Colombia’s Twitter revolution kills off another top public figure

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Colombia’s internet indignados have struck again, this time ending the career of Emilio Otero, the controversial Senate Secretary caught in the eye of the storm as the nation revolts against a congress they view as decadent and self-serving.

Otero yesterday morning announced he would not be seeking re-election to a post he has occupied since 2002 and for which he commanded an annual salary of over two hundred thousand US dollars.

The game was up as the hashtag #ChaoEmilioOtero trended earlier this week and as senators took to the airwaves to distance themselves from the man (fairly or otherwise) seen to symbolise the moral decay of the political class. Pushed out just two years after he was sworn in for his fifth term with 87% support from parliamentary colleagues, Otero’s life as one of the nation’s most powerful public administrators has come to an abrupt end.

Who is the Senate Secretary?

Elected every two years the Senate Secretary (SS) is a figure little known outside the Capitolio but one who enjoys great privilege and power within it. He is responsible for setting the agenda for congressional sessions; programming – deciding the fate of – legislative initiatives that come before the chamber. And perhaps even more importantly for those who tread the boards of the political stage, the SS is the official who dishes out the offices and armoured vehicles; it is he who patronises grace and favour.

Otero himself has office space sufficient to accommodate not only his ten advisers but also to receive in comfort his constant stream of visitors. Those who pass through his doors are ministers of state, old timers, or newly elected members, all with demands on congress’ time – to promote their own particular pet project.

For ten years Otero arbitrated proceedings in the upper house. He recorded those present and those absent from debates, helped push through (or allowed to sink) proposed new laws, and decided the bill amendments to be brought before the senate for discussion.

Who is Emilio Otero?

Despite his longevity in the post, Otero’s face was unrecognisable to 99% of Colombians until the end of June this year. The Justice Reform bill forced his name into the public domain.

Otero is alleged to have played a role in the infamous ‘conciliation’ stage of the bill in which representatives from both houses of parliament appended amendments that, among other measures, would have legislated for (virtual) legal impunity for elected members.

Congress eventually voted down the bill (having days before passed it) following vehement public opposition and the historically unprecedented decision by President Santos to refuse to rubber stamp the final document.

A suspicious public began to question the motives of Emilio Otero when it emerged that among these new ‘monkey’ clauses (as they are called in Colombia) lay the provision that any criminal cases against the SS could only go before the Supreme Court – reducing significantly the possibility of a conviction.

The media investigated Otero’s past and found a number a legal skeletons in the cupboard. Perhaps the most intriguing find was the 1996 sanction by state prosecutor for his alleged discrepancies in the awarding of contracts (a case that was not followed up). To add to this, various congressional disciplinary charges against his name emerged, (including for trafficking of influences, for signing documents from outside the country when the senate was sitting, and for filling a departmental vacancy with a person who failed to meet the basic criteria for the post). Under normal circumstances in Colombia none of these alleged cases would necessarily deliver a fatal blow, but in the context of increased public scrutiny in the revolutionary climate of the days following the passing of the Justice Reform bill, this was very damaging indeed.

Finally, Otero was not helped by the size of this salary package. Otero’s many years in congress means he is remunerated to the tune of 360 million Colombian pesos, a handsome sum indeed. Any new entrant to the post would receive considerably less on account of a new (and less generous) regime of financial reward.

The campaign to prevent Otero’s re-election

As the media began to build Otero’s profile, social networkers initiated a campaign against his re-election. Emboldened by the taste of Justice Minister Esguerra’s blood, and the smell of a humiliating government retreat, the twitter-rebels had Otero’s scalp in their sights.

The hastag #QuienEsEmiloOtero trended, first to raise public awareness of the man, then journalists and citizens alike bombarded senators with messages urging them to vote for anyone but Otero. The citizen’s coalition, as it was called, was joined by the former anti-corruption Tzar, Óscar Ortiz González who urged followers to heed the messages within RCN television’s documentary on the senate elections.

The political class then also began to speak out – Juan Manuel Galán, Liberal Party spokesman in the senate, Amando Benedetti U Party member and former president of the senate, and John Sudarsky of the Green Party, were the first members to announce in public that they would not vote for the incumbent.

With days to go before the vote originally scheduled for today – Otero was, however, still hopeful of victory. Reports circulated that he was due to meet each party grouping and undertake a series of one-to-one meetings with key power-brokers to secure his votes.

The public discontent, however, was growing too loud for the comfort of certain parliamentarians. Deciding to break ranks, they first suggested that the vote be delayed to allow for consideration of alternative candidates, and then when this strategy looked doomed, some publicly indicated hostility to Otero’s candidature.

President Santos’ government, through Interior Minister Federico Renjifo urged senators within the coalition to ‘listen to the public’s reaction’, indicating that while it would not take an official line on the SS election, it would not be supporting Otero’s bid. Following this, Otero found that the Conservatives and the Liberals who had always in the past voted for him were this time declining to do so, that Cambio Radical, the Greens, PIN and the Polo were all against him.

Left with no alternative, Otero announced to the nation on Thursday morning in short valedictory video that he was withdrawing his candidature.

The public and their masters

The relationship between congress and the public has changed – perhaps permanently. The ‘monkey’ clauses of the Justice Reform bill represented a point of departure, the moment when bubbling cynicism exploded in indignant rage.

Colombians are now more alive to the actions of their governors. Had Otero sought election in a different climate it is difficult to see how he would not have won – the media interest would have been minimal, and the public gaze non-existent. Once he had morphed into an enemy of the public however, his position became untenable.

The court of public opinion has judged Otero (and the rest of the political class) corrupt. Disapproval of Colombia’s congress is running at 69%. The erosion of public trust in public institutions should concern each and every elected politician.

Signatures are being gathered to revoke the legislature, to kick out what is seen as a group unfit to govern. And following years of weak and uncritical coverage, the media too is beginning to perform the investigate role a participatory democracy demands of it.

Those senators savvy enough to smell the danger have acted quickly, sacrificing Otero for the sake of the institution’s future. Despite weeks of lobbying the SS has been abandoned by colleagues.

The nation shall shed no tears, nor shall those who believe the growing interest and power of citizen movements can only be healthy for Colombia’s democracy.

Posted by Kevin Howlett from Colombia-Politics.com

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  1. someday i will have a blog like yours.

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