Colombia Table of Contents

Constitutional Development

Since declaring its independence from Spain in 1810, Colombia has had ten constitutions, the last of which--adopted in 1886-- established the present-day unitary republic. These constitutions addressed three important issues: the division of powers, the strength of the chief executive, and the role of the Roman Catholic Church. The issue of a strong central government versus a decentralized federal system was especially important in the nation's constitutional development. The unitary constitutions of 1821 and 1830--inspired by President Simón Bolívar Palacio--gave considerable power to the central government at the expense of the departmental governments. Between these Bolivarian constitutions and the 1886 version, however, three additional federal constitutions granted significant powers to administrative subdivisions known as departments (departamentos) and provided for the election of departmental assemblies.

In settling the federal-unitary debate, the 1886 Constitution specifies that sovereignty resides in the nation, which provides guarantees of civil liberties. These include freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, press, and education, as well as the rights to strike, petition the government, and own property within limits imposed by the common welfare. (The 1853 constitution already had abolished slavery, instituted trial by jury, and enlarged the franchise to include all male citizens over the age of twenty-one.) The Constitution, by noting that labor is a social obligation-- protected by the state--guarantees the right to strike, except in the public service. The Constitution, as amended, also gives all citizens a legal right to vote if they are at least eighteen years old, have a citizenship card, and are registered to vote. The Constitution prohibits members of the armed forces on active duty, members of the National Police, and individuals legally deprived of their political rights from participating in any political activities, including voting. Individuals holding administrative positions in the government also are barred from political activities, although they can vote.

A second constitutional issue has been the strength of the chief executive's office, especially the presidential use of emergency powers to deal with civil disorders. The 1821 constitution authorized the president to appoint all governmental officials at both the national and the local levels. The 1830 constitution further strengthened executive powers by creating the Public Ministry, which enabled the president to supervise judicial affairs. The 1832 and 1840 constitutions allowed the president to assume additional powers during a national emergency. The federal constitutions of 1853 and 1863, however, limited presidential control by granting many powers to the territorial departments, by allowing offices to be filled by election rather than appointment, and by depriving the president of authority to assume additional emergency powers. The 1886 Constitution establishes three branches of government--the executive, legislature, and judiciary--with separation of powers and checks and balances. Nonetheless, policy- making authority rests almost exclusively with the executive branch of government, specifically with a president who is both with chief executive and head of state.

The 1886 Constitution restored strong executive powers primarily through the president's ability to invoke a state of siege under Article 121 and a state of emergency (estatuto de emergencia) under Article 122. The president may declare a state of siege for all or part of the republic in the event of foreign war or domestic disturbance. Such a declaration, however, requires the signatures of all of the government's thirteen ministers. A 1961 constitutional amendment also requires that Congress remain in permanent session during a state of siege, although it may not contravene the president's decrees. Under a state of siege, a president may issue decrees having the same force as legislation and may suspend laws incompatible with maintaining public order or waging war.

The relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the state was a third constitutional issue. The 1832 and 1840 constitutions had affirmed the extraordinary position of the Roman Catholic Church. In contrast, the 1853 and 1863 constitutions, which guaranteed religious freedom and prohibited religious bodies from owning real estate, abolished the church's privileged status. The 1886 Constitution, as amended, guarantees freedom of religion and conscience but affords the Catholic faith preferential treatment. Article 53 authorizes the government to conclude agreements with the Holy See regulating functions between the state and the Roman Catholic Church on the "bases of reciprocal deference and mutual respect." The preamble to the amendments adopted by a national plebiscite in 1957 also notes the privileged position of the Roman Catholic Church, stating that the "Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Religion is that of the nation" and as such is to be "protected" and "respected" by the public powers of the state. Nevertheless, Article 54 of the Constitution prohibits Catholic priests from holding public office in areas other than education or charity.

The Constitution has undergone extensive and frequent amendments, the most significant of which included legislative acts in 1910, 1936, 1945, 1959, and 1968; a national plebiscite and legislative decrees in 1957; and economic reform in 1979. The amendment process was relatively simple, which may explain why it was used so extensively. Congress initially passed an amendment by adopting an act in two consecutive sessions, the first time by simple majority and the second by a two-thirds majority. The 1936 amendment requires a majority of those present and voting in the first session of the bicameral Congress and a majority of the total membership of both houses in the second session.

Amendments adopted in December 1968 reaffirm a president's ability to declare a state of emergency and allow the executive to intervene selectively in specific areas of the economy to prevent crises or facilitate development plans. A president must obtain the consent of the ministers before making such a declaration and specify, in advance, a time period not to exceed ninety days. It may be called only to deal with a specific economic or social crisis, during which the president is limited to issuing decrees dealing with the problem named in the announcement of the state of emergency. The president may also use these emergency measures to raise revenue, adopt short-term economic plans, or override any of the semiautonomous government agencies involved in the crisis.

