- Colombia's Inspector General investigates and orders the removal of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro. President Santos approves.
- Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says Petro must be reinstated. President Santos considers and rejects their ruling.
- Colombian law says president must name new mayor from Petro's party. President Santos names Maria Mercedes Maldonado to the post.
- Colombian court orders president to abide by commission ruling and reinstate Petro. President Santos listens to court and reinstates the mayor.
One of the great things about what has occurred in Colombia is that in every step President Santos is considering and responding to other institutions. Even when he initially rejected the Inter-American Commission's ruling, it was considered. This is the messy give and take of democratic institutions, the checks and balances on power that are supposed to exist in every democratic country.
Too many presidents throughout Latin America's history have acted as caudillos. They roll over weak legislatures, install rubber stamp courts, force supposedly independent institutions like Attorney General offices to do their bidding. In recent years, some presidents have cited electoral legitimacy as their justification for dismantling or ignoring the other democratic institutions in the country. While some political commentators may think Santos risks looking "weak" before the election in following the court ruling, he's actually managing a tough and contentious balancing act among democratic institutions that too many Latin America presidents past and present would simply have ignored.
A month ago, citing mayoral removals in both Colombia and Venezuela, I wrote:
Democracy isn't just about national elections and it does not mean complete national control for the party that happens to win 51% of the vote. Decentralized democracy is a key part of the hemispheric commitment to democratic rule of law. Voters in municipalities have a right for individuals and parties to govern who oppose the national government. The lack of debate at the OAS and other multilateral institutions over these mayoral removals suggests a deeper problem in terms of how the hemisphere is currently defining democracy.The reinstatement of Petro, even if temporary, gives some additional legitimacy to those multilateral institutions that want to defend decentralized democracy. However, it's Colombia's institutions more than the OAS that deserve credit for making this happen.
This controversy will continue and Petro may still be removed by future court rulings. The controversy may also play into presidential politics. Whatever the end result, it's nice to see an example in Latin America where the president doesn't simply rule from the top, but instead acts as one of several legitimate institutions that represent the people.