Anti-Corruption Referendum – What Will Colombians Vote on in the Consulta Anticorrupción?

Clip art of people protesting politicians accepting under the table payments.

This Sunday August 26, 2018, Colombians will take to the polls to vote in an anti-corruption referendum.  While, there’s a bit of snickering that people have to vote at all against corruption, the referendum proposes a number of practical actions and is a great example of direct democracy.  However, the referendum is not without controversy as it comes at a time of bitter partisan polarization in the country.  Read on for a guide to the anti-corruption referendum including what it proposes, what happens if it passes, and why it’s controversial.

Clip art of people protesting politicians accepting under the table payments.
This guide will explain the 2018 anticorruption referendum in Colombia.  Image Source:  Pixabay

Why Does Colombia Need an Anti-Corruption Referendum?

Unfortunately, Colombia suffers from a problematic level of corruption.  In recent years, a number of high profile cases have helped shed light on it.

Those cases include the “false positives” scandal of the military murdering civilians and presenting them as guerilla fighters during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe in the early 2000s as well as the controversial chuzadas” scandal of the now dissolved intelligence agency DAS wiretapping journalists and other political opponents of Uribe.

Also, there’s evidence there was bribery related to the constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe to be reelected.  Finally, Uribe has been in the news lately as the Constitutional Court has opened a formal inquiry into accusations the ex-right wing president has manipulated witnesses related to an investigation of his and his brother’s ties to paramilitaries.

However, the former president is hardly alone.  Other links between politicians and paramilitaries as well as drug traffickers also led to the investigations and convictions of a number of senators and congressmen in what is known as the “parapolitics” scandal.

Additionally, the international scandal related to the Brazilian firm Odebrecht paying bribes to secure construction projects involved a number of high level members of Colombia’s government, including the most recent president Juan Manuel Santos.

A man stuffing cash into his jacket.
Bribes are among the most common form of political corruption in Colombia.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps most disturbingly, over the last year, evidence has emerged that millions of dollars were embezzled from public school free lunch programs in various parts of the country with children even being served rotten food in some cases.

While these high profile cases get the most attention, there remains rampant corruption behind the scenes.  Much of this corruption stems from a combination of an old buddy and pay to play system that sees the awarding of government contracts to cronies and/or at a cost of bribery.

All of these cases of barely concealed corruption has led to public disgust and the creation of the anti-corruption referendum.  Popular referendums on matters of public interest are allowed under Colombia’s Constitution.  The referendum came about after a campaign for the collection of signatures in support and the approval of the Colombian Senate.

What Will Colombians Vote for in the Anti-Corruption Referendum?

There will be 7 questions on the ballot for which Colombians may vote in favor or against.  Below is a quick summary of each question.

1.  Reduction of congressmen’s and other state officials’ salaries.

The first question of the anti-corruption referendum asks if the voter approves reducing the monthly salaries of Colombia’s congressmen and senators from 40 minimum salaries (a little over 31 million pesos or about 10,400 US dollars in 2018) to 25 minimum salaries (19.5 million pesos or about 6,500 US dollars).  It would also permanently fix the salaries as equivalent to 25 minimum salaries for all congressmen and other state officials (the minimum legal monthly salary is updated every year based on inflation and negotiation between unions and the government).  The main goal of this measure is to address the inequality of pay between the highest levels of government and lower levels.  With the salaries of congressmen reduced, lower ranking officials could be paid more with the money saved.  That in turn will hopefully reduce the temptation of taking bribes.

2.  Prison and ban on future government work for persons convicted for corruption.

This question asks if the voter approves mandating that all persons convicted of corruption must serve full prison terms without the possibility of house arrest.  It would also mandate that the state unilaterally cancel all contracts with them with no possibility of indemnity, and it would ban them from receiving any future public contracts.

3.  Transparent Bidding for Public Contracting

This question asks if the voter approves requiring all public entities to use a standardized bidding process for the awarding of any contracts that will use public funds.  It aims to make the contracting process more transparent, more fair and merit based, and more efficient.

4.  Public Participation in the Budget Process

This question asks if the voter approves requiring public hearings so that citizens may directly participate in the creation of national and local government budgets.  It aims to promote public participation and provide transparency to the budget making process.

5.  Congressional Records

The fifth question of the anti-corruption referendum asks if the voter approves requiring all congressmen to present a public record of their actions in congress and the senate.  The record would include their attendance record, the laws and initiatives they introduced, their voting record, their participation in debates, their relationships with lobbyists, their management of any projects or public investments, and the candidates they have nominated for or appointed to public jobs.  It would hopefully address photos like this one of a congressman snoozing during debate as well as rampant absenteeism, in addition to providing a clear record of how congressmen have voted.

6.  Release of Politicians’ Tax Records

This question asks if the voter approves requiring all officials running for an elected office to release their tax records.  It aims to make potential conflicts of interest public knowledge as well as allow easier identification of cases of corruption.

7.  Term Limits

The final question on the anti-corruption ballot asks if the voter approves term limits for elected officials.  It would prevent members of the senate, house of representatives, departmental assemblies, and local assemblies from serving more than 3 terms in the same body.  It aims to reduce the power of traditional political machine families and promote the participation of new candidates and elected officials.

