Colombia Anti-Corruption Referendum Fails To Meet Quorum


A historic meeting has taken place between Colombian President Ivan Duque, leaders of the opposition, both chambers of Congress, directors of all political parties, and FARC leader Rodrigo Lodoño after President Duque called for a summit to jointly formulate anti-corruption measures.

The meeting comes after an anti-corruption referendum in Colombia failed to meet quorum. The referendum fell 470,000 votes short of the minimum number of votes required for it to be valid. The referendum, which included seven different anti-corruption measures, required at least 12.1 million votes, a third of the country’s eligible voters, in order for the results to be binding. Those who did vote overwhelmingly supported the measures, with each proposal having more than 99% approval.

According to experts, voter fatigue following presidential elections, apathy, and the influence of certain powerful politicians were to blame for the poor turn-out at the polls. Kyle Johnson, an International Crisis Group senior analyst for Colombia, told NBC News, “If it’s not a presidential election, the Colombians just don’t vote en masse.”

Rampant political corruption has been a constant of Colombia’s history, and it has recently been revealed that this legacy is costing the treasury money. Outgoing Comptroller General Eduardo Maya recently said that grafts cost the country around $17 billion per year. This equates to roughly 5.3% of Colombia’s GDP. “They are stealing everything,” he said.

The proposed measures aimed to tackle the issue by forcing elected officials to publish tax returns, lowering the wages of members of Congress and lawmakers, and limiting public office terms to three years. These reforms sought to ensure greater budget transparency, allow for more thorough investigation of claims of corrupt behaviour, and ensure perpetrators of corruption are punished accordingly. Had a third of the nation voted in favour of each of the proposals, Congress would have been legally bound to convert the measures into law.

In his first provisional address on Sunday following the failed referendum, the newly-elected President urged Congress to take the fight against corruption seriously. Addressing the nation, he said, “The fight against corruption has no political color, party or ideology. All must take part: the private sector, the government, political organizations and citizens.” In the speech, he reiterated the importance of lawmakers supporting anti-corruption reform, stating that “[t]ogether we’ll defeat those who ransack public resources, together we’ll build the future that Colombia deserves.”

While President Duque publicly supported the referendum, which was advocated for by lawmakers of the centre and the left, it was met with conservative opposition, including from many members of Duque’s party. Former President and leader of the hard-right Democratic Center party, Alvaro Uribe, retracted his support for the proposals at the beginning of August after footage was released of him privately contradicting his public stance. He said he believes the initiatives should come from Congress rather than the general public.

Angelica Lozano, a Green Party Senator who supported the measures, said that despite failing to meet quorum, the vote still had an undeniable impact. She told reporters, “We were five cents short, but change is unstoppable and here there was a shaking of the traditional political class.”

Although the referendum may have failed in the traditional sense, there are still political avenues available to those who are in favour of the changes. Claudia Lopez, the former senator who sponsored the initiative, will now present a legislative proposal containing the seven measures from the referendum to Congress, in the hope they will agree to ratify what those Colombians who voted wholeheartedly supported. Should Congress fail to approve the proposal, a last resort would be in the form of a Presidential decree that approves the measures.

Regardless of the result, the referendum has shown that Colombians want their politicians to be held accountable and for corruption to be tackled in a decisive way. What happens next, and the result of Duque’s meeting with fellow political leaders, could have a defining impact on Colombian politics for decades to come and restore citizens’ faith in their institutions.

Daisy D'Souza

A Masters of Internationals Relations student interested in issues of development, international security, inequality and world peace
Daisy D'Souza