The president is elected every four years by direct popular vote and is constitutionally prohibited from seeking consecutive terms. A former president may, however, run again for the presidency after sitting out one term. The president must be a native-born Colombian at least fifty-five years of age and in full possession of his or her political rights. The Constitution also requires the president to have had previous service as a congressional or cabinet member, governor, or government official; as a university professor for five years; or as a practicing member of a liberal profession requiring a university degree.
As chief of state, the president oversees the executive branch of government, consisting of a thirteen-member cabinet, various administrative agencies, a developing bureaucracy, and more than 100 semiautonomous or decentralized agencies, institutes, and corporations, generally known as institutos decentralizados. These appointive powers allow the president to select the cabinet and the chiefs of all the administrative agencies without the approval of either house of Congress. Under Colombia's unitary system of government, the president also appoints and may remove the governors of the twenty-three territorial departments and the heads of the nine national territories (territorios). Unlike the departments, which have limited self-government, the national capital controls the territories directly through presidentially appointed officials.
Presidentially appointed commissions--composed of government, party, and interest group representatives--occasionally played an important role in policy making in the executive branch. Their findings were usually highly respected and often turned into pending legislation. Development-oriented and well-qualified technocrats (técnicos)--such as economists, agronomists, and engineers--also strengthened the executive branch in the 1980s by staffing important decentralized government agencies. These included the National Planning Department (Departamento Nacional de Planeación), Monetary Board (Junta Monetaria), and the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria--Incora). The expertise provided the president and his cabinet by the technocrats moderated the influence of powerful interest groups and enabled the chief executive to develop complex legislation. Although the semiautonomous or decentralized agencies extended the influence of the executive into most areas of society, they had gained substantial independence by the 1980s. The larger and more skilled staffs and international funding sources of many agencies, along with the inability of ministers to supervise closely the agencies under their purview, contributed to this independence.
In addition to administrative powers, the chief executive had considerable legislative authority. During normal times, the president may promulgate decrees with the force of law called decree-laws (decreto-leyes). Congress may also delegate the president authority to decree regulations in a particular area or on a pressing matter. For example, in 1964 the president, at the request of Congress, reorganized the courts and the judicial processes. Many of the president's legislative powers are derived from his constitutional authority to direct economic policy, draw up a budget, and submit economic development plans to Congress. After deciding on a policy initiative, the president normally asks a minister to prepare the specific legislative proposal. The legislature may reduce the president's proposed budget, but it may not add to it without the executive's consent. The Constitution also allows a president to declare certain matters "urgent," thereby requiring priority congressional attention (Article 91), and permits the cabinet ministers to participate in congressional debates (Article 134).
The Constitution obliges the president, as commander in chief of the armed forces and the National Police, to maintain law and order, defend the nation, and deal with domestic disturbances. The president may declare war with the consent of the Senate or, in the event of invasion, without such consent. The president is responsible for making peace, negotiating and ratifying peace treaties, and, also with the consent of Congress, making treaties with other nations.
Although the aforementioned Article 121 and Article 122 give the president considerable powers to deal with internal conflict or war through a declaration of a state of siege or emergency, the judiciary limited their use in the late 1980s. Exasperated by these restraints, President Barco complained in an address to the nation in January 1988 that the Supreme Court had issued a series of rulings that had "virtually eliminated the practical side of the state of siege." He noted that the court had declared unconstitutional at least ten state of siege decrees issued by the government. According to one ruling, the president may not invoke Article 122 without having specific and clear authorization in the laws, the Constitution, or people's rights. Another ruling emphasized that the president may not use the state of siege power if the government's objectives can be obtained with the existing laws. Furthermore, the court insisted that the government may not use Article 121 to rule in socioeconomic matters if the crisis can be dealt with under Article 122.
Although presidential powers in Colombia greatly exceeded those of Congress or the judiciary, they were not without political or social restraints as well. Presidents needed to deal with and maintain the support of the nation's politically conscious elites. Lacking a single autonomous power base, such as a mass party or military control, the president had to be responsive to an array of competing economic, social, religious, and political elites.
In the temporary or permanent absence or incapacity of the president, a presidential designate (primer designado) serves as acting president. The presidential designate, appointed every two years by Congress, receives no salary and has no executive function but may hold other public or private positions while serving as designate. In case of the president's resignation or permanent incapacity, the acting president must call new elections within three months. Should Congress fail to elect a designate, the foreign minister becomes responsible for acting as president in case of the incapacity, absence, death, or resignation of the president.
After the president, cabinet ministers were the next most powerful individuals in the government in the late 1980s. Each minister directed a particular ministry and various subordinate decentralized agencies and institutes. Nevertheless, Colombia's tradition of allowing yearly reshuffles of the cabinet hampered governmental performance.
Certain ministries had more status or importance than others, although their relative standing was not clear cut. The Ministry of Government was perhaps the most powerful. The minister of government exercised considerable authority over elections, consulted with the president on the selection of departmental governors, and acted as a liaison between the governors and the executive branch. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs probably ranked second in importance, not only because its head had a central role in conducting the nation's foreign relations but also because the incumbent was third in the line of succession to the presidency.
Other important and powerful ministries were the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Finance. The minister of national defense directed the armed forces and National Police, which in addition to their other duties were charged with maintaining public order during a state of siege. The Ministry of Justice had risen in influence by the mid-1980s as a result of the increased importance in United States-Colombian relations of the prosecution and extradition of narcotics traffickers. The Ministry of Finance has been consistently significant because of its responsibility for economic affairs. As economic planning became more important, this ministry's powers increased proportionately.
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