Colombian Conservatives place President Santos on notice

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As the curtain raised on a new session of congress on Friday, Efraín Cepeda, the director of the Colombian Conservatives, warned of a ‘crisis’ in President Juan Manuel Santos’ National Unity coalition government. The leader of the second largest parliamentary force was speaking after a special meeting of his troops where their presence in this coalition was confirmed, but where it was also conditioned on big change.

Cepeda is exploiting the first serious signs of weakness in the Santos regime; the president is desperate to restore relations with congress, and is starting to look over his shoulder as Alvaro Uribe’s political party takes shape.

Many Conservatives are ideologically tied to Alvaro Uribe rather than President Santos and will be tempted, as we approach the pre-election cycle next year, to join his movement. For Santos the price of their continued support has risen significantly.

The Conservatives’ march towards unity?

Efraín Cepeda was sworn in as president of the Conservatives at the end of last November taking over from José Darío Salázar. Salázar left the parted divided; those on the centre were left cold by the socially right-wing campaigns of 2011 (against gay-marriage and abortion). Andrés Pastrana, the last Conservative president (1998-2002), spent much of the year attacking the party for its policy direction and its supine attempts to weed out corruption within the collective.

Although Cepeda arrived in parliament on the coat-tails of Pastrana, he has allies on both wings of the party and was seen as a unity candidate, bringing the Pastranistas and Uribistas together. His job of keeping his colleagues batting for the same team has been made more difficult, however, by the emergence of Alvaro Uribe’s Puro Centro Democrático. The stakes are now higher and should he fail, many Conservatives could jump ship. A further complication is that Former Defence Minister and leading Conservative (although also previously a member of the U) Marta Lucía Ramírez is even talked about as a possible Uribista presidential candidate. Under such circumstances the gravitation pull towards Uribe could become a force impossible for some to resist.

To keep the Conservatives together, Cepeda must secure more goodies from the president. The parliamentary party will be less inclined to leave the coalition if they are tied in by grace and favour and if they feel their voice is heard more in the decision-making process.

Santos / congress relations a Conservative opportunity?

Congress feels scapegoated by the president. Santos only weeks ago forced his coalition partners to vote down the controversial Justice Reform bill days after he had whipped them to vote it through. Public anger at the legislation led to pillorying of parliamentarians; accused en masse of corruption and self-interest.

The parliamentarians’ resentment arises from the feeling that Santos pushed much of the blame onto them instead of accepting the government’s role in the fiasco – after all the government proposed the legislation, they argue. This discontent was evident as Interior Minister Federico Renjifo stood up to speak during the vote to ditch the JR bill – in an unprecedented reaction from congress toward a minister of state, Dr Renjifo was whistled at and boo-ed.

Reaction to JR bill led to a strategic rethink from Santos. At a special cabinet meeting to determine a way forward – called earlier this month – Santos told colleagues that he was focused more on public opinion than on securing harmonious relations with the law-makers. The Santos administration is, however a reforming government that needs the security or the ‘governability’ (the president confesses this is his favourite word) of the National Unity coalition. It is little surprise then that ahead of the start of the new parliamentary year (the third, and penultimate in Santos’ first mandate), diplomacy between the presidential palace and its legislative partners went into overdrive.

Efraín Cepeda is taking advantage of this situation. Under Salázar, the Conservatives were the opposition within the coalition. The party’s old boss is an arch-Uribista and was one of the first politicians to criticise Santos for departing from the ex-president’s Democractic Security doctrine.

When Cepeda took over efforts were made to repair the relationship. In February, the new leader was one of the first out of the blocks to defend the Santos regime when news emerged of the exiled Luis Carlos Restrepo’s attempted political coup to prevent the president’s re-election. The Conservatives were ‘proud to support the government’, Cepeda confirmed.

The cost of coalition politics

The Conservatives are calling in their chips, but how do they want Santos to pay? Effectively it comes down to do things – personnel and policy, and the Conservatives want Santos to show more leg on both.

Something the president needs to resolve quickly is Cepeda’s assertion that there are ‘useless ministers’ in the cabinet, a ‘crisis’ at the heart of the government. Cepeda has attacked the ministers for education and for health – both for their abilities and politics. In doing this, Cepeda has announced that his Conservative party is moving to occupy this key social policy territory. He will want Santos to recognise this by moving Conservatives to these positions.

This is smart politics. The tactic is to position the Conservatives not as the party of pro-life anti-gay hardliners but instead a modern political movement focused on removing the social barriers to success, to reducing poverty and to increasing opportunity.

It is also a move that understands where the public mood is starting to turn. The government has faced cricticism for its education policies (particularly its university reform proposals which were shelved due to public protest), and its inability to resolve the health crisis which many highlight as political ticking time-bomb about to explode. Should Conservative ministers arrive in these positions and offer an alternative, a way out of the mess, then the party will be well positioned as the country moves into pre-election mode next year.

The Conservatives want high-profile ministers in high-profile roles and they want Santos to start to deliver Conservative policies. As senate spokesman Hernán Andrade warning Santos – the relationship must be ‘reciprocal’ between the party and the government.

This website has reported before on the disquiet within Conservative ranks (recorded early on in Santos’ regime) at the direction the government is heading. The feeling has been that Santos has been suspiciously minded towards Liberal Party policies – and indeed Liberal politicians. Under Salázar in particular, the Conservatives felt marginalised, an afterthought in the coalition. Cepeda’s move on Friday seeks to use the game-changing events of the Justice Reform bill to ensure that a more Conservative looking agenda is pursued by the Casa de Nariño. Cepeda has given the president a choice, he has told him to demonstrate that the Conservatives have a role to play or to expect their eventual opposition to his government. From the sidelines Uribe will attentively await Santos’ answer.
Posted by Kevin Howlett from Colombia-Politics

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