Colombian have taken the polls today for a special public referendum that aims to enact seven different measures devised to fight corruption in the country.
While the bulk of politicians and officials on both sides of the ideological spectrum continually pledge their rhetorical support for curbing corruption, some oppose specific provisions.
Those on the top of the ballot initiative include salary reductions and term limits for lawmakers as well as mandated prison time for any public officials found guilty of graft and other forms of corruption.
Broadly, Colombians are voting with a simply “yes” or “no” option on the following seven measures:
- Reduce the salary of all members of Congress from 40 times the monthly minimum salary (SMLMV) to 25 times the SMLMV and cap the salary of high-ranking public officials at 25 times SMLMV
- Ensure all politicians and officials convicted of corruption have no chance for parole, terminate any public contracts with the national government that they have been involved, and never allow them to contract with the government again
- Make all public contract processes transparent and standardized across the country
- Mandate public hearings that include citizen participation in public budgets at the state, department, and municipal level
- Force lawmakers to file an annual report regarding their attendance, voting record, and initiative proposals in Congress as well as any matter under their purview that relates to special interests/lobbyists, public projects, and public investments
- Obligate all elected officials to make publicize their income, tax filings, financial holdings and other assets, including property, as well as any conflicts of interest
- Prohibit lawmakers from serving more than three terms in office at the national, department, and municipal level
At least one-third of eligible voters in the country of nearly 50 million people must vote yes on any individual measure for it to pass, something many analysts say will be a difficult barrier to success.
The push to hold a referendum has been in the works since last year and led by Senator Claudia López, who began a 2018 presidential campaign before later joining the ticket as the Green Alliance vice presidential candidate for third-place finisher Sergio Fajardo.
López, among others, have championed a campaign encouraging Colombians to vote yes on all seven measures, a movement that has gained traction on social media under the hashtag #7VecesSí. López and other leading figures in the campaign starred in a reggaeton-inspired viral music video this week to promote the “yes” vote.
Among the opposition talking points have been what they claim is the high cost of holding the referendum. Some have said that today’s event would cost the government more than $100 million USD, a sum that Senator Roy Barreras said would be wasted by these “useless” seven measures.
The campaign has said that the cost to hold the vote would be around $14 million USD, a figure supporters say is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money the government loses to corruption annually.
The Colombian comptroller has put the cost of corruption in the country at some $17 billion USD per year, per a Reuters report.
President Iván Duque, who took office on August 7, has expressed some reticence about the specific provisions of the referendum, but he has encouraged Colombians to go to the polls and stressed that corruption needs to be rooted out of the nation’s political arena.
“The fight against corruption has no political party. It has no ideology,” said Duque. “It has to be the responsibility of all officials…All efforts help, all efforts elevate our work.”
Others on the right, including Duque’s mentor, the powerful former President Álvaro Uribe, have opposed the measures on the ballot.
Uribe, who has now faced some form of legal scrutiny for the better part of 20 years, currently is under criminal investigation by the Colombian justice system on charges of bribery and witness tampering. He pledged to step down from his current seat in the Senate last month in order to work on his legal defense, but he has thus far continued to serve in the legislature.
Various scandals have elevated the momentum to advance the fight against corruption in Colombia, a topic that was central to the presidential campaigns of Duque, runner-up Gustavo Petro, and many of the other leading candidates.
Though it did not led to the widespread crackdown that was originally envisioned by many analysts, revelation of the Panama Papers in 2015 helped to kick off a new era of outrage in the region. Several high-profile Colombians were listed in the mass document leak from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, and while it was not evident that all had broken any laws, the event drew condemnation and awareness for the lengths many members of the political and corporate elite in Latin America go to avoid paying taxes.
Outrage boiled over further after the monumental, Americas-wide Odebrecht scandal, in which the Brazilian engineering firm agreed to pay at least $3.6 billion USD in fines for bribing officials across the region to win billions of dollars in construction and infrastructure contracts from Miami to Argentina. In Colombia, at least $12 million USD in bribes was paid out by the company, and the fallout spilled into a campaign finance controversy for former President Juan Manuel Santos.
Another scandal has rocked the judicial branch all the way to the Supreme Court over the past year, with former justice Francisco Ricuarte being arrested.
Amid an investigation that saw a former governor in Colombia ensnared in a drug-trafficking sting in the United States — and the nation’s top corruption-fighting official arrested — several public officials and judges have also been accused of taking bribes to obstruct justice.