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Colombia - Politics and Government

The Colombian government consists of a democratically elected representative system with a strong executive. The president, who is the head of state, has the power to appoint and remove cabinet ministers. A 2005 constitutional amendment allows the president to hold office for two consecutive 4-year terms [previously the President was elected for a non-renewable four-year term]. The legislature is a bicameral congress consisting of a 102-member Senate and a 161-member Chamber of Deputies, with all members directly elected for four-year terms. There are two main "traditional" parties, the Partido Liberal (PL) and the Partido Social Conservador (PSC).

In recent decades Colombia has enjoyed virtually uninterrupted constitutional and institutional stability, with only limited influence from the military. There is a strict separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, with the Supreme Court held in high regard. The Constitutional Court can and does challenge the legality of both executive and legislative measures.

The 1991 constitution brought major reforms to Colombia's political institutions. While the new constitution preserved a presidential, three-branch system of government, it created institutions such as the Inspector General, a Human Rights Ombudsman, a Constitutional Court, and a Superior Judicial Council. It also re-established the position of Vice President. Other significant reforms in the 1991 constitution provided for civil divorce, dual nationality, and the establishment of a legal mechanism ("Tutela") that allows individuals to appeal government decisions affecting their constitutional rights and defined the state as pluri-ethnic, creating special seats for indigenous and Afro-Colombian representation in the Congress. The 1991 constitution also authorized the introduction of an accusatory system of criminal justice to be instituted gradually throughout the country, replacing the previous written inquisitorial system.

Several features distinguish Colombia's political system from that of other Latin American nations. Colombia has a long history of party politics, usually fair and regular elections, and respect for political and civil rights. Two traditional parties--the Liberals and the Conservatives--have competed for power since the midnineteenth century and have rotated frequently as the governing party. Colombia's armed forces have seized power on only three occasions--1830, 1854, and 1953 -- far less often than in most Latin American countries. The 1953 coup took place, moreover, only after the two parties--unable to maintain a minimum of public order-- supported military intervention. Colombia's conservative Roman Catholic Church traditionally has been more influential than the military in electing presidents and influencing elections and the political socialization of Colombians.

Some analysts of Colombian political affairs have noted that in the 1980s the military gradually began to assume a larger decisionmaking role, owing to the inability of the civilian governments to resolve critical situations, such as the sixty-one-day terrorist occupation of the Dominican Republic embassy in 1980. The military had become somewhat more assertive in national security decision making as a result of the growing and more unified guerrilla insurgency and increasing terrorism of drug traffickers (narcotraficantes). Nevertheless, Colombia's long tradition of military subordination to civilian authority did not appear to be in jeopardy in late 1988. When military leaders attempted to challenge civilian authority on several occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, the incumbent president dismissed them.

A contradictory feature of Colombia's long democratic tradition is its high level of political violence (six interparty wars in the nineteenth century and two in the twentieth century). An estimated 100,000 Colombians died in the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902), and 200,000 died in the more recent period of interparty civil war called la violencia, which lasted from 1948 to 1966. According to Colombian Ministry of National Defense statistics, an additional 70,000 people had died in other political violence, mainly guerrilla insurgencies, by August 1984.

This violence included left-wing insurgency and terrorism, right-wing paramilitary activity, and narcoterrorism. For most of the fortyyear period following the 1948 Bogotazo (the riot following the assassination of Jorge Elicer Gaitn, in which 2,000 were killed), Colombia lived under a constitutionally authorized state of siege (estatuto de seguridad) invoked to deal with civil disturbances, insurgency, and terrorism. In mid-1988 many Colombian academics who studied killings by drug smugglers, guerrillas, death squads, and common criminals believed that the government was losing control over the country's rampaging violence. They noted that even if the guerrillas laid down their arms, violence by narcotics traffickers, death squads, and common criminals would continue unabated.

