Ken Frankel is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas.
On Aug. 7 Ivan Duque was sworn in as Colombia’s President. In the lead up to his inauguration, instead of the feeling of goodwill and renewal that a change of government often brings – and that the youthful Mr. Duque promises – the country turned its attention to former President Alvaro Uribe’s latest public embarrassment.
It may not be what Mr. Duque wanted, but it may have provided the opportunity he needed.
Having been placed under formal criminal investigation by the Supreme Court, Mr. Uribe resigned his Senate seat two weeks ago, only to rescind his decision last week.
Mr. Uribe had thus far avoided legal consequences for what his accusers have long alleged – though never proven in court – were grave crimes and cover-ups in his war against the FARC guerrillas while he was president.
The twist is that his current legal troubles were self-inflicted. He accused a fellow senator of witness tampering in a troubling case involving alleged crimes committed on Mr. Uribe’s farm. Upon investigation, the Supreme Court exonerated the senator and instead found evidence that linked Mr. Uribe and his lawyer to witness tampering.
What does this have to do with President Duque? Conventional wisdom is that Mr. Duque needs Mr. Uribe’s strong presence in the senate. There are a lot of good reasons to think that.
Mr. Duque has not yet developed a political base of his own. Though he has shown promise over a short period of time, success in his political career and presidential run are closely tied to Mr. Uribe’s popularity.
Mr. Duque has been challenged to shake the impression that Mr. Uribe will have a strong influence on his presidency.
Mr. Uribe can more or less control the radical bench of his right-wing party, which has been suspicious of Mr. Duque’s moderate positions on a number of issues. He can lead efforts to shepherd Mr. Duque’s legislative programs and take the battle to several agile and effective left-wing leaders in Congress, a few of whom will fight the new President tooth and nail on almost everything.
But this support comes at a cost for Mr. Duque, as well as Colombia.
Every episode over the past number of years involving questions about the legality of Mr. Uribe’s activities has unleashed a virulent counterattack on the judicial system and the press, including death threats by some of Mr. Uribe’s supporters.
The spectacle attracts so much scrutiny from the media and the entire political spectrum that all other pressing issues are denied the appropriate attention.
Whatever the outcome of the current or future legal court proceedings involving Mr. Uribe, these events reinforce Colombia’s traditions of political violence, both verbal and physical, and doubts about its institutional integrity.
Colombia needs its highest officials to demonstrate through word and deed that they are committed to protecting the country’s democratic institutions and making them work efficiently and fairly.
This current Uribe episode will likely be just one in a long list lasting beyond Mr. Duque’s four-year term. This can’t be what Mr. Duque wants or needs. He campaigned in part on bringing civility to discourse and bridging the chasms in Colombia’s political divide. He extolled a country based on laws and democratic institutions. In other words, he wanted to present the vision and demeanour of a statesman.
The bet here is that by standing up for respect and strengthening democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court, the press and the rule of law, he’d be widely supported by the orphaned political centre.
The centre is larger than many people think and desperate to support a leader who can bring civility and rationale discourse to repair a corroded dialogue.
To do so, Mr. Duque will be seen by some on the right as a traitor to Mr. Uribe. The hard left would unlikely give him much credit. But not only is it the right thing to do. It is arguably the correct political move.
It would be the act of a statesman.