How Will the Proposals Become Law?

Each question needs a simple majority to pass.  However, at least 1/3 of the registered electorate must participate for the vote to count.  So, at least a little over 12 million voters must turn out for the results to be valid.

Any of the proposals that do pass will then be sent to the Colombian congress to act on.  By law, they must within one year enact laws that reflect the approved proposals.  If they do not, then the president must do so by decree.

Why is the Referendum Controversial?

Despite the fact that the proposals seem mostly sensible and reasonable, the vote this Sunday is not without controversy.

First, perhaps you have seen the sarcastic memes on Facebook identifying Colombia as the only country where it’s necessary to have a referendum on rather or not corruption should be legal.  While it’s easy to see the irony there, it is symptomatic of a sort of resigned acceptance of corruption.

I’m really only speaking anecdotally here, but in my experience many Colombians have deeply pessimistic views of politics and politicians in their country.  Mistrust of government and public institutions is generally very high.  In all honesty, that’s not a whole lot different than in the US or probably anywhere else.  However, there is a risk that people will feel like the politicians will keep on screwing them regardless and simply not go and vote.  Also, people may fear that the state will simply drag its feet or not enact or enforce the laws.  Therefore, indifference and apathy could lead to a turnout that does not meet the required threshold.

A map showing different colors for countries that are more or less corrupt, Colombia is red, denoting a relatively high level of corruption but on par with much of Latin America.
A map published by Transparency International showing its corruption perception index for 2015. A lower score means more corruption.  Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that Colombians are pessimistic about corruption in their country.  Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, there have been a number of myths circulated about the referendum.  Unfortunately, Colombia is not immune from the fake news phenomenon.  Among the myths is that the reduction of congressmen’s salaries would also lead to the reduction of workers’ salaries or the salaries and benefits of other state employees such as policemen and soldiers.  In fact the measure to reduce congressmen’s salaries is intended to help raise those lower ranking public employees’ salaries.

Another wrongly alleges that the people campaigning for the referendum stand to earn money for each vote in favor.  In Colombia, during normal elections, such as those for congress or the presidency, campaigns are reimbursed with public money according to the number of votes they earned.  For example, in the congressional elections of March 2018, parties were reimbursed 5,600 pesos for each vote they earned.  This money essentially amounts to public funding for campaigns.

However, for this referendum, there will be no reimbursement to the campaigns.  They are being financed independently.  Additionally, even when campaigns are reimbursed, they are not reimbursed more than what they spent.  So, the idea that the referendum is a money grab for its supporters is fake news.

Another is that the cost of the anti-corruption referendum, is an unnecessary and wasteful use of public funds.  It is true that due to the number of questions included and its nationwide character, the referendum carries a high cost.  The anticorruption referendum will cost over 300,000 million pesos (around 100 million US dollars).  Critics point out that given low turnout in past referendums, this is a waste of money.

Proponents, on the other hand, argue that the cost is justified given the money lost to corruption.  They argue that the money saved should the measures past will dwarf the cost.  They also point to the fact that the money used to finance the vote is money already destined to participatory democracy in the national budget, or in other words, that the cost is not taking money away from some other program or project.

Finally, the anti-corruption referendum comes at a particularly partisan moment in Colombian politics.  The country’s electorate remains bitterly divided over the enactment of a peace deal with the FARC rebel group in 2016 and the election earlier this year that saw the victory of recently inaugurated president Ivan Duque.

The anti-corruption referendum has gotten caught up in the partisan polarization.  Many supporters of Uribe, who remains extremely popular among a slight majority of the electorate, for example, see it as targeted at him.  This is despite the fact that most of the senators of Uribe’s Centro Democratico party voted in favor of holding the referendum, including Duque.

Although Duque still says he supports the referendum, his administration has proposed its own anti-corruption legislation, and now Uribe and much of the Centro Democratico along with the other conservative parties oppose the referendum in favor of legislation passed by Congress.  This is despite the fact that previously proposed anti-corruption bills have never successfully passed.  It is perhaps not that surprising that many current congressmen and senators oppose a measure that would lower their pay and hold them more accountable.

However, the fact that many of Uribe’s political opponents and critics, including the leftist runner up in the presidential election Gustavo Petro, are among the most fervent supporters of the referendum has further contributed to the conception that the referendum is targeting him.  Uribe’s political proponents seem to be again invoking the boogeyman of socialism to motivate their base, this time in opposition to anticorruption measures.

Therefore, the referendum is being presented by opponents on the right as nothing more than a leftist partisan issue and it’s possible that dislike of the political left may lead to voters voting against the referendum or simply staying home.

However, the proposals themselves, as you can clearly see above, are not partisan in nature and do not target any one politician, party, or ideology.  In fact, most of them are reasonable measures that aim to promote transparency and reduce the waste of tax money on exorbitantly high salaries for public officials, bad contracts, and straight up embezzlement of public funds.

We will see this Sunday if enough Colombians vote to enact these measures.


Interested in learning more about Colombia’s anticorruption referendum vote?

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