Alvaro Uribe Velez, one of Colombia’s most popular recent presidents and a big opponent of peace talks with the FARC rebels, announced on Monday that he will run for a senate seat in next year’s election under the banner of a new political party called Centro Democrático (“Democratic Center”).
Uribe, a polarizing figure who has repeatedly criticized President Juan Manuel Santos’ government, spoke from his country house in Rionegro, Antioquia, where he read a document that details Centro Democrático’s proposals.
“We want to ease the security decline, the growing uncertainty of investments, the stagnation of the bureaucratized social policy, the wasteful spending of official resources, and the substitution of popular dialogue for the risk of handing the country over to terrorism and Castro-Chavism,” Uribe said.
Uribe is set to attract many voters to his new party, and the announcement has already rattled his country. With Uribe’s presence, Centro Democrático, a party that opposes the handling of the peace process and most of Santos’ other leading government policies, is set to win at least 10 senate seats, according to most estimates. Some analysts even talk about 30 senate seats, which would give the party significant control of the legislative agenda.
Uribe’s return to the senate could signal an end to the current government’s congressional honeymoon. Santos has not faced much opposition in Congress during his first term. This has allowed him to cruise through seemingly controversial policies such as an agrarian reform and a legal framework for the peace process.
Things would certainly be different if Uribe was elected to the senate. The former president is Santos’ most outspoken critic, and, as a senator, he is bound to become a headache for any government that does not agree with him. Uribe is one of Colombia’s most popular politicians and his role as Santos’ most staunch opponent can only grow if he leads his party from Congress.
In the senate, Uribe would open up a new front in the legislative agenda. During his speech last Monday, Uribe unveiled a set of social, security, and economic proposals that share more similarities with a government plan than with a newly-created party’s manifesto. It is likely, then, that Centro Democrático’s proposals could eventually compete with the government’s, leading to more debate and an overall slowdown in congressional actions.
While Uribe is popular enough to win a seat, his return to the senate is not a foregone conclusion. Uribe faces several legal accusations, which might dissuade him from taking a senate seat and giving up his immunity from prosecution, as a former president of the country. Uribe has been repeatedly accused of assisting right-wing death squads during his stint as Antionquia’s governor in the 1990s and during his two-term presidency in the 2000s.
Uribe has always maintained his innocence and said that he has nothing to hide or fear from investigators. But many of his close collaborators, including his security chief and the head of his intelligence agency, have already been charged and sentenced by the Supreme Court. Hundreds of his former party’s politicians are also either in jail or being investigated as part of a major political scandal widely known under the umbrella term parapolítica.
Under Colombia’s Constitution, presidents enjoy a special kind of judicial immunity. Presidents can only be investigated by a special Congressional commission made up of 15 representatives. Unlike congressmen, they can’t be investigated by the Supreme Court and other judicial bodies.
As a senator, Uribe would be open to investigation from other judicial bodies, according to some legal interpretations. He could then be charged by the Supreme Court - the judicial body that has most actively pursued the parapolítica.
Jaime Granados, Alvaro Uribe's personal lawyer, says that Uribe could only be accused by the Supreme Court and other judicial bodies for what he does as a senator, if he is elected, but not for what he did as president.
Francisco José Sintura, a former attorney general, agrees with Granados, but says that Uribe could then be investigated for his actions while he was the governor of Antioquia.
The legal debate is just starting, and its outcome will depend on whether Uribe decides to be the head of Centro Democrático's senate list or participate from the sidelines, as he’s been doing for the past three years.
Uribe's party is set to release the names of the candidates in its senate list by the end of the week.