Colombia 2010 and Outgoing President Uribe


This is the second in a series on Colombia’s presidential elections (cross-posted to PoliBlog).  The first covered candidate Juan Manuel Santos.

The election this Sunday is the first step in replacing the sitting President, Ãlavro Uribe.  Uribe is one of the longest serving President in Colombian history and the first since Rafael Núñez in the late 1800s to be re-elected to the post to consecutive terms.  Núñez, a key historical figure in Colombia politics (considered, in many ways, to be the father of the 1886 constitution, which was in force until it was replaced in 1991), but who was not elected (or re-elected) via a popular vote process.   Alfonso López Pumarejo was the last president elected to two terms, although they were non-consecutive terms (1934-1938 and 1942-1946) and López did not serve to completion his second term.  The 1886 constitution forbad consecutive terms, while the 1991 constitution limited the president to only one term until Uribe’s allies were able to reform the document during his first term so as to allow one re-election.  As such, Uribe acquired a unique place in Colombian history for his tenure in office alone.

He is also significant insofar as he ran in 2002 and in 2006 as an independent.  His early political career (such as his time as Governor of Antioquia) was undertaken as a member of the Liberal Party, but he chose to run in 2002 outside of any party structure.  In 2002 he was originally seen as a longshot candidate who eventually went on to win an absolute majority outright in the first round, besting a crowded fields.  Likewise in 2006 he won handily in the first round.  The majority requirement was put into place by the Constitution of 1991 and first used in 1994.  Uribe was the first (and to date only) candidate to win without having to face a run-off.

Uribe (via surrogates) was trying, practically to the last minute, to run for a third term as president, a move that would have required another constitutional amendment approved first via a vote in the Congress, then Constitutional Court review, and then a referendum.  After much wrangling, the vote passed the Congress late in 2009.  The Court, however, eventually declared the process to have violated the constitution and various laws (on several counts) which stopped any referendum from going forward (a vote that almost certainly would have resulted in Uribe being allowed to run again and would have won a third term).

Uribe has had a vey successful run as president, and he and his policies do deserve credit for substantial gains on the policy-front.  However, not only are there a number of issues pertaining to transparency, corruption, and violence that his administration also has to answer for, it is a mistake to elevate Uribe to the position of the Indispensible Man (an idea that fueled his bid for a third term).   An example of this point of view can be found in the following WSJ headline:  The Man Who Saved Colombia.  The piece is quite positive and includes lines like “Mr. Uribe has salvaged democracy in a part of the world where criminality is on the rise”.  Such statements are a bit of hyperbole for a variety of reasons.

First, it reflects a tendency that is all too common (see, for example, here) that reduces governments to the chief executives alone, as if all that is good or bad about a given stretch of time is the president (or PM or whomever).  There have been others involved in Colombia governance for the past 8 years.

Second, such statements ignore Colombia’s rather long history with political violence.  Yes, the time during which Uribe took office was an especially bad period, although it was not the first such bad period and it likely will not be the last (or, based solely on historical patterns, that’s the sad safe money).  Casting Uribe as the savior ignores a few simply facts:  the current political violence can be seen as part of an unbroken legacy of conflict that dates back tot he 1940s (at least).  That is not to say is it a continuation of the exact same conflict, but rather that a) there has been some form of ongoing political violence since that time, and that b) some parts of the current violence can trace back its roots (the founder, recently deceased, of the FARC) back that far.  Other elements can have their origins traced to the 1960s (the FARC, the ELN and other small guerrilla groups that still operate) while others to the 1970s/1980s (drug cartels) or 1980s/1990s (paramilitary groups). 

Third, there is no reason that the efficacious portions of the Uribe approach can’t be continued.  Indeed, both of the front-runners (Santos and Mockus) have pledged to do just that.

Fourth, we shouldn’t go too far in proclaiming Uribe a pure paragon of all things democratic.  He has demonstrated autocratic tendencies (not the least of which being his clear desire to alter the political system to allow him to stay in office a rather long time—something that is considered anathema to those who praise Uribe in the US when the exact same behavior is exhibited by Hugo Chávez).  Indeed, there were issues of vote manipulation that emerged in the amendment process that allowed the first re-election which led to the arrest and conviction on bribery charges of congresswoman Yidis Medina and some impropriety issue

Further, there are credible accusations that Uribe has had ties to paramilitary groups—certainly his family has, including his political ally and cousin, Mario Uribe, as well as his brother (via the AP:  Colombia’s President Uribe defends brother against death squad charge, blames criminals).

See also, the CSMColombia election ends reign of ‘savior’ Ãlvaro Uribe.  The following excerpt does a good job of capturing Uribe’s legacy in terms of the positives and negatives:

Uribe remains wildly popular, with 70 percent approval ratings. And in some ways, the surge of Mr. Mockus shows Uribe’s success in the area most important to voters: democratic security. No matter who wins, the next Colombian president is likely to chart the same course when it comes to drug traffickers, rebels, and paramilitaries.

"He achieved a consensus on public opinion about security as a vital element in society," says Rafael Nieto, a political analyst who served with Uribe as vice minister of justice. "Today there is no one not willing to continue his policies."

But many Colombians say they are fatigued with Uribe’s administration, particularly by the political and human rights scandals that have dogged his presidency. In that sense, Santos seems to be more of the same. In Mockus, they say, they expect more transparency and rule of law. A Mockus victory, however, could highlight the flaws in Uribe’s time in office, undermining the image of a man who, until recently, was seen by many as the only viable way forward for the country.

Photo Source:  taken by the author in March 2010.  The flag flies in the Plaza de Bolívar over the Colombian capitol.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. V says:

    Mr. Taylor: Your argument seems a little one sided. I think you need to research a little more. Also, you should check these facts: the quality of life and foreing investment improved dramatically in Colombia during Uribe’s term. You should, not only, compare Uribe to Narino, but also to all the corrupt presidents that Colombia has had, and then you would realize that it might not look like it, but from inside Colombia, this president is one of a kind. If we talk about “violation of human rights” many American presidents could be in jail. Sometimes, a good president is the one that risks crossing a border to protect his people, at the risk of looking like a “Chavez”. Invading Iraq and finding no evidence is ok, but hunting a criminal a mile from the country’s border AND FINDING EVIDENCE is a violation of every code or a double standard?

  2. In re: doing more research, click.

    I wouldn’t dispute, nor do I dispute above, Uribe’s significance. And I never mentioned the Ecuador incursion and I do not defend Bush in the above post, either.