Colombians vote in landmark anti-corruption referendum

Colombians are heading to the polls to vote in a landmark referendum on tougher anti-corruption laws, two months after choosing Ivan Duque as their new president.

Polls opened across the country on Sunday for voters to respond with a “yes” or “no” to seven proposals that seek to punish public and private corruption and guarantee accountability. 

If passed, the changes could see Congress members’ salaries lowered by 40 percent, force politicians to declare their income, affect term limits, enforce mandatory jail sentences for corruption and change the way public contracts are awarded in the country.

Voters can return a different answer on each separate measure. Each question requires a “yes” vote from at least 50 percent plus one of valid ballots to pass, and no less than a third of the 36 million registered voters must have voted.

Results are expected to be announced at 23:00 GMT. 

Most parties in Congress voted in favour of holding the referendum before the presidential elections in June, but have since avoided any promotion of the initiative.

“We’ve been waiting 25 years for Congress to act on these measures,” said Claudia Lopez, a former senator and a leading advocate of the initiative.

“Instead, they voted them down every single time.”

Activists collected four million signatures to get officials to fund Sunday’s referendum. 

‘Symbolic effect’

Corruption costs the country $17bn a year, equivalent to 5.3 percent of GDP, the country’s comptroller has said. Colombia ranks 96 out of 180 countries, according to Transparency International’s corruption index.

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

Many members of Congress have been accused of diverting public funds to local governments, led by mayors from their own political camps.

“Congress is widely considered the most corrupt institution in the country and it is despised by many Colombians,” said Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from the capital, Bogota.

“Supporters of this initiative are trying to bring the issue of corruption at the forefront in Colombian politics and to achieve some real change,” he added.

Duque announced he will vote, but many in his party said they would not.

“Laws don’t solve corruption,” said Samuel Hoyos, a member of the Democratic Center party.

Colombia is full of codes, prohibitions and regulations, but nothing changes.

“We need to change the culture in the country and we need citizens to keep a close eye on politicians,” Hoyos added. “Otherwise, we are just throwing away public money in initiatives that will have little effect.”

Duque casts his ballot in Bogota during the nationwide referendum [Ivan Valencia/AP] 

Meanwhile, Andres Hernandez, senior programme coordinator at Transparency International, believes the vote could have a major impact.

“If millions of citizens vote in favour of it, it will have a strong symbolic effect on the political class,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It will say this is not an issue that will fade into the background, that Colombians are expecting results and concrete measures.”

If the proposed measures are voted in, the Congress will be obligated to introduce the changes within a year. 

SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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