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Assessing Colombia's New Legislative Agenda

Colombia congress

Colombia's legislature. (Image: Flickr user El Tiburon)

July 17, 2014

Colombia’s new legislators take office on July 20, with one of the country’s most powerful politicians heading to the Senate as part of the opposition. During the 2014-2018 term, President Juan Manuel Santos’ governing coalition will hold a majority, but it will contend with two opposition blocs in the legislature: the left-leaning Democratic Pole and the right-leaning Democratic Center. The upper house, in particular, will see important additions: the Democratic Center’s former President Alvaro Uribe—who’s often at odds with Santos—joins the opposition, along with other prominent leaders like ex-presidential candidates Antonia Navarro Wolff and Horacio Serpa. While the president’s alliance enjoys a plurality, the strong degree of opposition—absent in Santos’ first term—promises an advanced level of debate, particularly on issues of security and the peace process. As the new Congressional session begins, what are some of the top issues at stake?

  • The peace process: The government will continue negotiations with the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end more than 50 years of violence. While both sides agreed to several preliminary accords since the talks began in 2012, the next phase will focus on the victims and disarmament. Plus, the government is working on starting negotiations with another guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Congress will have to approve the regulatory processes of the accords, such as judicial procedures and the incorporation of the former militants into Colombian politics. Several parties, including the Democratic Center, oppose allowing guerrillas to gain political power, and this aspect of the negotiations could slow the peace process.
  • The political divide: Former president Álvaro Uribe heads to the Senate as de facto head of the Democratic Center party, which has 20 of a total 102 seats in the upper house. Right off the bat, the Democratic Center plans to present 11 bills to the Congress. Some will align with Santos’ own proposals, such as electoral and judicial reforms, along with changes to education, health, and the military. But the party is likely to disagree on matters of foreign investment, government spending, balance of power, and most notably, security, reports Semana. Which style Uribe will adopt on the Senate floor is yet to be seen, but he promises the party will avoid long speeches and instead develop a discourse based on real stories from voters.

  • Tax reform: The proposed budget relies on an 11.7 percent increase in tax revenues, and the government is considering tax reform to be presented before the new legislature. While there may be adjustments to the budget, the tax element is likely to be the most contentious in the new Congress. Legislators will have to decide whether to extend or amend the current tax law set to expire at the end of 2014.
  • Judicial reform: The power of the inspector general stands out as a concern for potential reform. Alejandro Ordóñez, who currently holds the position, has come under scrutiny for his ability to impeach public officials, such as his attempt to remove Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro from office. Though Santos has not elaborated on specific plans, he is expected to propose changes to the electoral and administrative tasks of various judicial institutions in order to improve efficacy, transparency, and strengthen the public’s trust in the courts. 
  • Electoral reform: Santos will submit a reform to eliminate reelection of presidents, governors, and mayors. As part of the reform, these officials’ terms will be extended from four years to either five or six years. Santos proposes eliminating preferential voting in party lists, a method that allocates the number of party seats based on the candidates that receive the most votes. Santos says eliminating this system would strengthen parties