Saturday, July 05, 2008

COLOMBIA: Uribe's 2006 Reelection "Flawed" - Supreme Court

By Constanza Vieira BOGOTA, Jul 5 (IPS) - At the same time that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was welcoming U.S. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain in the north of the country, the Supreme Court issued a communiqué calling on the government to "respect and obey the decisions" of the courts. It was the Supreme Court's response to Uribe's frontal attack on Jun. 26, when he announced a referendum to settle the Court's legal challenge to the constitutional reform that allowed Uribe to be reelected to a second consecutive term in 2006. "Any undue interference fractures and unhinges the democratic rule of law in society," said the Supreme Court judges, who made no reference in their message to the referendum. The verdict that upset Uribe had ruled that "the initiative to amend the constitution was flawed by criminal acts," and therefore the Constitutional Court would have to review the decision by which it was approved. It also described how former Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt (now the Colombian ambassador to Rome), Social Protection Minister Diego Palacios and other officials, including Uribe himself, bribed then lawmaker Yidis Medina with offers of jobs and contracts to vote for the reelection, when it faced a tied result in committee. The content of the sentence "is eminently judicial and lacks any motivation that is not strictly constitutional and legal," said the Court after deliberating all day Tuesday. The decision "is the result of serious, objective and considered study of the evidence" in the case of the former lawmaker, who confessed her part in the deal and provided proof. Faced with the government's aggressive attitude, the Court added that "in view of the general uproar," it would not "foment sterile controversy that would hinder the work of the state." But it also "energetically rejected the insults and baseless imputations" of President Uribe, who accused the judges of "pressuring" other branches of government, imparting "selective justice" and condoning "terrorism". The Supreme Court said that sending copies of its sentence to the Constitutional Court and the Attorney General's Office "was not a capricious or abusive act intended to destabilise the justice system," as the government maintained, but was based on the constitution, international instruments and the law. Aides of the Supreme Court searched the home of former lawmaker Teodolindo Avendaño, who was arrested after being implicated by Medina in receiving bribes. Avendaño disappeared when it was time to vote on the reelection at the same controversial session of parliament. Meanwhile, prosecutors searched for evidence in the Medina file to use in their investigation of former minister Pretelt, who was also implicated. The government calculated that the referendum it hopes for, on whether to "repeat" the 2006 elections, will be held in the first half of 2009, and planned to send a draft law to parliament "urgently". The goal, for the government, is to "avoid a loss of legitimacy" for Uribe, who currently has an approval rate of 84 percent, according to a recent poll, and whose mandate should end in 2010. If there is a "repetition" of the 2006 elections on the same basis, Uribe would be an eligible candidate. Uribe's stock is doubtless even higher now, after the Colombian army operation that freed Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) hostages. Although the draft law on the referendum has not yet been written, the government's critics believe that it will smooth the way for another presidential term for Uribe, who was elected in the first round of voting in 2002 and, after the constitutional reform that is now being questioned, in 2006. Catholic bishops have called for "agreement" before the referendum, or for it not to be held at all, while governing coalition members of parliament differ on the issue. Trade unions planned a demonstration against the referendum and in support of the Supreme Court, backed by the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, the opposition leftwing Alternative Democratic Pole and the social democratic Liberal Party. Another candidate in the 2006 presidential elections, the centrist former Mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus, demanded that Uribe step down because his reelection was illegal. In any case, the ball is now in the Constitutional Court, made up of nine members. If it reverses its previous decision and declares the 2006 reelection of Uribe invalid, he and Vice President Francisco Santos would have to resign, and the government of Colombia would be headed temporarily by the president of the Senate, renewed at the end of June, analysts concur. "A repetition of the elections could not be called, but rather new elections without the possibility of consecutive reelection would be held, which would preclude Uribe from standing," according to former minister Camilo Gonzalez Posso, the head of the Institute of Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ). But in November the term is up for six magistrates of the Constitutional Court. Their replacements will in each case be selected by Congress from a shortlist of three candidates, nominated by the president, the Supreme Court and the Council of State. Congress has a government majority, and one-third of its members are "parapoliticians", that is, they are criminally implicated in the ultra-rightwing paramilitary groups led by drug traffickers which, according to the United Nations, have committed 80 percent of the crimes in the long-running Colombian civil war. Nearly all the parapoliticians are Uribe's allies. With the blessing of the government, those who were in prison even decided on candidates for the local and regional elections in October 2007. Many of them resigned their Congress seats for fear of being judged by the Supreme Court, as would normally happen, but their appointed substitutes in Congress will have an opportunity to vote for the six presidential nominees to the Constitutional Court. A legal solution to the crisis could take less than five months, but González warned that "the dilemma is between moral and democratic recovery, and the mutation from a 'mafiocracy' into a dictatorship by popular referendum." The former minister, however, was not optimistic. "The outcome is predictable: Uribe will not resign," he said. "The 'parapoliticians' who are under investigation or in jail will continue to co-direct the government coalition, which will maintain its majority in Congress," because the government scotched a proposal to prohibit Congress seats left vacant by convicted politicians from being occupied by their substitutes. "The 'mafiocracy' will continue to make the rules of the political game, and judges and critics will continue to be accused as accomplices of drug trafficking and terrorism," he predicted.

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