Category Archives: Colombia

Election Preview I: Colombia 2018

Congressional elections were held in Colombia on March 11, 2018. The first round of the presidential election will be held on May 27, 2018 with a second round, if necessary, scheduled for June 17, 2018. Two open presidential primaries were held in parallel to the congressional elections on March 11.

This unusual election preview below includes a lengthy explanation of Colombia’s political institutions and electoral systems, as well as more theoretical and perhaps esoteric reflections on Colombian democracy and politics which may help explain some of the main puzzles or intrigues of the country’s messy and often infuriating politics. Time dependent, I may post a second preview post prior to next Sunday’s first round ballot. I welcome readers’ questions on the topic.

Colombia’s Political and Electoral System

Colombia is a decentralized presidential republic. It has three branches of government – presidential, legislative and judicial – with, in theory, separation of powers and checks and balances. In addition to the three branches, there are two independent autonomous ‘control bodies’ (órganos de control) – the Public Ministry, made up of the Inspector General (Procuraduría General) and the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), and the Comptroller General (Contraloría General). The Inspector General (Procurador, not to be confused with the Attorney General’s office, Fiscalía) monitors compliance with the Constitution and the laws and protects human rights and societal interests, but – more importantly – he wields significant disciplinary power over public officials, allowed to remove them from office and ban them from holding public offices for an extensive range of offences, open to discretion and abuse (see article 278 of the Constitution).

President

Rear entrance of the Casa de Nariño, presidential palace in Bogotá (own picture)

The President of the Republic (Presidente de la República) is the head of state, head of government and supreme administrative authority (and commander-in-chief of the armed forces). The President is directly elected to a single, non-renewable four year term in a two round election, with an absolute majority required to win in the first round. Because Colombia recognizes blank votes (votos en blanco) as valid votes, an absolute majority is not required to win in the runoff.

The original text of the 1991 Constitution limited presidents to a single, non-renewable term, thereby banning both consecutive and non-consecutive reelection (under the previous constitution, written in 1886, non-consecutive reelection was allowed). In 2004, the Constitution was amended to allow one single reelection (either consecutive and non-consecutive), setting a two term limit. In 2009-2010, a highly controversial attempt to hold a citizen-initiated referendum to allow for a second reelection (for a total of three terms) was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in February 2010. The 2015 constitutional reform abolished presidential reelection, returning to the original text of the 1991 Constitution. The President must be a natural-born citizen over the age of 30.

The President freely appoints and dismisses cabinet ministers, diplomats, directors of administrative departments and other heads of public institutions. In addition to these direct appointments, the President nominates three candidates for Attorney General (elected by the Supreme Court for a four-year term), one of the three candidates for Inspector General (elected by the Senate for a four-year term), three of the nine magistrates of the Constitutional Court (elected by the Senate from lists of three nominees, for staggered eight-year terms) and the seven members of the disciplinary jurisdictional chamber of the Supreme Council of Judiciary (elected by Congress from lists of three nominees). The President also appoints five of the seven members of the board of directors of the Bank of the Republic (central bank), in addition to the finance minister and a general director elected by the other members.

Through the government, the executive branch has significant influence over lawmaking – unlike in the United States, ministers can directly introduce pieces of legislation, and in practice it often intervenes throughout the legislative process to ensure approval of the government’s agenda (sometimes using ethically questionable, if not illegal, means). Any piece of legislation passed by Congress must be sanctioned (approved) by the President, as head of government, who has between six and twenty days (depending on the length of the bill) to object to it, either partially or in its entirety. If objected to, a bill is automatically returned to Congress, which can override the presidential objection with the support of an absolute majority of members in both houses, except if the bill is objected to on grounds of unconstitutionality, in which case the bill – if both houses insist – is sent to the Constitutional Court, which rules on the matter within six days.

According to the letter of the Constitution, the President and the government’s key powers include foreign relations, national defence, public order, the management of public administration, the oversight of public services, fiscal and economic policy.

Whereas under the 1886 constitution, the president was all-powerful with weak or nonexistent checks and balances, the 1991 Constitution has – at least in theory, if not always entirely in practice – limited executive prerogatives. For examples, the President’s power to declare states of exception (state of foreign war, state of internal disturbance, state of social, economic or environmental emergency) and rule by decree is limited in time (e.g. the state of internal disturbance is limited to 90 days, renewable twice, the second renewal requiring senatorial approval) and scope (e.g. decrees must be directly related to the situation, the Constitutional Court must rule on the constitutionality of decrees and human rights cannot be suspended).

The Vice President (Vicepresidente de la República) is elected simultaneously to the President on a single ticket (fórmula vicepresidencial). The Vice President’s only constitutional duty is to replace the president during temporary or permanent vacancies, although the President may appoint the Vice President to any office in the executive branch or entrust him/her with special assignments or responsibilities. Historically, since the office’s recreation by the 1991 Constitution, the Vice President has not been a high-profile office, unlike in the United States, and the choice of running-mates during presidential campaigns has received far less attention than in the United States. However, since 2014, there are signs that the vice presidency is becoming a more important office – both in terms of public visibility in office and its possibility as a stepping stone to the presidency. A sitting Vice President cannot run for President unless he/she resigns from office at least one year before the election.

Congress

The Colombian Congress (Congreso) is a bicameral legislature composed of the Senate (Senado) and House of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes), both elected simultaneously for fixed four-year terms beginning on July 20.

Departments of Colombia (source: Wikimedia)

The Senate will have up to 108 seats. 100 are elected in a single national constituency (which includes voters abroad) and two are elected in a special national constituency for indigenous communities. Since the 2015 constitutional reform, the runner-up in the presidential election will be automatically entitled to a seat in the Senate. As part of the November 2016 peace agreement, the FARC will be entitled to at least five seats in the Senate ex officio, for two terms (2018-2022, 2022-2026) regardless of their actual electoral result.

The House of Representatives will have up to 171 seats. 161 are elected in regular territorial constituencies corresponding to the country’s 32 departments and Bogotá (capital district) with each constituency having a minimum of two seats with additional ones for every 365,000 inhabitants (or fraction greater than 182,500 above the first 365,000). The district magnitude for the territorial constituencies vary between 2 and 18.  12 departments have 2 seats, 7 have 3 or 4, 5 have 5, 6 have 6 or 7 and three (Valle, Antioquia, Bogotá) have more than ten (13, 17 and 18 respectively). A 2005 constitutional amendment established that the number of seats by department would be adjusted on the basis of population growth, and that no department would have less seats than it had in 2002, but it has been hard to rigorously apply that rule given that there has been no legally recognized census since 1985 (there will be one this year – assuming they actually remember to recognize it by law, unlike in 2005).

3 are elected in two special national constituencies – one for Afro-Colombians (2 seats) and one for indigenous communities (1 seat). The international expatriates constituency elects one member, down from two. Since the 2015 constitutional reform, the runner-up’s running-mate (vice presidential candidate) in the presidential election will be automatically entitled to a seat in the House. As part of the November 2016 peace agreement, the FARC will be entitled to at least five seats in the House ex officio, for two terms (2018-2022, 2022-2026) regardless of their actual electoral result. The 2015 constitutional reform created a special seat for the raizal community of San Andrés and Providencia, but it has not yet been implemented by secondary legislation.

Both houses are equal in the regular legislative process, and bills may originate in either house with two exceptions (revenue bills in the House, international relations bills in the Senate). Both houses have exclusive powers, which, on balance, make the Senate superior in the formal constitutional hierarchy. The Senate, among other things, elects the magistrates of the Constitutional Court and the Inspector General (Procurador General), approves the resignations of the President and Vice President, allows the transit of foreign troops and authorizes declarations of war. The House’s exclusive powers are of lesser importance, although, like in the United States, it begins and votes on impeachment proceedings against senior public officials including the President the judges of the three highest courts (the trial is held in the Senate, although its conviction powers are limited). The House’s Commission of Accusations – which recommends articles of impeachment – is where accusations against senior public officials go to die, earning it the nickname “commission of absolutions”.

Congress of the Republic in Bogotá (own picture)

In political culture, the Senate is clearly hierarchically superior and more prestigious, with the House being a stepping stone to the Senate in the typical political career path. Senators, in part because because they are elected in a single national constituency, are far more well-known and receive the bulk of media coverage and attention, while few representatives get national attention (those who do are those from Bogotá, often there on the way to higher places). Senatorial candidates usually unofficially run with one or more candidates for the House as a fórmula or ‘ticket’ – a way of coordinating or managing vote distribution in a competitive preferential vote system. The fórmula also have a clear clientelist function: the senator is the cacique, while his/her representatives are the operators or gamonales. But ‘non-clientelist’ senators also run with a fórmula. The fórmulas also show that, despite the national constituency, many senators have regionally-concentrated bases of support, in the most extreme of cases not extending beyond the boundaries of their departments. Senators are seen – by themselves, by voters, by observers and by analysts – as representing their region or department, and it is rather simple after each election to calculate ‘how many’ senators each department has. Most of the smaller departments are unrepresented in the Senate (unlike before 1991, when senators, like representatives were elected by department) — there have been proposals, most recently in the first versions of the 2015 constitutional reform, to create territorial constituencies to provide senatorial representation to the smaller departments.

Electoral system for Congress

Both houses of Congress are elected by proportional representation. The threshold is 3% of the valid national vote (Senate), half of the quota (House districts with 3 or more seats) or a third of the quota (House districts with 2 seats).

Parties run a single list by constituency which may be either closed (non-preferential) or open (preferential). For closed lists, the list of candidates is pre-ordered and cannot be altered, and voters only mark the party’s logo on the ballot. For open lists, voters may vote for one individual candidate on the party’s list, identified on the ballot by a number. The list is entirely re-ordered based on the number of preferential votes obtained by each candidate, with the allocation of seats done in descending order, beginning with the candidate who has the most votes. Voters may also vote only for the party list, but that vote is valid only for purposes of the threshold but not for reordering the list. Most parties run open lists, which allow for different political factions to aggregate under a single party but to avoid any infighting over list ordering.

Seats are first distributed between parties (lists) using the d’Hondt method/cifra repartidora and only then between candidates on the lists, so there is an incentive for vote pooling – or to recruit individual candidates who will win enough votes on their own to help their party over the threshold.

The current electoral system, somewhat unique in the world although similar to the Brazilian electoral system, was adopted by the 2003 political reform. Prior to 2003, Colombia’s electoral system was an astounding monstrosity – officially a closed-list single quota largest remainder (SQLR) system, parties could run more than one list per constituency, so in practice it was essentially a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) because so few lists reached the quota so the bulk of seats were allocated to lists in descending order of largest remainders. Parties – particularly the Liberal Party – came to understand that they could win more seats by running multiple list, perfecting a widespread practice which was known as operación avispa, conjuring up an image of a swarm of wasps (avispas). This electoral system reinforced and worsened the extreme personalism of Colombia’s political system, and led to the collapse of the traditional party system as personalist factions became recognized one-man ‘political parties’, the so-called microempresas electorales (electoral micro-businesses).

