The Associated PressA voter marks his ballot during a nationwide referendum that seeks 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. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
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Colombians are voting Sunday in a first-of-a-kind referendum that aims to curb corruption in a country where white-collar criminals are fast replacing drug gangs and paramilitary groups in penetrating the upper echelons of power.
The referendum seeks to slash the salaries of Colombia’s Congress members and to bring laws that make public spending more efficient and transparent.
But while most Colombians agree that corruption is a plague that needs to be exterminated, some believe putting it to a vote is not the best way to do so.
The referendum has been boycotted by Colombia’s judges over fears it will lead to wage cuts in the judicial branch since a law states that salaries for top magistrates should be the same as those of Congress members.
“We already have lots of anti-corruption laws,” said Hermens Lara, a Bogota municipal judge who is director of the Board of Judges and Magistrates of Colombia. “The problem is implementing them.”
Newly elected President Ivan Duque and most of Colombia’s main political parties say they back the measure, but they have done little to promote it or to lure voters to the polls.
Voters on Sunday will be asked seven questions that include 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.
The measures focus on Congress and some experts question 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,” says 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 give Colombia’s Congress a year to pass legislation implementing the proposals or force Duque to do so by decree.
Getting the minimum number of votes to make the results binding, however, is a tall order.
The measures need approval from 12 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.
Campaigning for the referendum has been spearheaded by Claudia Lopez, a former senator and vice presidential candidate for the center-left Green Party.
Lopez said she began to push for the referendum after Congress repeatedly rejected anti-corruption bills that her party had proposed.
“Corrupt politicians will never vote to place limits on themselves,” Lopez told The Associated Press. “That’s why this referendum is the best tool we have to tackle corruption.”
Lopez and her supporters have 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.
Julian Ramirez, an 18-year-old political science student in Bogota, said he has 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 as he walked around a central Bogota neighborhood handing out flyers.