Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas

According to a recent study by Spain’s El País newspaper, Colombia’s parliamentary salaries are 34 times the country’s minimum wage – the highest figure in the study that included European and Latin American countries. For reference, German parliamentarians earn just six times the minimum wage, according to El País. Changes could be on the horizon though, Colombia’s senate approved the second debate on an initiative to reduce parliamentary salaries but with six more sessions remaining, will Turkeys vote for Christmas? 

A former director of Colombia’s congress explained the wide-reaching implications of such a move, “The problem is that it is not only the salary of congressmen that is high, there are other state officials, such as the magistrates, who have the same salary. There is a law that prevents public officials being paid more than congressmen, so by lowering the salaries of senators and congressmen, it would also lower the salaries of magistrates and other senior civil servants. This is why a bill to lower salaries has passed twice but has been overturned by the Constitutional Court each time.” 

There is a law that prevents public officials being paid more than congressmen, so by lowering the salaries of senators and congressmen, it would also lower the salaries of magistrates and other senior civil servants.”

Former director, Colombia’s congress

The origin of these high salaries was the constitution of 1991. Previously, congressmen could claim representation expenses but the new constitution removed the ability for congressmen to claim these expenses in favour of a higher salary. As a result, congressmen have high location-based expenses including compensations for trips, paid vacations, and security measures.  

Unsurprisingly, people are outraged by the disparity between their salary and that of a congressman and the issue has become central to political campaigning. It was revived during the presidential debates last August, which led the green party ‘Alianza Verde’ senator Jota Pe Hernández, a former youtuber, to draft a legislative proposal to reduce the salaries of congressmen. Hernández insisted that his proposal was drafted to respect the labour rights of congressmen and the salary adjustment would be implemented by freezing wages for a four-year period and reforming article 15 of the current law which stipulates that no other public official can earn more than congressmen. In addition, the proposal aims to take away from the Congress the power to regulate the salaries of their members. 

This isn’t the only proposal to have been tabled on the issue. In the past, the Congress has blocked 20 similar proposals. Despite the debate, the former president, Iván Duque, passed a decree on 24 December 2021, to increase the salary of congressmen by 5.12% after being pressured by the union of workers of the legislative power.

The Colombian electoral system poses quite a challenge, to become a congressman you need to invest a lot of money.”

Former director, Colombia’s congress

There are some arguments sympathetic to the congressmen’s cause, explained a former member of Congress, “The Colombian electoral system poses quite a challenge, to become a congressman you need to invest a lot of money. If you can’t recover this investment through salary then only the rich will become congressmen. Social media has relieved some of this cost pressure but it is still an issue.” 

It remains to be seen if Colombia’s situation could prompt similar debates elsewhere in Latin American. For example, Chile, which is going through a major political reform, is not far behind with its congressmen being paid 33 times the minimum wage. 

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