The 2002 congressional elections illustrate the sheer horror of the pre-reform electoral system. For the 100 seats in the Senate’s national constituencies, there were 321 personal lists from 63 parties (148 of them from the Liberal Party), with 96 lists from 41 parties obtaining seats. Only 12 seats were attributed on the basis of the quota, all other seats were therefore distributed by largest remainder, i.e. essentially SNTV. Only three lists won more than one seat.

The new electoral system, first used in the 2006 elections, was initially med by cautious optimism in the electoral studies literature. After four elections under the new system, it has – unsurprisingly – not been the silver bullet. Its greatest success has been to significantly reduce the number of parties, if only by re-ordering personalist electoral competition under the umbrella of a reduced number of recognized parties. There are fewer parties, artificially upheld by arbitrarily rigid legislation on political parties, but it is questionable whether parties are any stronger as a result. Most parties run open lists, which means that congressional campaigns remain focused on the person (candidate) rather than the party and, much like under the pre-reform electoral system, parties therefore still have very little incentive to develop coherent policy platforms for congressional elections. Open lists tend to encourage or aggravate problems including excessive personalism, internal fragmentation of parties, expensive campaigns, vote buying, clientelism, infiltration of illegal money or groups and lower female representation. The design of the ballot paper – with individual candidates, up to 100 in the Senate’s national constituency, identified by a number in a small box – is confusing to voters, so there has been a high number of unmarked or invalid votes in congressional elections (16% in 2014). Political reforms in 2015 and 2017 included proposals to gradually move towards mandatory closed lists, but this provision was removed from the 2015 reform and the 2017 political reform died. However, it is also debatable whether closed lists would be the silver bullet – you cannot change a political culture where personalism is so ingrained only through electoral reform, and intra-party democracy remains very poorly developed in Colombia (despite constitutional and legal mandates for it) so there is some degree of ‘fear’ that closed lists would lead to the ‘dictatorship of the pen’. Unfortunately, valid compromise solutions between the open lists and mandatory closed lists – like semi-open lists – are rarely taken seriously.

The sheer number of congressional candidates (2,737 in 2018) makes the vote counting process lengthy and open to manipulation and fraud, without most people noticing, particularly with individual candidates who are only a few thousand votes for gaining or losing a seat. The most serious recent case of evidenced electoral fraud is the MIRA party, which fell below the 3% threshold in the 2014 elections and lost three seats in the Senate. In February 2018, after a gargantuan process, the Council of State ruled in the party’s favour and ordered the party’s top three candidates to be sworn in as senators (although with only a few months left in the term). In short, the Council of State’s ruling (ref. # 11001-03-28-00-2014-00117-00) found evidence of unexplained irregularities (differences between individual precinct results and official consolidated results), valid votes for the party being counted as invalid because of pens’ ink stains and irregular actions in the log archives of the vote count software. Similar allegations have been made about some of the results in the March 2018 elections.

All ballots include a box for a blank vote – voto en blanco – which is counted as a valid vote. Unmarked ballots and invalid votes (mistakes, marking more than one box etc.) are counted separately but do not count as valid votes. According to article 258 of the Constitution, an election must be repeated if there is a plurality of blank votes (prior to the 2009 political reform, it required an absolute majority of blank votes). In the event that a congressional election must be repeated, lists which did not reach the threshold may not participate. There were a plurality of blank votes in the 2014 Andean Parliament elections and the 2006 and 2010 elections for the indigenous special constituency, but these elections were not repeated because of the high costs it would have involved for ‘unimportant’ elections which draw exceedingly low turnout to begin with. In fact, Colombia abolished direct elections to the Andean Parliament, a little-known talking shop widely dismissed as irrelevant, after 2014.

The ‘special constituencies’ for indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians

The Senate has a special constituency for indigenous peoples which returns two senators, and the House has special constituencies for Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples which return two and one representatives. These special constituencies were created by the 1991 Constitution to ensure special representation for groups which had hitherto been largely underrepresented in the political process.

Unlike with the Maori seats in New Zealand, there is no separate ‘electoral roll’ for Afro-Colombians or indigenous peoples, so all the different constituencies appear on the same ballot and it is up to the voter whether to vote in the national/territorial constituencies or in one of the special constituencies – but you may only vote in one (this only adds to ballot design confusion). In practice, the ‘black’ and indigenous seats are elected by very few voters – in 2014, 0.8% of votes were cast for the indigenous seat in the House (116k), 1.7% of votes were cast for the Afro seats (237k). Slightly more votes (310k or 2.2%) were cast for the two indigenous seats in the Senate. Yet, in the 2005 census, at least 1.4 million identified as indigenous and 4.1 million as Afro-Colombian.

Candidates for the indigenous constituencies must have held a position of traditional authority in their community or have been leader of an indigenous organization (accredited by the organization and confirmed by the Ministry of Interior). Candidates for the Afro constituency in the House must be “members of the respective community” and endorsed by an organization registered with the Directorate of Affairs for Black Communities of the Ministry of Interior – a much vaguer definition, which has been inconsistently applied and resulted in endless obscure legal battles. Since 2011, national parties cannot legally run for the special seats, which are therefore only contested by supposedly ethnic/racial parties or groups, which do not have to meet the threshold to maintain their party registration and face very little legal scrutiny from the authorities. The opposite, however, is not true: Indigenous and Afro-Colombian parties can endorse candidates in other elections and constituencies, which has turned many of them into highly prized ‘endorsement factories’ (fábrica de avales) or wholesale satellite parties. The 2003 electoral reform, which also extended to the special constituencies, paradoxically increased inter-party competition and party fragmentation — because it is very difficult for a single party list to be able to win both seats (a similar trend occurred in departments of low district magnitude).

The sparse literature on the special ethnic minority constituencies is largely critical and negative, for good reason. The Afro constituency has turned into a freak show, which has failed to provide any effective group representation for Afro-Colombian communities — the seats have, since 2002, gone either to celebrities or criminals, neither of which have proven to be particularly talented at representing the communities they are supposed to represent. The seats have increasingly little legitimacy in the eyes of many Afro-Colombian community leaders and activists, who have turned to NGOs and even the Congressional Black Caucus in the US to lobby for their interests.

The 2014 elections for the Afro seats turned into an absurd circus. Both seats went to the ‘Ebony Foundation of Colombia’ (Funeco), an obscure group controlled by the controversial Yahir Acuña (Afro representative 2010-14, regular representative 2014-15), investigated for parapolítica. The kicker: both of the two Afro representatives were whites (and both of them equally as shady as Yahir). Their election was challenged in court(s) on various grounds (including that they did not represent the black population), which began a protracted legal battle with a confusing series of contradictory rulings and judicial orders between and within jurisdictions – a circus whose absurdity was complemented by the death of one of the representatives, who had never been able to take her seat, which obviously began a new legal battle about who should replace her. In 2016, the election of the other representative was finally invalidated by the Council of State, which later ruled that only candidates endorsed by Afro-Colombian community councils (rather than ‘base organizations’) were allowed to run. This meant that the open seat went to the strongest candidate endorsed by a community council – which in this case was former Miss Colombia Vanessa Mendoza, who won only 500 or so votes on a list which finished sixteenth.

Eligibility and ballot access

Senators need to be natural-born citizens over 30, representatives need to be citizens over 25.

Inside courtyard of the Congress (own picture)

Anyone who has been imprisoned (except for political offences and criminal negligence); held public employment within the year prior the election; participated in business transactions with public entities or concluded contracts with them; holds ties of marriage or kinship with civil servants holding civil or political authority and those who have previously lost their congressional mandate (investidura) are ineligible; as are relatives through marriage or kinship in the same party.

Breaking the rules of ineligibility, incompatibility and conflict of interest lead to the loss of one’s mandate (investidura) – as does absenteeism, embezzlement of public funds and influence peddling. The loss of congressional mandate/investiture (pérdida de investidura), commonly known as ‘political death’, is any congressman’s greatest fear. It is decreed by the Council of State within 20 days of a request being made by the bureau of the corresponding chamber or by any citizen.

Congressmen, like all other civil servants, may be removed from office by the Inspector General (Procurador General) on ‘disciplinary grounds’ like breaking the law, infringing on the Constitution or deriving undue profit from the office. Incumbent congressmen may only be arrested and tried by the Supreme Court. A 2018 constitutional amendment guarantees congressmen and other aforados the right to a ‘double instance’ in trials – in other words, the right to appeal.

The 1991 Constitution’s aim of ‘opening’ the political system to new actors inadvertently led to the complete collapse of the party system by 2002, and strengthening and ordering the party system became one of the core objectives of the 2003 political reform – and subsequent political reforms. As a result, Colombia has rigid laws on political parties (Law 1745 of 2011) which provide, in theory, for hefty sanctions to parties and politicians who break them. Membership in more than one party (doble militancia) – which may also mean publicly campaigning for the candidate of a party other than your own – is banned, and this also requires incumbent elected officials who wish to seek reelection for a different party than they one they were elected with must resign their seats twelve months before the candidate registration period begins. Floor crossing is banned (although exceptional floor crossing windows were opened following the 2003 and 2009 political reform), which is understandable in a proportional representation system, but in Colombia this has led to absurdities like congressmen being kept a member of his party against his will, begging for expulsion to no avail.

There are basically two ways to make it to the ballot in Colombia. It is not overly difficult.

  • Endorsement by a legally recognized political party or movement. Parties lose their legal recognition if they win less than 3% of valid votes nationally for either the Senate or the House.
  • Gathering signatures as a ‘significant group of citizens’ (grupo significativo de ciudadanos) – 50,000 for Senate, 3% of valid votes in the last presidential election for President, 20% of the result of dividing the departmental electoral roll by number of seats to be filled for the House. Candidates who obtain ballot access by gathering signatures are colloquially known as candidatos por firmas (‘candidates by signatures’), similar to candidates by nominating petition in the US.

The law now allows for coalition candidates – registered with several parties or ‘significant group of citizens’ – for uninominal offices (president, mayors, governors) and the 2015 constitutional reform allows parties, who have won up to 15% of the vote combined, to run coalition lists for collegiate bodies (like Congress).

