On August 26th, the Colombian people headed to the polls to take part in a historic vote intended to curb the unchecked corruption that has plagued the country for many years. Voters were able to respond yes or no to the following seven points proposed by the bill: three-term limits for senators and representatives, the publicization of the assets, budgets and voting records of all elected officials, a mandate to send officials convicted of corruption to prison without options of parole, the nullification of State contracts with those convicted of corruption, and the reduction of congressmen’s salary from 40 to 25 times the country’s minimum wage (Janetsky 2018).
It was required that each measure was voted on by a minimum of a third of Colombia’s 36 million registered voters, and at least 50 percent of voters needed to support each point in order for it to become law (Al Jazeera 2018). Although each measure was overwhelmingly approved by more than 99 percent of voters, less than 12 million of Colombia’s voters participated in the referendum, making the effort futile (Janetsky 2018).
With an increasing amount of Colombians expressing concern over the corruption taking over politics, businesses and security (over 10 percent of the national budget is siphoned off because of corruption each year), many supporters of the referendum simply could not understand the lack of participation in, what many considered to be, a straightforward solution to many of the problems present in the country (Janetsky 2018).
Some reports have indicated the Colombian president Ivan Duque’s minimal involvement with the referendum swayed many voters from coming to the polls. Although Duque publicly voted for the proposal, his party, the currently governing Democratic Centre party, did not actively campaign for the vote as it has with former causes (BBC News 2018). Duque also proposed alternative measures apart from the referendum, confusing many Colombians as to what else would be drafted (Janetsky 2018).
Others considered that the underwhelming outturn at the polls was simply a sign of voter fatigue, as presidential elections were just recently held at the end of May 2018.
Voters were also inundated with propaganda from opposition groups, falsely claiming that Green Alliance member Claudia López, who created the campaign, was to receive money for every “yes” vote. It was also incorrectly reported that the approval of the referendum would cause the minimum wage to plummet (West 2018).
One of the most vocal members of the opposition was former president Alvaro Uribe, who pushed voters to abstain from participation, suggesting Duque’s secondary plans as alternatives. The ex-politician broadcasted his concern for “...the transparency and austerity of state resources throughout [his] public career”. The sentiment was lost on many, as two of Uribe’s former ministers are currently serving out prison sentences for bribing Congress to allow Uribe to run for multiple terms, and Uribe is scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court himself for charges related to his involvement with paramilitary death squads in the 1990s (Janetsky 2018).
Some voices from the opposition, though, were not necessarily against what the referendum stood for. Rather, they exemplified the weariness many Colombians have felt regarding the effectiveness of such laws and rules.
One such individual was Germán Manga, a columnist who told BBC News that the propositions were “irrelevant, anodyne, almost childish,” as the majority of the measures, he said, are already covered by present laws. The country’s prosecutor-general, Nestor Humberto Martinez, also expressed his disdain for the effort, saying it was “limited and insufficient.” He suggested that Duque must appoint special anti-corruption judges to manage a growing number of corruption cases being brought to court (BBC News 2018).
Recent history in Colombia has certainly shown the ineffectiveness of similar measures. In a case illustrating the unsuccessfulness of former efforts to stem corruption, the country’s anti-corruption chief, Luis Gustavo Moreno, was extradited to Miami on charges that he had accepted $10,000 USD in bribes. The Odebrecht scandal similarly exposed a number of Colombian politicians in bribes that amounted to over $27 million USD (Grattan 2018).
Other cases involving the purchase of votes by Senator Aida Merlano and criminal gangs throughout Barranquilla have also left voters with little trust for the system (Grattan 2018).
However, the failed referendum is still a sign of hope for many Colombians. In the history of the country, a citizen-led initiative has never received such substantial support, especially as the referendum did not enjoy the support of any of Colombia’s traditional political parties (Al Jazeera 2018). It is possible that the near-success of the referendum will act as a signal for the potential success of grass-roots movements in the future of the country’s politics.
Janetsky, Megan. 2018. “Colombia, the country that voted against a peace process, fails to vote against corruption.” 26 August. Colombia Reports. Available to read here: https://colombiareports.com/colombia-the-country-that-voted-against-peace-process-fails-to-vote-against-corruption/ [Accessed 10 September 2018].
BBC News. 2018. “Colombia hopes a referendum will help root out corruption.” 26 August. BBC News Latin America. Available to read here: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45283733 [Accessed 10 September 2018].
Al Jazeera. 2018. “Colombia anti-corruption referendum comes up shy on votes.” 27 August. Al Jazeera. Available to read here: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/colombians-vote-landmark-anti-corruption-referendum-180826134458619.html [Accessed 10 September 2018]
West, Simon. 2018. “Colombians spurned the chance to curb rampant corruption. Here’s why.” 27 August. NBC News. Available to read here: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/colombians-spurned-chance-curb-rampant-corruption-here-s-why-n904201 [Accessed 10 September 2018].
Grattan, Steven. 2018. “Colombia’s rampant corruption a hot topic in presidential vote.” 15 June. Reuters. Available to read here: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-election-corruption/colombias-rampant-corruption-a-hot-topic-in-presidential-vote-idUSKBN1JB252 [Accessed 10 September 2018]