Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Should Colombia’s President Change His Approach?

Duque // File Photo: Colombian Government. Duque // File Photo: Colombian Government.

Colombian President Iván Duque campaigned on promises to cut taxes, take a tough stance with the former FARC rebels and fight the production of illegal drugs. Within the eight months since he’s taken office, however, lawmakers passed just a watered-down version of his tax bill, the lower house of Congress overwhelmingly rejected his modifications to the country’s transitional justice system and cocaine production is at record levels. Does Duque need to change his approach in order to push through his agenda, and if so, how? Which of his goals does he have the best chance at achieving, and which will be most difficult for him to accomplish? What are the main lessons that he should be taking to heart from his first eight months in office?

Daniel E. Velandia O., director and chief economist for research at Credicorp Capital in Bogotá: “Duque took office amid high political polarization in the country, mainly the result of the peace deal with FARC. Thus, it was expected that the new president–regardless who it was–would have a tough time getting approval for main reforms. The country is divided, with 55 percent of the population favoring Duque’s proposals and the other 45 percent opposing them. Recall that Duque won in the second round with 54 percent of the vote. In addition, Duque has taken a strong stance against pork barrel politics. Among other things, this means that traditional political parties have not been granted relevant positions in the cabinet, which is taking a toll on governability. Last but not least, the ruling Democratic Center party has not decisively supported some of the government’s relevant proposals, which may be explained by the fact that regional and local elections will be held on Oct 27. In fact, the Democratic Center has ambitious goals for those elections in terms of the number of governors and mayors, which makes us think that it does not want to make any unpopular decisions that can reduce its expected number of votes. Thus, Duque should change his approach with political parties, improving communications channels while considering their proposals and comments in a more constructive way, recognizing the strong need to form a coalition for the coming years. We would expect the relationship between the government and political parties to improve after the October elections. Beyond this, we are confident that the government and Congress will take the required measures to maintain fiscal consolidation in the period ahead, which is the most important medium-term economic challenge.”

Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, professor of political science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and a former Colombian interior minister: “Last year’s election was a tragic case for the candidates who were close to incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos—former Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, and the government’s chief peace negotiator, Humberto de la Calle. Now it seems that everyone wants to play the role of the opposition in order to win the next presidential election in 2022. Even more when the opposition is enjoying new privileges. Several parties have formally declared that they want to be considered the opposition. Others prefer the role of independents. The situation is worsened because President Duque has refused to use procedures that facilitate governance, such as clientelism. In a country that has been accustomed to consensual politics since 1957 and now has significant division as a result of the peace agreement, there is acute debate about both trivial topics and also very serious ones. In my perspective, there is a middle ground. Cabinet positions should be assigned to parties like Liberal, Radical Change and Conservative. Governance without congressional majorities will be torture and a useless exercise. The presidential party that was built on the basis of clientelism and public contracts distribution should be a tool of the past. This could be Duque’s major contribution to clean up politics, toward more transparency and integrity. It is extremely important that other parties start practicing the role of an intelligent and effective opposition. It is high time for this important improvement of Colombian politics.”

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America: “President Duque is experiencing difficulties getting his campaign promises through Colombia’s Congress. The only initiative that has advanced, the tax bill, passed but with significant modifications from what Duque initially proposed. On the issue of transitional justice, Duque attempted to push reforms to the transitional justice system through the lower house and failed. There was tremendous pushback by the international community and global civil society against such efforts that would reopen debates about the peace that had already been decided. The lesson for Duque is that he cannot govern on rhetoric and appeasing Colombia’s political and economic elites alone. The peace process changed Colombia, making it more democratic and giving excluded political voices more of a platform. Governing from the top no longer works. He needs to build consensus on his proposals with a broader swath of Colombian society. If that does not work, then he needs to adapt to the demands of the majority. In this case, the majority wants peace to advance. Lowering cocaine production will require a long-term integral approach rather than repeating failed militaristic policies.”

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