Scholars, such as Robert H. Dix, attributed the nation's violent legacy in part to the elitist nature of the political system. The members of this traditional elite have competed bitterly, and sometimes violently, for control of the government through the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, which changed its name to the Social Conservative Party in July 1987. These parties cooperated with each other only when the position of the upper class seemed threatened. Unlike their counterparts in other Latin American countries, Colombia's Christian democratic, social democratic, and Marxist parties were always weak and insignificant. Constitutional amendments and the evolution of Colombia's political culture reinforced its highly centralized and elitist governmental system. The elites managed to retain control over the political system by co-opting representatives of the middle class, labor, and the peasantry.

A number of Colombianists also contended that the traditional parties had impeded modernization. The fact that the guerrilla movement was still strong in the late 1980s, after four decades of "armed struggle," manifested to some scholars the elitist nature of Colombian politics. For Bruce Michael Bagley, the guerrilla insurgency was only the most visible "dimension of a far deeper problem confronting the Colombian political system: the progressive erosion of the regime's legitimacy" as a result of its failure "to institutionalize mechanisms of political participation."

Bagley also saw the legitimacy problem reflected in rising levels of voter abstention and mass political apathy and cynicism, as well as declining rates of voter identification with either of the traditional parties and the emergence of an urban swing vote. This view notwithstanding, since the mid-1960s the elites dominating the two-party system usually have accommodated gradual change in order to preserve stability. For example, Colombia took a major step toward breaking with its elitist political tradition and modernizing the country's political structures by holding its first direct, popular elections for mayors in early 1988.

Although some political accommodation had occured, the Colombian government has been less successful in reducing economic inequality. During the 1980s, approximately 20 percent of the population controlled 70 percent of income. Rural poverty was particularly pronounced, with per capita income barely reaching half the national average. Analysts generally believed that these economic factors helped spawn political violence.

Since the early 1980s, successive Colombian governments have had to contend with the terrorist and drug-trafficking activities of left-wing guerrillas, the rise of paramilitary self-defense forces in the 1990s, and the violence of drug cartels. Three presidential candidates were assassinated during the election campaign of 1990. After Colombian security forces killed Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar in December 1993, indiscriminate acts of violence associated with his organization abated as the cartels fragmented into multiple, smaller trafficking organizations that competed against one another in the drug trade. Guerrillas and paramilitary groups also entered into drug trafficking as a way to finance their military operations. Colombians headed to the polls on May 25, 2014 for a president election that could determine whether the country continued peace talks with Marxist guerrillas or steps up its military offensive to end a 50-year war. President Juan Manuel Santos, who was seeking a second four-year term, wants to end the conflict with FARC rebels through negotiations taking place in Cuba. Right-winger Oscar Ivan Zuluaga dismissed the talks as pandering to terrorists and suggested he would scrap them in favor of U.S.-backed military campaigns similar to those led by his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe.

Santos and Zuluaga were polling neck-and-neck following a race marred by accusations of electronic espionage and drug-linked campaign financing. Neither was seen winning enough votes to avoid a June 15 run-off. With almost all of the votes counted, on 26 May 2014 Zuluaga was ahead with 29.25%, followed by Santos with 25.69%. The other three candidates trailed at least 10 percentage points behind.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was reelected 15 June 2014, in an apparent endorsement of his peace talks with leftist rebels. With most of the votes counted in the runoff, election officials said Santos beat right-wing challenger Oscar Ivan Zuluaga by about five percentage points.

March 2016 was the target date for the completion of negotiations and the adoption of a draft peace accord. The process for final approval and signing of the accord is hoped to be finished by mid-June. Amid hopes and expectations of a successful completion of peace negotiations in early 2016, Colombia experienced a wave of paramilitary and military assaults. Former President Uribe mobilized the extreme right against the peace accords. Meanwhile, paramilitary threats and aggressions have been increasing, mostly at the hands of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas paramilitary group. At least five persons have been killed or disappeared since November 2015. The paramilitaries accuse the community of collaboration with guerrillas.

The Colombian organization Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders) reports that between 2010 and 2015, there were 1,687 threats against human rights workers, including 346 assassinations, 206 assassination attempts, 131 arbitrary detentions and 16 disappearances. This period covers the election of President Juan Manuel Santos and the beginning of the peace process in 2012. At least 54 human rights defenders were murdered in 2015.

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