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Colombia anti-corruption referendum comes up shy on votes

August 27, 2018
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An electoral official count ballots after the closing of a nationwide referendum seeking to curb corruption in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. Voters were asked to approve seven proposals that referendum supporters hope will bring about tougher anti-corruption legislation, but the referendum will only be valid if a third of all voters take part. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — An anti-corruption referendum in Colombia drew millions to the polls Sunday but fell just short of a required participation threshold to push forward measures aimed at improving transparency and stiffening penalties for white-collar criminals.

Nearly 11.7 million Colombians cast ballots overwhelmingly in favor of seven initiatives proposed to stamp out corruption in the upper echelons of power, failing to draw the 12.1 million voters needed to pass the initiatives, according to quick-count results from over 99 percent of polling stations.

Proponents nonetheless hailed the higher-than-expected turnout as a forceful message from citizens: Enact laws now that put an end to special privileges for lawmakers and make public spending more efficient.

“This historic vote, this decisive victory by free citizens, gives a clear and strong mandate to the government and congress,” said Claudia Lopez, a former senator and vice presidential candidate spearheading the referendum.

The referendum included questions like whether to hand down tougher penalties on corrupt officials who now often serve out sentences in multi-million dollar homes; whether term limits should be imposed on lawmakers, and whether the salaries of members of Congress should be reduced by 40 percent.

Colombian law currently sets senators’ salaries at about $124,000 per year, more than what parliamentarians make in countries like Holland, Sweden and France.

Most Colombians agree corruption is a plague that needs to be exterminated, but not everyone agreed that a vote was the best way to do so. The referendum was boycotted by judges over fears it would lead to wage cuts in the judicial branch since a law states salaries for top magistrates should be the same as those of lawmakers.

“We already have lots of anti-corruption laws,” Hermens Lara, a Bogota municipal judge who is director of the Board of Judges and Magistrates of Colombia, said before the vote. “The problem is implementing them.”

Newly elected President Ivan Duque and most of Colombia’s main political parties backed the measure, but did little to promote it or to lure voters to the polls. Some experts questioned whether the changes would do anything to curb corruption elsewhere, such as within the judiciary or police.

“Some of the proposals have no impact on corruption,” said Marcela Anzola, a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank. Still she said that passage would “give greater legitimacy to anti-corruption initiatives and send a strong message to politicians.”

According to Colombia’s inspector general, corruption in the country is equivalent to 4 percent of gross domestic product each year. One recent study by Transparency International found that 63 percent of companies in Colombia feared losing business if they did not engage in bribery.

That face of corruption in Colombia marks a stark change from the days when cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was elected to Congress and his rivals in the Cali Cartel helped elect a president. Just a little over a decade ago, scores of congressional members were also charged or investigated for ties to right-wing paramilitary groups.

But today, experts say the biggest threat comes from white-collar criminals.

One example is the expansion of an oil refinery in Cartagena, which ended up costing more than double its projected $3.3 billion price tag due to what authorities described as mismanagement and graft by officials who were in cahoots with contractors.

The referendum would have given Colombia’s Congress a year to pass legislation implementing the proposals or force Duque to do so by decree.

The measures needed approval from 12.1 million voters — or roughly a third of the 36 million registered voters. Turnout in the country’s recent presidential election barely reached 50 percent, while a 2016 referendum on a peace deal with leftist rebels to end a half century of fighting barely drew 13 million votes.

In an address to the nation Sunday evening, Duque urged lawmakers to press forward with reforms even though the final vote tally came up short.

“We consulted society, and society responded: No more corruption,” he said.

Lopez and her supporters tried to overcome voter apathy with the help of a famous satirist, recording a campaign video that shows Lopez and a handful of middle-aged congressmen dressed up as reggaeton singers who riff that corruption is the “cancer of Colombia” and must be stopped.

“Corrupt politicians will never vote to place limits on themselves,” she said. “That’s why this referendum is the best tool we have to tackle corruption.”

Julian Ramirez, an 18-year-old political science student in Bogota, said he had been campaigning for the anti-corruption referendum since last year, when activists collected 4 million signatures to get officials to fund the vote.

“Fighting corruption should be something we can all unite under,” Ramirez said.

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