The most important constitutional amendments resulted from the Sitges Agreement and the subsequent San Carlos Agreement, drawn up by Liberal and Conservative leaders together at meetings in 1957. These amendments were designed to impose bipartisan, noncompetitive rule for a sixteen- year period lasting until 1974. In May 1957, the two rival parties had united in the National Front coalition, which was envisioned as a bipartisan way to end la violencia and dictatorial rule. With the backing of the military, the National Front displaced the repressive regime of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (June 1953-May 1957). Although the military continued in power for a one-year transition period, the constitutional framework for a new governing system was institutionalized when the Colombian people overwhelmingly ratified the Sitges and San Carlos agreements in a national plebiscite in December 1957. The two parties governed jointly under the bipartisan National Front system from 1958 until 1974.

The 1957 amendments essentially changed the nature of the government from a competitive system characterized by intense party loyalties and political violence to a coalition government in which the two major parties shared power. The first three National Front presidents succeeded in keeping the peace between the parties and in committing the country to far-reaching social and economic reforms. By the mid-1960s, la violencia had been reduced largely to banditry and an incipient guerrilla movement. In addition to ending la violencia, the National Front provided security and stability for the governmental system. The old patterns of blind partisanship and interparty hostilities declined markedly and were replaced with dialogue among leaders of the two parties.

Under the 1957 amendments, the National Front mandated three principles of government. First, it alternated the presidency between the two parties in regular elections held every four years (alternación). Second, it provided for parity (paridad) in elective and appointive positions at all levels of government, including cabinet and Supreme Court (Corte Suprema) positions not falling under the civil service, as well as the election of equal numbers of party members to local, departmental, and national assemblies. And third, it required that all legislation be passed by a two-thirds majority in Congress. The 1957 amendments also give women the same political rights as men, including the right to vote.

The 1968 constitutional reforms provided for a carefully measured transition from the National Front to traditional two- party competition. They also provided some measure of recognition for minority parties that previously were prohibited from participating in the government. The 1968 amendments additionally allowed for the "dismantling" (desmonte) of the National Front coalition arrangement by increasing executive powers in economic, social, and development matters.

The constitutional changes, particularly the abolition of the two-thirds majority requirement in both houses of Congress for the passage of major legislation, also affected the powers of Congress and its relationship with the president. Henceforth, the executive could more easily attain adoption of its legislative programs, although Congress could approve, delay, or veto an executive branch initiative. Other congressional changes included the creation of a special committee to deal with economic and social development plans; the extension of a representative's term from two to four years; and the adoption of amendments dealing with matters such as the length of sessions, meeting times, and the size of quorums. The 1968 reforms also ended, beginning in 1970, the parity requirement for legislative seats at the municipal and departmental levels.

Although the Sitges and San Carlos agreements' provisions for alternating the presidency and maintaining party parity in Congress ended in 1974 when both parties ran candidates for the presidency, parity in the bureaucracy continued for another four years. Beginning in 1978, presidents could select their cabinets and appoint other officials without consideration for party parity. Nevertheless, cabinet positions continued to be divided on the basis of Article 120 of the Constitution, which requires the president to give "adequate and equitable representation" in governmental positions to the major party not controlling the presidency. Liberal president Julio César Turbay Ayala, who took office in 1978, and Conservative president Belisario Betancur Cuartas--elected in 1982--both gave half of their cabinet positions to rival party members. Although the practice ended after President Virgilio Barco Vargas assumed office in August 1986, another president could decide to revive it.

The 1968 amendments led to other important changes in the governmental system, such as widening the scope of governmental authority, particularly in the area of the economy. The revised Article 32 guarantees free enterprise and private initiative but puts the state "in charge of the general direction of the economy." This amendment allows the government to intervene in the production, distribution, utilization, and consumption of goods and services in a manner responsive to economic planning for integral development. It also authorizes the government to promote development and organize the economy, including controlling wages and salaries in both the public and the private sectors.

In 1988 the provisions of the 1886 Constitution, as amended, still governed Colombia. That February, however, President Barco responded to a wave of attacks by drug traffickers and guerrillas by launching an effort to rewrite the Constitution and make it a more effective weapon in the fight against violence. He also wanted to streamline the state to permit authorities to better deal with political and drug-related crimes. The leaders of various political parties and factions signed a political agreement, called the Nariño House Accord (Acuerdo Casa de Nariño), that signaled a consensus on the need to hold a national plebiscite on October 9, 1988, on the institutional reforms proposed by Barco. In announcing the agreement, Barco singled out as major problems the eroded faith in judges, the decreased credibility of Congress, and people's loss of hope about public administration. A national plebiscite had not been held in Colombia since 1957, when a constitutional provision banned referenda as a means of reforming the Constitution on major social, political, and economic issues.

Municipal elections held in March 1988 determined the party composition of a fifty-member panel, called the Institutional Readjustment Commission, whose purpose was to ask voters to approve constitutional changes in the planned October plebiscite. The Nariño House Accord was suspended in April 1988, however, as a result of a decision by the Council of State (Consejo de Estado)-- the highest court on constitutional and administrative matters-- that the holding of a plebiscite would have raised a constitutional problem. According to the ruling, only Congress may revise the Constitution (a procedure that takes two years).

The President
The Legislature
The Judiciary
Public Administration
Local Government
The Electoral System

More about the Government and Politics of Colombia.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress