Colombia’s Referendum

On October 25, 2003 Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez placed before the people of Colombia a referendum of questions that he hoped would endorse his leadership and increase his power. Presented as an ‘anti-corruption’ initiative, most of the questions sought to gut the public sector of the country and facilitate further privatizations. Conveniently, one question would have made it possible for a president to be re-elected after one term, opening the way for Uribe’s own re-election in 2006.

As an expression of popular democracy, the referendum left something to be desired. Heading into the referendum, a poll showed that 3.7% of the population claimed to have a good understanding of it and researchers showed that, on average, a person needed 27 minutes to read all of the questions (in a country with a 20% rural illiteracy rate). Adding to the confusion, the referendum was the day before municipal and departmental elections. There were 135 gubernatorial candidates, 3 256 mayoral candidates and an equally bewildering array of candidates for municipal and departmental councils and assemblies. 10 of the mayoral candidates had been convicted of criminal offenses and an additional 18 were under investigation. The net effect was to make the elections and the referendum a baffling exercise for voters.

There was violence on election day as well, with the guerrillas making various attacks. 13 people were killed in electoral violence, most of which was attributed to the guerrillas who threatened to kill all the candidates who they viewed as illegitimate. During the course of the electoral campaign, at least 30 candidates were assassinated, and over 180 withdrew from the campaign due to threats of violence.

Despite this, Uribe had reason to believe that the referendum would pass. His approval rating was 70% heading into the referendum, something Colombia’s main daily newspaper ‘El Tiempo’ called ‘a phenomenon in Colombia’. And he campaigned hard. According to one observer:

“No political campaign has recieved as much funding and support from any government and mass media than this one. The government and media literally bombard people to vote. There were airplanes throwing leaflets over every town in Colombia. Phone calls to every phone to every citizen with a recorded message by Uribe in support of the referendum. Reality Shows where the president participates, talk shows and an army of kids trained to teach people about the referendum. Last week the president spoke at a rally of AMIGOS DEL REFERENDO and said: Those who don´t vote in the referendum are friends of the terrorists and we will find out who they are.”

To back Uribe up, the paramilitaries made their mark on the elections as well, with their incursions into various regions to make death threats against people who abstained.

But – and not all of the votes have been counted – the referendum failed, for the most part. For the most part, because when the votes are counted, of the 15 questions on the ballot, about 5 of them probably received enough votes to pass. One of these is a pension ‘reform’ that will cut old-age security. But a major question that would have taken $19.5 billion out of the public sector over 10 years probably will not pass. If Uribe was looking for a massive mandate for his policies, he didn’t find it in the referendum. He was elected with about 5.8 million votes in May 2002 (Colombia’s population is 42 million) and was hoping to get 10-15 million votes in a massive outpouring of support for his war and austerity policies. But in the most popular question of the referendum, the government got a ‘Yes’ vote of about – 5.8 million votes.

What went wrong for Uribe? The social movements and opposition more generally campaigned for abstention. The referendum required a participation level of 25% of the electorate in order to pass.  This made a strategy of abstention a better way of defeating the referendum than a ‘No’ campaign.  Colombia has a long history of exclusion of masses of people from the society and the political process: abstention has long helped the elites to marginalize the people.   As a result, abstention acted against elites and against Uribe, despite all the campaigning, pressure, and threats.  Nearly everyone who voted in the referendum voted ‘Yes’, with results over 90% for all questions.  But very few of the questions obtained enough votes overall to pass the 25% requirement (about 6.25 million votes total).

Election day brought some other unexpected results. The candidate of the left who had contested the May 2002 election against Uribe, Lucho Garzon, became mayor of Bogota. Angelino Garzon, another candidate of the left, became the governor in the department of Valle. And these were not the only high-profile electoral victories of the political left.

The next question is, how will the government react? After sinking tremendous effort into trying to change the constitution to facilitate privatization and dictatorship, Uribe will probably accomplish his ends by ignoring the constitution. This would not be unprecedented in Colombian history. The 1991 constitution guarantees rights to territorial autonomy to Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. Since its promulgation, millions of these people have been displaced from the territories to which they hold constitutionally protected rights by army-supported paramilitary massacre. Trade unionists, peasant leaders, women’s movement leaders like Esperanza Amaris Miranda who was killed on October 16, have long known how much respect the government has for the law of the land.

Barely a year into its mandate, Alvaro Uribe Velez’s government could well be running out of steam. He was supposed to pacify the territory, bring the paramilitaries into the mainstream, destroy the guerrillas, destroy the social movements, and deepen the privatization and structural adjustment. The territory is not pacified, the paramilitaries’ penchant for mass murder is still embarrassing, and the guerrillas have humiliated the government repeatedly. Meanwhile the privatization and structural adjustment goals have been frustrated by campaigns by public sector unions and by the results of this referendum. The social movements have not only proved incredibly resilient and survived the horrific assaults unleashed upon them, but have won electoral victories.

Having failed to bring the war into the open, the government might instead escalate the ‘dirty war’, which was never cancelled. Even with all the US military aid and advisors the government lacks the resources to ‘pacify’ the whole country at once, so it has been quietly trying to ‘pacify’ one region at a time, through paramilitary campaigns of assassination and massacre, supplemented by direct military control in areas designated by the president as ‘Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones’.

Uribe needs more money for war. The referendum was supposed to help him transfer that money from the social system to the war system. The numbers he got for his war vote didn’t come close to the result of the plebiscite for peace under Ernesto Samper in the 1990s, where 10 million Colombians voted. That massive outpouring in support of peace and negotiated solutions was ignored — indeed, destroyed, by the fumigation planes and helicopters of Plan Colombia. There is little doubt that the Colombian government and its US patron are now looking for ways to ignore the results of this referendum.

Justin Podur is a writer and frequent translator on Colombia and Latin America.

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