring Colombia out of this toxic political environment in the short term.

About Author(s)

Eamonn Berry
Eamonn Berry is a 2nd year graduate student at University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, where his major is International Political Economy and he is seeking a certificate in Latin American Social and Public Policy. He previously attended the University of Vermont, where he majored in Political Science and minored in Spanish. Eamonn has political and legal experience, and is pursuing a career in public policy.