Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s Fate Remains Uncertain After Recall Referendum Signatures Are Validated
The campaign to remove Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa from office cleared a major hurdle last week after Colombia’s civil registry said it had “definitively” validated nearly twice the number of signatures required by law to force a recall referendum.
On October 25, the civil registry gave the green light to 458,935 of the 706,708 signatures that the recall referendum’s promoter, Unidos Revocamos a Peñalosa, had collected. At least 271,817 signatures — 30% of the votes the mayor received on election day — were needed to trigger the referendum.
Photo: Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (right) speaks during a global summit held last year in the Colombian capital. (Credit: Jared Wade)
The registry’s decision came after Peñalosa had challenged the validity of the 473,700 signatures that were initially approved in June.
The mayor brought in a team of graphologists, or handwriting experts, to check the signatures for “irregularities.” The graphologists later concluded that some 251,000 signatures should be invalidated, which would have brought total to only 222,700 — below the minimum threshold required to initiate the referendum. The registry, however, decided to only whittle 15,400 signatures off of the initial count, which means that the recall effort will continue for now.
But this does not mean that Bogotanos will be heading to the polls just yet.
On October 24, the Constitutional Court said it would review a legal petition filed by Peñalosa that claims the recall effort violated his fundamental rights, including the right to be elected to public office, the right to due process, and the right to defend himself.
The mayor argues that he wasn’t properly notified of the recall effort and questions whether the motives given by the campaign’s promoters — general dissatisfaction among the public and the failure to implement a government plan — were genuine.
The Superior Court of Bogotá and Colombia’s Supreme Court previously dismissed his arguments.
Additionally, Colombia’s electoral commission (CNE) is investigating the recall campaign for alleged “financial irregularities.” The rules stipulate that no organization can contribute more than 10% of the 415 million COP that can legally be spent to recall a public official, and the commission is looking into Sintrateléfonos, a labor union that allegedly spent 70 million COP to support the effort.
Unidos Revocamos a Peñalosa, however, has denounced the investigation, accusing the CNE of “delaying” the recall process.
“Despite Enrique Penalosa’s persecution of Sintrateléfonos, we will continue [to give it] everything we’ve got for Bogotá’s citizens,” the group said in an October 27 tweet.
No timetable has been set for decisions by the Constitutional Court or the electoral commission, but the recall effort will be halted if either body rules in favor of the mayor.
Publicly, Peñalosa has decried the recall effort as a political witch hunt in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. The mayor has insinuated that the campaign’s promoters have taken a page out of the playbook of Venezuelan politicians.
“There is basically one beneficiary of this [recall campaign] and one presidential campaign that wants to gain momentum from the recall, and there are many citizens who, without realizing it, are being used for a political project that is very similar to what Venezuela has had over the last 15 years,” said the mayor in June, according to local newspaper El Tiempo.
Peñalosa was elected mayor of Bogotá on October 25, 2015, with 33% of the vote. He had also previously served as mayor of the capital from 1998 to 2000. His current term is set to end in 2019.
Since taking office for the second time, his approval rating has been anemic, generally hovering between 22%-25%, according to recent Gallup polls.
Peñalosa’s detractors often cite traffic congestion and safety among their grievances with his administration.
His supporters, on the other hand, argue that Peñalosa has become something of a whipping post for many of the city’s longstanding problems.
“It’s understandable that people are impatient and want to see results as soon as possible, but at the same time, [people should realize] that unresolved problems that were aggravated by 12 years of bad [city] governments cannot be solved in 12 months,” Mauricio Rodríguez, former ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of Peñalosa’s advisors, told El Tiempo in March.
The push to oust Peñalosa also appears to be part of a larger trend that lays bare Colombians’ widespread dissatisfaction with local, regional, and national leaders. There have been 114 efforts to recall elected officials across the country this year, including the mayors of Cali, Cartagena (who later resigned), Ibague, Neiva, and Quibdo, according to Colombia’s civil registry.
But in the capital, all eyes are on the Constitutional Court and electoral commission, where the fates of Peñalosa — and the recall effort — still hang in the balance.