Colombia Anti-Graft Referendum Comes Up Shy on Votes

Colombia Anti-Graft Referendum Comes Up Shy on VotesColombia Anti-Graft Referendum Comes Up Shy on Votes

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% of polling stations, ABC reported.

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%.

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

  Question of Enforcement

“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 lure voters to the polls.

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%, while a 2016 referendum on a peace deal with leftist rebels to end a half century of fighting barely drew 13 million votes.

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

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