Petro’s Whims Can Be Kept in Check, Colombia Congress Chief Says

(Bloomberg) -- Colombia’s institutions can withstand President Gustavo Petro’s attempt to rewrite the Constitution and bypass other branches of power in his bid to change the country’s economic model, according to the head of Congress.

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Petro, the first leftist to lead the traditionally conservative South American nation, has put pressure on lawmakers and the judicial system to approve his ambitious social reforms. But checks and balances are an essential part of a solid democracy, Senator Iván Name said Thursday in an interview.

“Colombia and the countries of the world that watch us need to know that our institutions and our nation are stronger than any attempt to destabilize them,” Name, 67, told Bloomberg at his office overlooking Bogota’s main square.

The president jolted Colombia’s political debate this month when he proposed a constitutional overhaul. Petro argues that existing institutions haven’t solved fundamental problems in society such as inequality or access to healthcare and drinking water.

While he’s laid out priorities and attempted to rally popular support, Petro’s government hasn’t yet sent a bill to lawmakers to begin the formal process of rewriting the nation’s charter. Given his low approval ratings and lack of a congressional majority, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to successfully convene a so-called constituent assembly.

Name said that after almost half a century in politics, he has never seen such an institutional clash between the government and the other branches of power.

Congress is currently discussing overhauls to the pension and healthcare systems, which have been Petro’s marquee projects since the presidential campaign. They need approval from lawmakers in the first half of this year or discussions will have to start again from scratch.

Despite Petro’s protests to the contrary, Name pointed to bills Congress has passed as evidence that legislators aren’t in fact sabotaging his agenda. Those measures include the 2022 tax law, the government’s overall development bill and its annual budget.

“Congress has approved all the instruments to govern” that Petro has requested, the senator said. “Only his reforms to certain sectors, as he has proposed them, are not backed” so far by a majority of lawmakers.

As in any parliament around the world, bills are modified as they go through debates — but Petro’s government has been reluctant to accept those changes, Name added.

Noise around a constitutional rewrite and “the atmosphere of mistreatment toward Congress by the president” is negatively affecting support for the bills and causing delays in their discussion, the senator said.

Name — who is part of the Green Party and whose term as head of Congress ends in July — fears that uncertainty created by the institutional clash is already hurting investor confidence and could paralyze both economic projects and growth.

He said his intent isn’t to torpedo reforms and that Petro’s administration must recognize the right of elected lawmakers to study proposals and their potential impact on Colombian society.

“The government must understand that congress is not a factory of laws, nor is it an institution that is on its knees before the executive branch of the government,” Name said. “We cannot approve reforms where we aren’t certain they’re in the nation’s interest.”

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