Electoral administration

Colombia’s electoral administration infrastructure is messy and convoluted. It is made up, primarily, of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) and the National Civil Registrar (Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil) although the Council of State has the power to nullify election results. The CNE is made up of nine members elected by Congress for a four-year term, proportionally between candidates proposed by parties or coalitions. It regulates, inspects, controls and monitors the activities of political parties, certifies election results, hears complaints against electoral results and procedures, legally recognizes political parties, oversees electoral campaigns, regulates campaign finance and revokes candidacies for ineligibilities. Yet, the CNE is not an electoral court or tribunal like in many other Latin American countries, and its investigative powers and capacities are very limited in practice. The CNE is an ineffective, woefully inefficient, politicized and incompetent institution where files go to die. Despite an abundance of proposals – from politicians and civil society alike – to reform Colombia’s messy electoral infrastructure, all three existing bodies – particularly the CNE and Council of State – tend to be zealously protective of their established interests and hostile towards any change (most proposals would involve abolishing the CNE and creating an effective ‘electoral tribunal’ like Mexico’s TEPJF)

The National Civil Registrar, chosen by the presidents of the three highest courts for a four-year term, has several non-electoral duties (civil status, civil registry, birth and death certificates, national ID cards) but its electoral duties include candidate registration, voter registration, organizing and running electoral processes (including setting up voting locations, counting the votes and reporting results). If the CNE is widely derided as ineffective and politicized, the Registraduría is sometimes held in rather high regard as an effective and independent electoral body in Latin America.

Colombia’s democracy and political system

According to the 2017 edition of Freedom in the World, Colombia is a ‘partly free’ electoral democracy with an overall score of 65/100 (slightly higher than Mexico). In their view, continued violence and insecurity as a result of the internal armed conflict remains the main threat to civil and political liberties – a view which is far from wrong, although perhaps somewhat simplistic. The Economist’s Democracy Index ranks Colombia 53rd overall, as a ‘flawed democracy’, on par with Poland and a bit behind Brazil and Argentina.

The paradoxes of Colombian politics

Colombia’s democracy and political system – and their problems – require some greater explanations and comments. Colombia’s history and politics have long tended to stand out in South America as an ‘exception’ or ‘paradoxical’. The country of magical realism lives up to its name. Colombia is one of the oldest democracies in Latin America – although its actual qualification as a democracy for many of these periods is questionable – with a long tradition of regularly scheduled elections, peaceful transfer of power and quasi-uninterrupted civilian rule since the nineteenth century. The first peaceful transfer of power following an electoral-type event occurred as early as 1837. During the Depression era (1930), a very turbulent period in Latin America which saw several coups or uprisings, regime change in Colombia came through electoral means with an opposition victory in the presidential elections – although this election quickly sparked a wave of partisan violence. Presidents who didn’t serve their full constitutional terms have been the exception than the rule – unlike in Ecuador, where a president serving their full constitutional term was an extraordinary achievement until very recently. Unlike most South American countries, Colombia has had very few successful military coups and few military regimes – the most recent and famous one being General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957), who came to power in a quick coup described as a golpe de opinión by civilian supporters, and who was promptly removed from power as soon as he lost the support of the civilian political elite which had initially backed him. However, while Colombia is one of the “oldest democracies” on the continent, it is also a country with a long history of political violence, expressed in a dozen-odd civil wars in the nineteenth century, the madness of the Violencia or the barbarity of the current armed conflict in all its plural forms. Regular elections and civilian rule (not necessarily real democracy) have, for long periods of time, coexisted and collided with political violence and internal conflict.

A weak and illegitimate state

Mauricio García Villegas (2009) highlighted two structural features of the Colombian political system – the ‘inefficiency’ of the state, or its inability to control certain territories or impose its decision; and the ‘illegitimacy’ of the state, which he claims stems from the hyper-politicized nature of political debate. The Colombian state is one which has often failed to meet Max Weber’s basic definition of the state – holding a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory” – both because it lacks a monopoly on the (legitimate) use of violence (and has, at times, even willingly conceded or subcontracted this monopoly) and because it has failed to control significant parts of its national territory. Colombia is a geographically fragmented country, with a difficult terrain and topography which has made transportation and communication difficult, even today (look at a road map of Colombia). Large swathes of the country – like the Llanos Orientales (Orinoquía) or the Amazon – remained unsettled after independence in the nineteenth century, and colonization processes in these and other ‘frontier’ regions were often conflictual, with the state unable to impose its authority and seldom appearing as a neutral arbitrer in land rights conflicts. An additional cause behind of the state’s historic weakness is that, after independence, a small and poor central government in Bogotá subcontracted the task of nation-building and regional development to intermediaries – the Catholic Church, hacendadosgamonalescaciques and (after the 1840s) political parties, thereby laying the foundations of a clientelistic political system which has endured to the present-day. Clientelism, mediated by the two traditional parties, became the primary means of integrating and mobilizing local populations into a weak national political community, but it also entrenched a corrupt, exclusivist and oligarchic political system.

An additional oft-cited factor in the weakness and fragmentation of the Colombian nation-state is the absence of a unifying national myth – like the Mexican Revolution in contemporary Mexico. Two historical figures who could have played the role of uncontested unifying national icons, Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander, have long been identified with particular political/ideological factions – Bolívar with conservatism (and, in the later twentieth century, radical leftist ‘revolutionaries’) and Santander with liberalism. Bolívar and Santander, among other historical figures of independence, are honoured and memorialized as ‘founding fathers’, but not nearly to the same extent as Bolívar’s cult worship by the chavista regime in Venezuela or even Mexico’s patriotic heroes.

Partisanship, violence and elusive legitimacy in Colombia

Colombia’s two traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives – rojos y azules (reds and blues), were founded at roughly the same time in the mid-1840s or early 1850s, one in reaction to the other. The parties were founded before the state was consolidated and became key actors in the imagination and inculcation of a precarious national identity. With the Catholic Church, they were among the few institutions which provided a semblance of ‘national unity’ over a large, fragmented geography. These parties became authentic inimical political subcultures, with large bases of followers cutting across class and regional boundaries, perceiving the adversary as an enemy. This sectarianism, or ‘inherited hatreds’, led to a succession of civil wars in the nineteenth century and was the initial trigger for the Violencia in the 1950s. Partisan competition for power, which took place both at the ballot box and on battlefields, was violent and losers often found themselves excluded from power. The state, rather than a neutral or autonomous arbitrer, became a commodity with little autonomy from partisan politics.

Throughout Colombian history, regardless of ideology or partisanship, violence has often appeared as an appropriate – if not the only – way to resolve political, social, economic and cultural disputes. Carl von Clausewitz said “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, but in Colombia it often seems as if “politics is the continuation of war by other means”. Violence has been a defining factor of Colombian politics, and unfortunately often the main stereotype foreigners associate with the country.

For ‘left-wing’ guerrillas in the 1960s, ‘defeating the system’, revolution and profound social changes were only possible through armed struggle, and cycles of repression and frustrated peace openings reinforced that view among guerrillas in subsequent decades – for far longer than any other revolutionary guerrillas in Latin America. ‘Right-wing’ paramilitaries felt that violence was the only means to defeat ‘communist subversives’, protect private property or defend (or re-create) a very authoritarian far-right fatherland (patria). Hacendados (particularly cattle ranchers – ganaderos), later joined by the new narco-landowners of the early 1980s, felt that violence – ‘self-defence’ – was the only way to protect their property and business model from guerrilla extortion, harassment and kidnapping. Some politicians, to win elections and retain power, have conspired to physically eliminate their rivals and critics – for example, Liberal senator and regional baron Alberto Santofimio, connected to Pablo Escobar, was finally convicted in 2011 for his role in the August 1989 assassination of rival Liberal presidential pre-candidate Luis Carlos Galán. Certain particularly vulnerable groups – human rights activists, social and community leaders, land restitution activists, trade unionists and journalists – continue to be targeted because of their work, with over 200 social leaders and human rights activists assassinated since 2016 according to the Ombudsman (as of March 2018), increasing to an alarming level in 2017 and 2018. Land conflicts, territorial disputes and illegal economic interests (mining, coca cultivation, drug trafficking, contraband etc.) are often the main reasons behind the murder of social leaders in Colombia. But beyond politically-motivated violence and the armed conflict, interpersonal and domestic violence is a widespread – in 2017, at least 1,800 homicides were the result of ‘interpersonal violence’ (fights or settling of scores) or domestic violence.

Following the bloodshed of the Violencia, triggered by partisan sectarianism, Colombia’s bipartisan elites agreed to a formal power-sharing system, the National Front, which was intended to end traditional partisan violence by removing the main object of dispute (single-party control of state power) and giving both parties access to the state and all its entails (bureaucracy, patronage). Unlike the Puntofijo Pact of 1958 in Venezuela, which led to the consolidation of the two-party system around AD and COPEI which survived until the early 1990s and Hugo Chávez, the National Front in Colombia was a formal, constitutionally and legally entrenched power-sharing mechanism between two parties (and no-one else) which formally lasted until 1974 and informally until 1986. Between 1958 and 1974, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in the presidency, seats in elected bodies (Congress, departmental assemblies and municipal councils) were divided equally between both parties, cabinet positions and other bureaucratic appointments were also split equally between the two parties and the bulk of laws initially required two-thirds super-majorities for adoption. All other parties were excluded from political or electoral participation, although in practice they could participate as disguised ‘factions’ of either party. While the strict 50/50 division of legislative seats ended in 1974 and the requirements for ‘parity’ between both parties in ministries, public administration and local government expired in 1978, article 120 of the 1886 Constitution required that appointments in the executive branch and public administration continue to be done in such a way that “adequate and equitable participation” was given to the opposition party. Only in 1986 did the opposition party – the Conservatives – refuse to participate in government.

Academic and popular opinions on the National Front are largely negative, and its restrictive character is often blamed as a cause of the armed conflict. The National Front’s primary achievement was ending traditional partisan violence, although in hindsight it perhaps merely replaced that with new forms of violence. The National Front’s effect on the political system was, however, particularly negative. The absence of inter-party political competition drained both traditional parties of their ideological contents and political identities, reducing the political system to its clientelistic forms. During this time period, professional or brokerage clientelism, dependent on access to public administration and resources, replaced traditional agrarian clientelism, based on hierarchical patron-client relations between hacendados and peasants. A new emergent class of ‘professional politicians’ gained power based on their control clientelist relationships based on vote buying, personal favours and brokering access to public resources or jobs. The National Front further fragmented the two parties and the elites. The loss of strongly-defined political identities reinforced the Liberals and Conservatives’ characters as federations of local and regional clientelist networks. National leaders lost their pre-eminence over regional leaders and both parties – but especially the Liberal Party – became highly factionalized and without much national cohesion. The predominance of regional caciques became particularly clear under Liberal President Julio César Turbay (1978-1982).

Given the ‘illegitimacy’ of the state and the restrictive nature of the political system, it is no surprise that democratization and political reform have been major issues on every successive government’s agenda since the 1980s – culminating in the progressive 1991 Constitution, but continuing beyond as the imperfections and shortcomings of the 1991 Constitution quickly became obvious. However, the strength of traditional regional and local clientelistic politicians in Congress, who have an obvious stake in ensuring that political practices are not changed in ways that could threaten their interests, but also the zealously guarded self-interests of other branches and public institutions like the judiciary, has blocked or weakened many, if not most, attempts at meaningful political reform since the late 1990s. Recent Colombian political history is cemetery of failed or watered-down attempts at political reform which all began, in theory, with the best of intentions – increasing popular participation, building a more inclusive political system, opening the political system to new actors, reforming broken or corrupted institutions, moralizing public life and so forth. The most recent example being the 2017 political reform (which never was).

Hybrid institutions

Mauricio García Villegas argued that in Colombia, “institutional stability and formal routines of law coexist with authoritarian and degraded institutional practices. This gives rise to a hybrid – or informal – institutionality which favours the reproduction of violence and legitimacy deficit.” This idea of ‘regime juxtaposition’ is fairly common in accounts of Colombia’s political and institutional history – Fernán González claimed that Colombian history has been characterized by the “coexistence of a modern state, with formally democratic institutions and a more or less consolidated central bureaucracy; and an informal structure of power represented by the traditional party system, which operate as two opposing but complementary federations of local and regional clientelist networks”. The coexistence of formal democratic institutions in the ‘centre’ with informal or authoritarian structures, especially at a subnational level, is not unique to Colombia: Edward Gibson showed how ‘subnational authoritarianisms’ subsisted in democratic states like Mexico (Oaxaca), Argentina (Santiago del Estero) or even in the American South before the Civil Rights movement. The gap between the theory (or written word) and actual practice, between de jure and de facto, has always been wide in Colombian politics and law – and it likely widened with the 1991 Constitution, which theoretically provides a progressive, democratic estado social de derecho which has not always been translated into actual practice by the institutions it created. Therefore, a hybrid or informal space – existing between formal legality and illegality – has been a feature of Colombian public life. This hybrid space is, among others, ‘populated’ by corrupt clientelism with its bureaucratic patronage ‘quotas’ (cuotas), pork-barrel spending/’marmalade’ (mermelada) and backstage alliances with unsavoury characters.

Prior to 1991, the classic example of this hybrid space were the quasi-permanent ‘state of siege’ under article 121 of the 1886 Constitution. In cases of ‘internal disturbance’, the president could indefinitely declare a ‘state of siege’ giving him extraordinary powers to ‘restore public order’ and legislate by decree, with very weak checks and balances from the legislative or judiciary. After 1949, this exception became the norm – between 1970 and 1991, Colombia lived 206 months (17 years out of 21) under states of exception; between 1949 and 1991, Colombia lived for more than 30 years under states of exception. These ‘states of siege’ were used by successive ‘democratic governments’ not only to fight the guerrillas and other threats to public order, but also against social protests and to impose several restrictions on civil liberties – like Turbay’s security statute (1978), which expanded military tribunals’ jurisdiction over civilians and imposed incommutable detention for (among others) occupying public spaces, disobeying authorities or ‘subversive propaganda’. The 1991 Constitution has imposed strict limits and controls on the use of such powers, although politicians still have the temptation to use these powers for reasons other than what they were intended for.

More recent political scandals – parapolíticayidispolítica, the ‘capture’ of the DAS (former intelligence agency), chuzadas (illegal wiretaps), DMG pyramid schemes or the two major scandals of 2017, Odebrecht and the ‘cartel of the toga’ (corruption in the high courts) – are further examples of this hybrid space, as well as how the hybrid informality dangerously overlaps with illegality (parapolítica).

Ironically given the history of political violence and ‘hybrid institutionality’, Colombia is a highly legalistic country. Many political disputes end up being fought out between lawyers in courts. Colombian historiography pays great attention to specific laws and decrees over history and to issues of justice in the context of armed conflict. The Colombian judiciary, despite being widely distrusted by Colombians as inefficient or corrupt, has been more politically independent and robust than in other countries in the region (Venezuela, Honduras, Ecuador etc.). Francisco de Paula Santander’s famous phrase “Colombianos, las armas os han dado la independencia, las leyes os darán la libertad (Colombians, weapons have given you independence, the laws will give you freedom) is inscribed on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá.

The Constitutional Court, created by the 1991 Constitution, has gained major political importance with its decisions and powers of judicial review, and is often considered as one of the most significant constitutional tribunals of the ‘global south’ along with South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The Colombian Constitutional Court has taken it upon itself to ensure that the constitution’s words and principles are upheld by politicians. It has been, less so today but particularly in the 1990s, an ‘activist’ tribunal which has attempted to contribute to the structural transformation of public and private life. The Court has delivered very significant decisions regarding social and economic rights, personal autonomy, religious freedom, equality, victims’ rights, separation of powers and constitutional amendments. Beyond the overarching debate on the desirability of ‘judicial activism’, the Court has faced fair criticism for its decisions – particularly its tendency to zealously protect the ‘corporate interests’ of the judiciary from reform, but on the whole it has contributed to strengthening the word of the 1991 Constitution in practice and protected the fundamental rights of disadvantaged or marginalized groups (IDPs, victims, sexual minorities, religious minorities, indigenous peoples, the poor etc.). From a political standpoint, the Court has become an all-important arena for legal/political debate.

The acción de tutela (legal recourse for the protection of fundamental constitutional rights, similar to an amparo), created by the 1991 Constitution, has become the most popular and widespread legal mechanism to demand speedy protection or remedy of one’s fundamental constitutional rights from a public institution. Between 1991 and 2011, 4 million tutelas were submitted in the country. While the tutela has made the constitution an accessible living document for people, successive governments have tried to limit or regulate the use of the tutela, claiming that it has been abused and led to ever-longer delays, backlogs and clashes between different courts (choque de trenes) – but also because tutelas are increasingly used against the government’s actions (or inaction) on matters beyond basic fundamental rights. So far, attempts to limit the use of the tutela have been unsuccessful.

While the three highest courts – the Constitutional Council, Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State – have not been spared of corruption scandals, controversies and cuestionamientos (‘questions’), especially in recent years, all three have played positive protagonist roles in exposing and sanctioning political corruption, criminal alliances and official misconduct (notably with the parapolítica scandal). Nevertheless, local courts and prosecutors tend to be weaker and less politically independent, more liable to being ‘captured’ by political, economic or criminal interests. While it is difficult to distinguish rhetoric from reality amidst so much crying over ‘political persecution’, it is clear that the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía) may be politically biased or selective in its investigations and the timing of such investigations. Many Colombians distrust or dislike the judiciary as inefficient, corrupt, slow, biased or ‘too soft’ (a popular political idea for years now has been imposing mandatory life sentences for child rapists). Many common offences and crimes – like robberies or homicides – go unreported, unsolved or bogged down, while authorities have been unable or unwilling to prosecute serious crimes like forced displacement or criminal money laundering.

Civilian-military relations in Colombian history

As aforementioned, one of the peculiarities of Colombian political history is the relative absence of military rule and consistent civilian rule. In the 1960s and 1970s,  when most South American countries were ruled by authoritarian military dictatorships – Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru (an ‘odd’ military regime) – Colombia often stood alone, with Venezuela, as a civilian democracy with regular competitive elections, notwithstanding the restrictive nature of this ‘democratic’ system. The Colombian armed forces never became a prestigious institution standing above party politics guaranteeing ‘national unity’ as they did in other countries in the continent. The modus vivendi of the National Front, established by its first president, Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962), was that the military would not interfere with civilian politics while the civilians would not interfere with the military on matters of public order. Military officers who strayed from this path, like General Alberto Ruiz Novoa, who argued that military operations against guerrillas should be accompanied by socioeconomic development programs in those regions, were dismissed.

On matters of public order and national security, the military has typically enjoyed broad autonomy (and, until recently, impunity for human rights abuses) and it has continuously sought guarantees of legal security and other political concessions from civilian politicians. For example, in December 2012, Congress adopted a constitutional amendment reforming the military criminal justice system, granting it purview over all crimes committed by military personnel in active service and in relation to such service – with the exception of an exhaustive list of seven particularly egregious war crimes – and guaranteeing that they would be tried under the law of war (international humanitarian law) rather than ordinary criminal law/human rights law. In addition, the military’s judicial police gained preferential power to collect evidence on the scene and decide whether the investigation should be handled by military criminal justice or the ordinary courts – since 2006, the Attorney General’s (Fiscalía) judicial police had the right to collect evidence and decide who would handle the case. The 2012 reform effectively made trial by military courts the rule rather than the exception, reversing the Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence (from 1997). This controversial reform was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court in October 2013, and in 2015, with much less scrutiny, Congress adopted a less thorough second reform of the military criminal justice system, which guarantees that punishable conduct of military personnel during an armed conflict will be tried under international humanitarian law, with no exhaustive list of excluded crimes.

Nevertheless, civilian-military relations have not always been cordial. Large sectors of the military leadership opposed presidents Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002)’s peace processes with the guerrillas, while the military leadership – led by General Harold Bedoya (commander, 1996-1997) – repeatedly clashed with President Ernesto Samper’s embattled administration (1994-1998) over security strategy as the armed conflict escalated to unprecedented levels in the mid-1990s. It is also clear that many sectors of the military – active officers, retired personnel, battalions, local units – participated and collaborated in the creation of paramilitary groups or autodefensas beginning in the 1960s and were complicit in paramilitary violence. A 1965 decree, passed into permanent legislation in 1968, was interpreted by the military as legal authorization for the formation and training of ‘civilian’ autodefensa (paramilitary) groups and their armament with military-grade weaponry. In 1969, the armed forces’ counterinsurgency manual authorized the creation of juntas de autodefensa, groups of civilians armed and trained by the military to participate in counterinsurgency tasks. According to the prosecutor general’s infamous 1983 report on the Muerte a Secuestradores (Death to Kidnappers, MAS) – sometimes erroneously considered as the first paramilitary group, run and financed by the Medellín Cartel – out of 163 people on which there was sufficient proof for indictment, 59 were military personnel in active service.

Populism and inclusive democracy in Colombia

A distinctive peculiarity of Colombian political history is the absence or weakness of populism, at least until 2002. Populist leaders like Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1946) or Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1970) were defeated or – some would argue – prevented from obtaining power. Colombia has therefore lacked the emblematic populist leaders like those found in nearly every other Latin American country. Instead, Colombian presidents have often tended to be rather gray or even dull figures drawn from the ‘national political elite’, particularly the bogotano oligarchy/’aristocracy’, or political dynasties. In a 1999 article, Marco Palacios argued that “the absence of populism in Colombia led to political and social violence, while in neighbouring Venezuela populism facilitated the democracy agreed to in 1958 and the realization of a set of social reforms”. A more positive appraisal on the absence of populism in Colombia would point out that it was sparred the economic mismanagement, rash and irresponsible policy-making or chronic political instability which plagued so many other countries in the region, starting with neighbouring Ecuador. It is rather telling that, even in the current elections, some candidates who would likely be seen as ‘populists’ in other countries are presenting themselves as ‘responsible’ alternatives to a ‘populist danger’.

Undoubtedly connected to the above, Colombia’s fragmented political elites were unable or, more accurately, unwilling to integrate new social groups – the ‘popular’ and middle ‘sectors’ – into the political system, unlike in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru or even Ecuador. Whatever integration of new social groups took place in Colombia tended to be more instrumental or manipulative, often through cooptation by the traditional parties. Granted, contemporary Colombian democracy, for all its faults, is far more inclusive than it was and ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ social and political groups have achieved some degree of electoral success, particularly in urban middle-class areas.  Yet, Colombian politics remain – perhaps more so than in other Latin American democracies – dominated by the dynamics of local clientelism, exchange of favours, unsavoury alliances of convenience, nepotism, political corruption, short-term political opportunism and the blurred boundaries of illegality.

In addition, certain social groups – settler frontier peasants (campesinos), landless peasants, the urban poor, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples – have historically tended to be excluded or marginalized from the political system altogether. In his work on paramilitarism and regional elites in Córdoba, Mauricio Romero argued that certain regional elites developed a ‘political identity’ opposed to social mobilization and the autonomy of subaltern groups, therefore perceiving any sort of alternative socio-political mobilization by these groups (landless peasants, squatters, enclave economy workers etc.) as an outgroup threat.

Taken together, the inefficiency and illegitimacy of the state have created conditions conducive to the development of violence. But this is a very simplistic view which fails to account for the complexities of violence in Colombia, particularly in the context of the current armed conflict, and of the economic interests and rationale behind much of the contemporary forms of violence in Colombia.

A politically apathetic society

Colombia is a politically apathetic country – a critical element which often gets left out of commentary on Colombian politics. In the last World Values Survey, only 25% of Colombians were ‘very interested’ or ‘somewhat interested’ by politics against 75% who were ‘not very interested’ or ‘not at all interested’ (49.5%) by politics. This very low level of political interests compares to 59% interest in the United States and 62% in Germany but is also low compared to other Latin American countries like Brazil (37%), Argentina (32%), Ecuador (32%) or Mexico (30%).

Voter turnout in national-level elections (presidential, congressional) in Colombia is consistently among the lowest in the Americas. Unlike many other countries in the region, Colombia doesn’t have compulsory voting, which makes turnout comparisons with neighbouring countries difficult. However, comparing the most recent presidential elections in Latin America and the Caribbean, only Chile in 2017 (46.7% turnout in first round, 49% in runoff) and Haiti in 2016 (18% turnout) had turnout as low or lower than Colombia’s 2014 presidential election (40.1% in first round, 48% in runoff). Turnout has been below 50% in every national-level election since the 1998 presidential elections. The 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement had a turnout of just 37.4%, the lowest turnout in any election since the 2003 referendum (24% turnout). However, unlike in most countries, turnout is higher in local elections – for mayors, governors and local assemblies – reaching 59% in 2015, the highest local turnout since the first direct mayoral elections in 1988.

Turnout in Colombian congressional elections (House) 1935-2014

Turnout varies between elections and across regions, depending on the stakes but also on the differential mobilization of traditional clientelist political machines – which operate at ‘full speed’ in local elections and congressional elections, but may be less active in presidential elections. Conventional wisdom has it that turnout in congressional elections is 70-80% clientelist machines (maquinarias) and 20-30% voto de opinión (‘opinion vote’, predominantly urban voters who are not ‘controlled’ by any machine and vote based on personal evaluations of candidates, parties or policies). In presidential elections, however, the voto de opinión may be much stronger – but, until now, every Colombian president had needed the active support and electoral mobilization of the powerful clientelist machines in order to win.

In general terms, turnout declined and has remained low since the end of the National Front in the 1970s – although the trendlines are far from smooth. Turnout began falling during the National Front, falling from 68.9% in the 1958 congressional elections to 36.8% in the 1964 ‘mid-term’ congressional elections and 44.5% in the 1966 congressional elections. The very closely contested and acrimonious 1970 elections had higher turnout (52.5%), as did the 1974 presidential election, the first ‘open’ election after the formal end of the National Front amidst popular enthusiasm for Liberal candidate Alfonso López Michelsen (before the disillusion set in). Since then, however, turnout in national-level elections has only twice been over 50% (1990 congressional elections, 1998 presidential election). The decline of the two traditional parties as political subcultures or identities, the loss of any remaining significant ideological differences between the two traditional parties, successive administrations’ poor records and the transformation of parties into federations of regional ‘barons’ led to an increase in political apathy, dissatisfaction and a consequent fall in turnout levels in most elections.

Voting station accessibility difficulties (source: MOE)

There are some important structural explanations to low turnout in remote, peripheral regions, where the state’s presence has historically been weak or very limited. Ariel Ávila discussed some of these issues in a recent analysis on political participation in rural areas, including some enlightening data on the accessibility of voting stations. According to the data presented, there is, on average, one voting station every 63.2 km². In 360 municipalities with ‘medium’, ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ accessibility difficulties, there is one voting station every 786.8 km². In 114 municipalities with ‘extreme’ accessibility problems, there is one voting station every 2,148.1 km². All municipalities in the departments of Amazonas, Vaupés, Guaviare, Guainía and Vichada have ‘extreme’ voting accessibility problems – as do most municipalities in Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, Casanare and Arauca. Voting hours are also a bit shorter in Colombia than in other countries: polls close at 4pm, and unlike in many countries, any voters who are still in line at 4pm are not allowed to vote. On election days, Colombian TV often show last-minute voters running to the polls with just minutes to spare before 4pm so that they can vote.

All Colombian voters, whether in the country or abroad, must present their valid national ID card (cédula de ciudadania) in order to vote. Voter registration is automatic upon issuance of the first cédula (at 18), but all voters who changed their place of residence must individually (re)register their cédula in person with the Registraduría during a fixed time period in advance of the election. This year, the cédula registration period began in mid-October 2017 and closed on January 11 for congressional elections and March 27 for presidential elections – two months before the election. Registering a cédula elsewhere than one’s address is illegal and these cédulas are ‘cancelled’ by the CNE. These procedures may seem rather normal to many, but they may impose significant barriers on some voters in a country with over 7 million victims of forced displacement over the past decades. It is unclear how efficient the electoral organization is at updating the voter rolls, so the number of registered voters may also be somewhat inflated. It is also unclear how many people were automatically registered to vote upon turning 18 but either never voter and/or never re-registered their cédula at a new address if they moved. International IDEA’s voter turnout database suggests that VAP turnout in Colombia in 2014 may have been a bit higher than the official turnout, although the lack of updated census data on population and age makes it difficult to determine this (until the 2018 census data is released).

Since the 1980s, the armed conflict in many regions of the country imposed further barriers on democratic participation and voter turnout. In many municipalities with presence of illegal armed groups, the state was – at best – only able to set up a single polling location in the municipal seat (cabecera). Historically, the guerrillas sought to sabotage elections, forcibly preventing candidates and voters from participating in elections and often keeping elections from being organized in areas under ‘guerrilla control’. If elections could even be organized in these municipalities, turnout was often absurdly low (1-5%). In some cases, the guerrillas did support certain candidates or form informal alliances with politicians – later giving rise to cases of Farcpolítica (and some fewer, concentrated cases of elenopolítica). On the other hand, paramilitaries – in most cases – actively interfered the electoral process, using violence and intimidation but also genuine popular support, to prevent certain candidates from running or campaigning while favouring other candidates and rigging the vote in their favour (most blatantly in Magdalena department under ‘Jorge 40’). The result of paramilitary interference in government and elections was the parapolítica (para-politics) scandal, one of the biggest political scandals in recent Colombian history.

The left (and right) in Colombia

During the Latin American ‘pink tide‘ in the early to mid-2000s, Colombia was the odd man out – one of the few countries left ‘untouched’ by the success of left-wing parties and leaders in other countries in Latin America, most notably in neighbouring Venezuela (with Hugo Chávez), Ecuador (with Rafael Correa) and Brazil (with Lula). While term ‘pink tide’ is a deceptive overgeneralization which has included a wide variety of parties and governments, the left has been far weaker in Colombia than in most other Latin American countries. Only in a few other (smaller) countries like Paraguay – where Fernando Lugo’s election in 2008 owed more to a short-lived alliance with the traditional Liberal Party than the actual strength of the left – is the left equally as weak. Prior to this year’s election, the Colombian left’s record was the 2006 presidential election, in which the left-wing Polo Democrático Alternativo‘s candidate Carlos Gaviria won 22% (2.6 million votes). The left did hold Bogotá’s mayoralty – often described as the second most important office after the presidency – for three terms between 2003 and 2015, but its success elsewhere in the country has been extremely limited and its congressional representation small (but more visible and effective than its weight would suggest).

There are several historical and structural causes for the left’s weakness in Colombia – like the political economy of coffee and certain colonization processes – but, undoubtedly, the armed conflict and the stigmatization and violent persecution (extermination) of the left are major reasons for the left’s contemporary weakness and the continued stigmatization of certain forms of left-wing politics. The Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union, UP), a left-wing party created in 1985 during President Belisario Betancur’s peace talks, in part as the political-electoral wing of the FARC (and the Communist Party), was not very strong (its candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, won 4.5% in the 1986 presidential election) but it showed clear potential for future growth – winning several seats in Congress and, more importantly, winning several municipalities in strategic regions (like Urabá) in the first direct mayoral elections in 1988. By the late 1990s, over a thousand UP candidates, congressmen, mayors, councillors and members had been killed as part of a systematic extermination campaign carried out by drug traffickers, landowners, paramilitary groups and sectors of the military and intelligence services with the implicit or explicit support of many politicians (see the 2003 documentary Baile rojo on the genocide of the UP). Even when they denounced and later dissociated themselves from the FARC’s predatory violence, the UP – abandoned to their fate by the FARC by the late 1980s – were stigmatized as guerrilleros de civil (civilian-clad guerrilleros), their murders ‘justified’ by the FARC’s combinación de todas las formas de lucha (combination of all forms of struggle) strategy. The ‘ghost’ of the UP continues to haunt much of the Colombian left.

Perhaps ironically given Colombia’s global reputation amidst the ‘pink tide’ on the continent, the Colombian ‘right’ – defined as an ideologically coherent conservative/right-wing movement which explicitly identifies as such – was also quite weak, until 2002. Since the National Front, Colombian politics – or at least the portion of politics played out in formal institutions and regular elections – tended to be consensual and centrist, characterized by traditional clientelistic transactions rather than ideological politics like in North America or Western Europe. A Conservative candidate like Álvaro Gómez Hurtado – hurt by the toxic legacy of his father, former President Laureano Gómez (1950-1951) and perceived as ‘extreme’, lost badly in both in the 1974 and 1986 presidential elections. After the National Front, the Conservative Party only won the presidency when the Liberal Party was divided and with ‘centrist consensual’ candidates (Betancur in 1982, Andrés Pastrana in 1998) who downplayed the party name. Prior to 2002, hard-right hawkish candidates did very poorly – General Harold Bedoya, who was polling high at first, won only 1.8% in the 1998 election. Nor did the Liberal and Conservative parties really reflect liberal and conservative politics – Conservative President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) was to the left of his Liberal predecessor, Julio César Turbay (1978-1982). Clearly, the general ideological orientation of public policy in Colombia has tended to be ‘right-wing’ with, as explained above, a traditional aversion to the sort of ‘populist politics’ played out in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru or Ecuador in the 20th century. But, in formal electoral and partisan politics, public discourse was, until 2002, more centrist/consensual than right-wing. Álvaro Uribe’s election in 2002 was historic, as it marked the emergence of a strong right-wing, conservative (if not reactionary), populist (in style if not in substance) and caudillista movement – uribismo. There is little doubt that uribismo is right-wing, both on societal/moral and economic/fiscal policy matters. Yet, uribismo does not explicitly identify as right-wing, often claiming instead that the ideological labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are outdated and that their movement is centrist, combining traditional ‘right-wing ideas’ like security and investor confidence with more ‘left-wing ideas’ like social protection.

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Colombia 2014

Presidential elections were held in Colombia on May 25 and June 15, 2014. The President is the head of state and government of Colombia, which is a presidential republic.

The President of Colombia is elected to a four-year term in office, renewable once (with no possibility for non-consecutive reelection after two terms in office) by a two-round system. In the first round, a candidate needs to win 50%+1 of the valid votes cast – in Colombia, there is a blank vote (voto en blanco) option on all ballots which is counted in the final tally of valid votes. If no candidate meets this threshold, a second round is held between the top two candidates – once again because of the voto en blanco option, a candidate only needs to win a plurality of the vote in the second round to be elected. Like in the United States, the presidential candidate runs on a ticket with a running-mate, who becomes Vice President if the ticket wins and accedes to the Presidency if the office falls vacant.

These elections followed congressional elections held on March 9. I covered the results of the congressional elections in extensive detail here, and right before that I covered Colombia’s political history and the background to these elections in a preview post.

Background

President Juan Manuel Santos was elected to the presidency in 2010, as the somewhat natural successor of two-term President Álvaro Uribe, who was elected in 2002. Uribe, a former Liberal who had been governor of Antioquia department (centered around Medellín) in the 1990s, was widely known in Colombia and abroad for his tough, uncompromising stance (known as seguridad democrática or ‘democratic security’) against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), the leftist guerrillas-cum-narcoterrorists who have been the most active and violent anti-governmental guerrilla group in Colombia since the mid-1960s.

When Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia was in a chaotic state: guerrilla violence had increased significantly since the late 1990s, in the forms of murders, kidnappings, extortion; at the other extreme, far-right paramilitaries, financed by drug trafficking and assisted by many in government and the military, had grown in size, power and influence and were behind the massacres of hundreds of civilians in the countryside. Between 1998 and 2002, President Andrés Pastrana’s attempt to reach a negotiated settlement with the FARC in exchange for the concession of a large demilitarized zone to the FARC had ended in disaster: the FARC used the DMZ to rearm, train and continue their campaign of terror. Just months before the 2002 election, the exasperated Colombian government ordered the army to retake the DMZ. Uribe promised a hard line against the FARC – there would be no peace until armed groups agreed to demobilize on the state’s terms. Uribe was elected in a landslide. In 2006, having managed to amend the constitution to allow consecutive reelection, he was reelected in a landslide again.

Uribe successfully managed to significantly reduce the toll of political violence on the country – under his two terms in office, the homicide rate fell significantly (70.2 in 2002 to 33.4 in 2010). The largest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defenses of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), were demobilized gradually between 2003 and 2006. Uribe’s government claimed success and argued it had balanced the considerations of peace and justice. However, the demobilization was rife with controversy: the government was found to be lenient on the paramilitaries and a 2005 ‘justice and peace law’ passed by Congress offered shortened jail sentences to paramilitary leaders if they confessed (even if only partially) some of their crimes. Since the demobilization, many demobilized paramilitaries have recycled themselves in new criminal gangs, which may have as many as 6,000-10,000 members. Beginning in 2006, the parapolítica (parapolitics) scandal revealed to the general public the extent of ties between the murderous paramilitaries and high-ranking politicians (ministers, governors, congressmen, military officers). Most of those politicians implicated in the parapolitics scandal were supporters of President Uribe.

The government’s military strategy against the FARC paid off, especially in 2008: in March, a cross-border raid in Ecuador killed the FARC’s second-in-command, Raúl Reyes (sparking a diplomatic row with Ecuador and Venezuela); in July, the military successfully rescued several FARC hostages, including the most well known of them, Ingrid Betancourt, a 2002 presidential candidate who had been held captive by the FARC since 2002. However, by the time Uribe left office, the FARC was still nowhere close to total defeat: they remained a real and potent threat, with a strong offensive capacity and robust bases in remote regions. However, Uribe’s security policies were also criticized – there remains strong concerns regarding human rights violations by the military, tragically exemplified by the ‘false positives’ scandal – a long-standing practice (revealed in 2008) of extrajudicial assassinations of civilians by the army to present them as guerrillas killed in action, to embellish the army’s record.

Human rights concerns were often cited by American lawmakers seeking to reduce the hefty multi-million dollar US military aid to Colombia (officially in the name of the war on drugs, and, post-9/11, in the ‘war on terror’ against the guerrillas). Under Uribe’s presidency, Colombia became the Bush administration’s strongest ally in Latin America in the context of the ‘pink wave’. Washington significantly expanded its contribution to Plan Colombia, blurring the lines between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations. In return, the Uribe administration extradited a growing number of its citizens to face trial in the US. Latin American left-wingers, notably Hugo Chávez, strongly criticized Uribe’s pro-American stance and Bogotá’s military alliance with the US – a 2009 Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US led to a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela, which charged that Bogotá was preparing for an invasion of Venezuela with US assistance. In turn, Uribe’s government often suspected that Chávez was harbouring or assisting the FARC, a view confirmed when the Colombian military seized a laptop from Raúl Reyes’ headquarters and found files detailing meetings between FARC leaders and Venezuelan military officers or the existence of ‘safe areas’ in Venezuela.

Uribe attracted controversy on a wide number of fronts, including his own autocratic style. During the parapolítica scandal, in which over 70 congressmen were implicated, Uribe tried to short-circuit the judiciary’s work by mulling amnesties, reduced sentences for those who confessed and confronting the Supreme Court over an alleged judicial conspiracy against Uribe (which was likely fabricated by Uribe himself). Between 2008 and 2010, Uribe’s allies in Congress tried to hold a referendum to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term in office in 2010. These attempts were highly controversial, but the Constitutional Court killed Congress’ referendum bill, declaring both the bill and the legislative process deeply flawed and unconstitutional.

Uribe’s high levels of popularity rested not only on his democratic security policies, but also on the country’s robust economic growth during his two terms – the economy grew by as much as 7% in 2007 and, unlike Brazil and Venezuela, did not go in recession in 2009. In office, Uribe generally favoured neoliberal and free-market policies, with a focus on improving public finances, reforming government and reducing inflation. The government claimed to have made progress in reducing poverty and income inequality in one of the region’s most unequal and class stratified countries. In 2010, 37% of Colombians still lived under the national poverty line and 39.5% lived on less than $4 a day.

Unable to run for reelection himself, Uribe endorsed Juan Manuel Santos, his defense minister (2006-2009) and the scion of a prominent Colombian family – his uncle, Eduardo Santos Montejo, was a Liberal president from 1938 to 1942, and his family owned El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper, for generations. Santos left the Liberal Party along with other uribistas and later helped created the Party of the U (Partido de la U, formally known as the Social Party of National Unity/Partido Social de la Unidad Nacional or PSUN) to rally many uribistas in Congress. As defense minister, Santos was directly responsible for approving the operations which killed Raúl Reyes and freed Ingrid Betancourt; in his tenure, he also made real efforts to enforce respect for human rights in military actions and handled the ‘false positives’ well (by forcing an end to such actions, and not attempting to whitewash it). Santos was widely seen as Uribe’s preferred candidate (although Uribe’s real favourite was his agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias, who was defeated by Noemí Sanín in the Conservative primaries), and his campaign repeatedly emphasized both Uribe’s record and his own record as his defense minister.

Santos dominated the first round on May 30 with 46.7% against only 21.5% for Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogotá (1995-1997, 2001-2003) and eccentric outsider running for the newly-created Green Party (Partido Verde, PV). A month later, Santos was handily elected President with 69.1% against 27.5% for Mockus. The election was disturbed by a severe diplomatic crisis with Venezuela – Chávez lashed out at Santos, who he called a ‘real military threat’, a ‘mafioso’ and a pawn of the ‘Yankee imperialists’, and that ‘there would be war’ if Santos won. Colombia revealed proof that of the presence of FARC and ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, a smaller guerrilla organization founded in 1964 and originally inspired by the Cuban Revolution and Liberation Theology) guerrillas in Venezuela, to which Caracas responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Colombia and moving troops to border regions. Upon taking office, Santos successfully defused the crisis by meeting with Chávez.

Upon taking office, Santos continued the military strategy against the FARC, but he also said that the door to peace talks with the FARC was not closed. However, in 2010, the FARC’s answer to Santos’ more conciliatory attitude was a wave of attacks and ambushes. In September 2010, the military scored a major success in a large-scale and well-orchestrated operation which killed ‘Mono Jojoy’, one of the FARC’s top military leaders. His death was hailed by both the government and the media as a significant blow to the FARC, given that Mono Jojoy was considered as one of the FARC’s leading military commanders and a key person in the organization. In November 2011, in another major blow to the FARC, the military killed Alfonso Cano, Marulanda’s successor as the political leader of the FARC.

Soon after taking office, Santos’ government proposed legislation to address the issue of land ownership – restoring land stolen or purchased under duress by paramilitaries and guerrillas. Unequal land distribution has been both a cause and consequence of the conflict, with some 16,000 people in 2005 owning over 62% of the land and about 6 million hectares illegally or violently seized. The government’s law proposed to return the land to their original owners, placing the burden of proof on owners. The law was passed in 2011, but application has been slow and claimants have lived in fear of neo-paramilitary groups, which have killed or threatened those claiming land.

The law was part of a wider landmark ‘Victims and Land Restitution Law’. The law was welcomed because, for the first time, the government recognized the existence of an ‘armed conflict’ and its legal, humanitarian implications. Secondly, the law also allowed for compensation to those who had been victims of abuses by state forces – not only the FARC and paramilitaries. An Amnesty International report, however, cited major concerns with the law including: definition of victims (excluding those who continue to suffer abuses from neo-paramilitaries, unrecognized as such by the government), the exclusion of many displaced persons from the process and playing down state responsibility. The analysis also looked into barriers to the restitution of land, clauses which may legitimize land theft and inadequate support for victims.

Santos has taken a more diplomatic demeanor in his relations with his neighbors; under Uribe, relations with Chávez’s Venezuela and Rafael Correa’s Ecuador were often strained while relations with left-wing governments in Brazil and Argentina were barely any better. In office, Santos restored diplomatic ties with Ecuador and Venezuela, effecting an unofficial truce with Venezuela. In exchange for Venezuela extraditing Colombian guerrillas, Bogotá extradited a Venezuelan accused of drug trafficking to Venezuela instead of the US. In August 2010, after the Constitutional Court struck down the 2009 defense cooperation agreement as unconstitutional, Santos did nothing to revive the contentious agreement which had soured Bogotá’s regional ties.

Santos’ foreign policy has been only one issue which has soured relations with Uribe. Santos has never been Uribe’s puppet, even when he was his ostensibly loyal defense minister, but relations between the two men started going south in 2011. Uribe faulted Santos for his cordial ties with Chávez, claiming that Colombia could not have diplomatic relations with a country which harboured terrorists. Uribe also began criticizing his successor’s domestic policies – he found Santos’ security policy ineffective and soft, he opposed the land restitution law, he opposed amending a bill to remove responsibility for judging abuses by security forces from military courts and strongly opposed any talks of negotiations with the FARC. The government’s tax reform in 2012 was seen as an attack on Uribe, given that it sought to remove tax breaks and incentives for companies created by Uribe. Finally, Santos welcomed two 2010 presidential candidates known as critics of Uribe into his cabinet: Germán Vargas Lleras became Minister of the Interior (until May 2012, later Minister of Housing) and Rafael Pardo, the Liberal candidate in 2010, was appointed Minister of Labour.

Several high-ranking allies of Uribe have also been prosecuted in corruption cases. Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe’s agriculture minister, was arrested in 2011 for his role in the Agro Ingreso Seguro, an agricultural subsidy which ended up in the hands of powerful landowners and even a beauty queen. Uribe’s former chief of staff was also arrested for his role in a DAS wiretapping scandal. Uribe has stood by his allies, claiming they were victims of political persecution.

In June 2012, Santos ran into controversy over a proposed judicial reform which started out with fairly good intentions but turned, thanks to Congress, into a disaster for the government. The judiciary opposed the government’s early projects, but the situation became chaotic when Congress approved the bill including various advantages for corrupt congressmen/ex-congressmen: notably stripping the Supreme Court of its power to investigate corruption cases involving legislators. The Minister of Justice announced his resignation in disgust, there were several opposition protests against the bill and the left clamored for a referendum on the bill. Bowing to the enormous pressure, Santos convened Congress to repeal the law only a few days after it was passed.

Santos’ government has felt that, to secure peace, it needed to offer the guerrillas incentives to negotiate. In May 2012, Congress passed a law giving itself the power to decide the criteria determining which crimes would be investigated by prosecutors and which would be investigated by others. The bill was opposed by both Uribe and human rights groups, the latter claiming that it guaranteed impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity. Now that Colombia is a full member of the ICC, crimes against humanity and war crimes are the full jurisdiction of the ICC and amnesty could be challenged there.

In September 2012, Santos publicly confirmed that Colombian officials had been engaged in secret negotiations with the FARC in Cuba and Norway. The talks, in secret, likely began in January and by October, the two parties reached agreement on a framework for those talks. Santos claimed that they had learned the mistakes of the past and they would not be repeated; notably, the talks are being held abroad, and there is no concession of a DMZ to the FARC within Colombian territory. The talks were accompanied with a two-month ceasefire from the FARC, which they generally respected; but in 2013, the FARC returned to kidnappings (albeit many hostages were quickly released) and killing police officers. Some saw the attacks as a way for the FARC to prove that they remain a potent threat, without undermining the peace talks

In May 2013, agreement was reached on the first topic under discussion: rural development. The agreement talked of loans and technical help for small farmers, but nothing will be implemented until there is a final agreement on all matters. Other issues on the list are political participation (allowing the FARC to participate in the political process, while guaranteeing their safety, after drug lords and paramilitaries mowed down UP leaders and members in the 1980s), ending the conflict (the FARC surrendering their weapons and demobilizing), the issue of drugs and drug trafficking (Santos has come out in favour of considering the legalization of soft drugs) and finally victims (both of FARC and government atrocities).

In August, talks were hiccuped when the FARC felt that the government was rushing the talks forward in a (failed) attempt to reach a final deal before the March 2014 elections. But after a three-day walkout, the FARC returned to the table. In November, after reaching tentative agreement on political participation, the talks were rocked by revelations of a FARC plot to assassinate Uribe and other politicians (although it wasn’t clear if they were current plans). The issue of justice and the future of FARC leaders, who may face charges of crimes against humanity, will be very difficult.

Uribe has strongly opposed negotiations with the FARC, viewing it as akin to surrendering to terrorists. He used his Twitter account to publicize, on one occasion with a graphic picture, the FARC’s guerrilla attacks and their victims.

In February 2014, Semana, a popular magazine, reported that a military intelligence unit had been spying on the government’s negotiating team in the FARC peace talks for over a year. Uribe denied being on the receiving end of confidential information; his disclosure of confidential information (in August 2012, announcing the secret negotiations; in 2013, tweeting the coordinates of where an helicopter was picking up negotiators in a jungle clearing) in the past had raised questions. Two weeks after the revelations, Santos fired General Leonardo Barrero, the commander of the military; this time in links to Semana publicizing a transcript of a conversation the general had with a colonel facing charges for the extrajudicial killing of civilians.

Santos has been considerably less popular than his predecessor. There were student protests against a controversial education reform in 2011. In August 2013, large protests including miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers, public healthcare workers, students and others erupted in several departments. Both Uribe and the FARC, opportunistically, threw their support behind the protests. The protesters had different gripes: coffee growers demanding government assistance to counter dropping prices, farmers protested disadvantageous export prices and restrictions on the use of Colombian seeds (over foreign seeds, under the FTA), truckers demanding investment in infrastructure to fix Colombia’s bad roads, others opposing the terms of the FTA with the US which was finally ratified in 2011. Mining contracts with foreign mining giants have often led to local protests, motivated by fears that mining would hurt local agriculture and the water supply. In the wake of the protests, Santos’ approval rating in September 2013 tumbled to the low 20s (from about 50%), with voters citing disapproval of the way Santos had handled the protests.

Colombia’s armed conflict, since the 1960s, has claimed the lives of up to 200,000 people and displaced nearly 5 million people, as campesinos were forced to migrate towards the cities by the guerrillas, forced recruitment of family members or paramilitaries/landowners forcibly expropriating millions of hectares. However, the armed conflict has rarely prevented economic growth in Colombia, which has only been in recession one year since 1980. In 2014, the economy will continue to grow by 4.5%, a stronger growth rate than either Argentina or Brazil. Unemployment has come down from 12% in 2010 to 9% today, the macroeconomic outlook is healthy and poverty is down (but 33% of the population remains poor, according to a recent CEPAL study, and over half of the labour force is employed in the informal sector) – the upbeat government is selling Colombia as open for business, especially in the energy and mining sectors. However, income inequality remains a huge issue in Colombia – one of the world’s most unequal countries according to the Gini index (55.9)

Candidates

Juan Manuel Santos, the incumbent President, was the candidate of the Unidad Nacional (National Unity) coalition, which is formally made up of the Party of the U, the Liberal Party and Germán Vargas Lleras’ Radical Change (Cambio Radical) party.

Santos is affiliated with the Party of the U, originally founded in 2005 by uribista Liberal dissidents (like Santos). Although the U never became a ‘party of power’ (unlike Chávez’s PSUV) but it evolved into a santista party since 2010 as Santos cemented his control over the party. As such, the party has shifted ideologically from a conservative and strongly hawkish position to a more moderate and pragmatic positions. Santos is, if such terms can be used, on the centre-right and declares himself to be an admirer of Tony Blair’s Third Way.

The Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano, PLC) is one of Colombia’s two historically dominant parties, alongside the Conservatives, and exist since the 1840s. Until 1957, with some exceptions, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in power not through elections but rather through bloody civil wars. The last such civil war between the two parties, La Violencia, was so violent and destructive – lasting from 1948 until 1957 and killing 200,000-300,000 – that the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to share power and alternate in the presidency. This arrangement, the National Front, which lasted until 1974 (but power-sharing of government jobs lasted until 1990), signaled the end of sharp distinctions between the two parties who were no longer separated by any one issue and agreeing on most issues of the day. The Liberals were hit particularly hard by the defection of several of their members, first and foremost Uribe himself, to uribismo after 2002. The Liberal leadership joined the ranks of the opposition to Uribe; although they retained a fairly significant (if much reduced) bench in Congress, the Liberals have performed terribly in presidential elections since 2002: 11.8% in 2006 and 4.4% in 2010. The Liberals have long since lost all ideological content, and remain largely an assemblage of caciques and veteran politicians – granted, all Colombian parties are like that.

The Radical Change party (CR) was founded in 1998 by Liberal dissidents, supporters of assassinated Liberal politician Luis Carlos Galán (killed by Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel in 1989). In 2002, Germán Vargas Lleras, the grandson of a former President and Senator (1998-2008), joined the party along with his personalist outfit, ‘Colombia Siempre‘ (Colombia Always). In the Senate, Vargas Lleras was a noted opponent of the government’s peace talks with the FARC in 1998-2002 and, as such, he grew closer to another opponent, Álvaro Uribe. The CR came to become an uribista party, but it was also very much implicated in the parapolitics scandal – 8 of its 33 congressmen in the 2006-2010 term were arrested, investigated or ordered to be arrested by the Supreme Court and the Attorney General. Vargas Lleras opposed Uribe’s reelection for a third term and ran for president in 2010, placing third with 10.1% of the vote. Vargas Lleras later joined Santos’ cabinet (serving in the interior and later housing portfolios), and he was Santos’ running-mate.

Juan Manuel Santos is an ambitious, wily politician who has always managed to work himself into favourable positions politically, despite a lack of any electoral experience until his election to the presidency in 2010. Santos, as aforementioned, comes from a leading family of the Colombian (Liberal) elite and he received a top-notch foreign education in the United States (University of Kansas and Harvard) and the United Kingdom (LSE). Álvaro Uribe, on the other hand, comes from a much less elitist background (unlike Santos, Uribe is not from Bogotá but from Medellín in Antioquia), which gives him a more populist touch and makes him seem ‘closer to the people’ than the cosmopolitan and elitist Santos. Ideologically, while Uribe is dogmatic, ideologically conservative and inflexible; Santos is at heart a pragmatist if not an opportunist. Santos is often criticized by his opponents of his longstanding political opportunism – he originally was a harsh critic of Andrés Pastrana’s government but joined Pastrana’s cabinet as Minister of Finance in 2000, he opposed Uribe from 2002 until early 2005 (as late as January 2005, Santos penned an op-ed in El Tiempo opposing Uribe’s reelection) before working his way into Uribe’s cabinet as Minister of Defense and taking control of the Party of the U. Nowadays, he is often criticized for having little qualms in allying with corrupt politicians, ex-parapolitics congressmen, powerful local caciques and party bosses.

Santos’ main campaign issue were the peace negotiations with the FARC/ELN and the promise of peace during a second term, which Santos claimed would create a stronger country and argued that peace could create over a million jobs in Colombia. At the same time, Santos also promised to increase safety in the country by increasing sanctions for misdemeanors, intervening in troubled urban areas to restore order, increasing law enforcement capabilities and focusing more closely on domestic violence and sexual crimes. Santos promised to make Colombia a regional centre for outsourcing, call centres and IT; he also supported investments to help young entrepreneurs, facilitating access to credit for new businesses, helping SMEs and job creation in all sectors. He also heavily promoted an ambitious large-scale infrastructure plan to massively expand highways, railways, ports and public transit. The incumbent promised to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020 by building over 1 million new houses (including free housing), promoting traineeships for poor youths, increasing existing subsidies/benefits, providing low-cost housing opportunities and improving education. Like most other candidates, Santos’ platform included promises to improve healthcare access, heavily strengthening and improving education (a major focus as of late for the Colombian government), bolstering Colombia’s regional and international standing and protecting the environment (through financial incentives for businesses).

In March 2014, the three parties of the National Unity coalition won 47 senators (21 U, 17 Liberal, 9 CR) and 92 representatives (39 Liberal, 37 U, 16 CR) – so, a majority in the latter but only a plurality in the former.

Having failed to regain control of the U, Álvaro Uribe has created his own party to oppose Santos’ government, the Democratic Centre (Centro Democrático, CD) in 2013. The CD’s presidential candidate was Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Uribe’s former Minister of Finance and Public Credit (2007-2010) and an uribista Senator prior to that, from 2002 to 2006.

The CD is very much a personalist party built around and entirely dominated by Uribe: it was actually first known as the ‘Uribe Democratic Centre’ and the party’s original logo was Uribe’s face (the current logo is a man’s silhouette, which looks similar to Uribe). The party’s slogan, which is part of its official electoral name, is Uribe’s emblematic 2002 slogan – mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart). The CD include uribistas from other parties, notably the U and the Conservatives. Prominent members of the CD include Uribe’s Vice President Francisco ‘Pacho’ Santos Calderón (who is also the President’s first cousin) and the former governor of Antioquia Luis Alfredo Ramos. Zuluaga and these two men have been linked to the parapolitics scandal: ‘Pacho’ Santos is under investigation for a meeting with AUC leaders in which he allegedly suggested that the AUC creates a front in Bogotá; in August 2013, Ramos was arrested on orders of the Attorney General for his presumed ties to paramilitaries; Zuluaga was investigated by the Attorney General in 2007 for a 2003 picture of him at an event for a former paramilitary running for mayor.

Zuluaga was nominated as the CD’s presidential candidate in October 2013, defeating ‘Pacho’ Santos and Carlos Holmes Trujillo (a senior diplomat under Uribe) – the latter was later selected as Zuluaga’s running mate.

In March, Álvaro Uribe was the CD’s top candidate for the Senate, where the CD narrowly missed out on first place – winning 14.3% of the vote and 19 seats. In the lower house, however, the CD won only 9.5% and 18 seats.

What differentiated Zuluaga from Santos – and many of the other candidates as well – was his virulent opposition to peace talks with the FARC/ELN, which has been the major point of disagreement between Uribe and Santos. When that admittedly top issue is ignored for a moment, both Santos and Zuluaga actually agreed on a lot of other major topics including the economy, jobs, healthcare, education, the environment, citizen safety, poverty and judicial reform.

On the issue of peace, Zuluaga conditioned the continuation of negotiations with the ‘terrorist groups’ (as the FARC/ELN are called by uribistas) to their an unilateral ceasefire including a rapidly verifiable disarming and demobilization (conditions which the FARC would refuse). He strongly opposed any constituent assembly, demobilization of the Colombian armed forces, demanded that FARC criminals face tough judicial sentences and refused to allow former FARC leader to participate in politics. Defending Uribe’s famous and popular policy of seguridad democrática, Zuluaga also called on strengthening the armed forces at a regional level, conditional release of military personnel imprisoned for certain types of offenses, raising military salaries and strengthening a network of civilian ‘cooperators’. He also proposed a large-scale plan to disarm individuals and groups, with compensation if necessary.

On other issues, as aforementioned, Zuluaga came close to Santos – once you take away the fluff and policy focus differences – on other major issues. Zuluaga appeared less ambitious (more realistic?) with regards to infrastructure and tangible job creation but went further than Santos on healthcare accessibility and fighting rural poverty. The two did differ on minority rights (with Santos being a proponent of stronger self-government for the indigenous and Afro-Colombian minorities, while Zuluaga focused on affirmative action and improving education) and political reform (Santos going further with ideas to abolish reelection, electoral reform and anti-corruption measures; while Zuluaga focused on reducing costs and improving efficiency in government).

La Silla Vacía had an excellent feature allowing you to compare the candidates’ stances on the major issues, and comparing where Santos and Zuluaga in particular stood on these issues (in Spanish, por supuesto).

Marta Lucía Ramírez was the candidate of the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Colombiano, PCC). Ramírez, an ambitious and determined politician, served as Minister of Foreign Trade under President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and as Minister of Defense under Álvaro Uribe (2002-2006). In the latter job, her aggressive style and daring ideas (centralizing military procurement) clashed with the military, which was already very cool towards a civilian woman as minister. Elected to the Senate for the Party of the U in 2006, she left the U in 2009 to run, unsuccessfully, for the Conservative presidential nomination in 2010.

The Conservatives were, with the Liberals, the other dominant party for over a century. The Conservatives dominated much of the early twentieth century (until 1930) in Colombia, following the collapse of federalism and the adoption of a highly centralist and strongly conservative constitution in 1886. Like the Liberals, the Conservatives have always been a complex web of competing clans and factions – often led by mutually antagonistic caciques. The Conservatives last held the Colombian presidency between 1998 and 2002, with Andrés Pastrana, most famous for the failed peace negotiations with the FARC which very much weakened the Conservatives in the 2002 elections – so much that they ran no candidates and backed Uribe, while taking a major hit in Congress. Joining the uribista coalition, the Conservatives enjoyed a brief resurgence in congressional elections in 2006 and 2010, but their presidential candidate in 2010, former ambassador and two-time (1998, 2002) independent presidential candidate Noemí Sanín, won only 6.1% and fifth place. The party was very much divided over the current government and its strategy for 2014: most of its congressional candidates were santista, but the party has a strong pro-Uribe group – Alejando Ordóñez, the somewhat controversial Inspector General, is a Conservative and close ally of Uribe, known for conservative and Catholic positions on social issues. Ramírez is a moderate uribista and anti-santista, who was nominated despite the best efforts of Conservative caciques. She had the backing of only 6-8 of the Conservative Party’s 19 senators – in general, the base and local structures were in her favour, but congressmen were largely santista (the government having been good at providing congressmen with ‘marmalade’).

Ramírez landed between the ‘doves’ and the ‘hawks’ on the peace issue – she said that she would set a strict four month to finalize negotiations and insisted that the FARC comply with certain immediate conditions: stop recruiting child soldiers, immediate stop to all war crimes and cooperation in the eradication of minefields. Ramírez also promised that there would be a referendum on the deals which had already been reached with the FARC. Her campaign also focused on improving education, expanding access to post-secondary education and boosting youth entrepreneurship.

Clara López ran for the Democratic Alternative Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo, PDA), the largest left-wing party in Colombia. The country stands out from its neighbors because the left has always been weak: the ties (real or imagined) of many left-wingers to the FARC have brought the leftist brand into disrepute while paramilitaries and drug cartels have often assassinated left-wing politicians – in the 1980s, for example, the pro-FARC Patriotic Union (UP), was more or less exterminated by the cartels and paramilitaries in the 1980s and 1990s until it was forced stop participating in elections. The Polo was founded in 2005, by the merger of two parties. Since then, it has been one of the few parties unambiguously in opposition to both Uribe and Santos. Many of its politicians were members or sympathized with armed guerrilla movements in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the demobilized (in 1990) M-19 group.

In 2006, the Polo benefited from a polarization of public opinion and its candidate, Carlos Gaviria (called a communist by Uribe), won 22% and placed a distant second to Uribe. However, it won only a few seats in Congress (10 in the Senate, 8 in the Chamber). In Congress, however, many Polo leaders over time have gained notoriety for leading charges against the government – under Uribe, then-senator Gustavo Petro blew the whistle in the parapolitics case and the Polo opposed the FTA with the US and backed same-sex marriage bills. In 2010, the party was weakened by rising internal dissent between moderates (clearly anti-FARC) and leftists (some with lingering sympathies for the FARC); the Polo lost seats in the congressional elections (8 and 5 seats in the two respective houses) and the party’s candidate, moderate senator Gustavo Petro, won 9%. After the election, a major internal crisis led to moderates around Petro quitting the party, which is now led by Clara López.

López is the niece of former President Alfonso López Michelsen (1974-1978), a left-wing Liberal who opposed the National Front arrangement with the Conservatives, and López herself made her first steps in local politics in Bogotá under the banner of Luis Carlos Galán’s New Liberalism in the mid-1980s before moving towards the left and the UP. She was a close ally of former Bogotá mayor Samuel Moreno (2008-2011), who was removed from office by the Inspector General because of corruption scandals (construction kickbacks). She became acting mayor of Bogotá for six months in 2011 after Moreno’s removal from office, and she made a very good impression. After having been Gustavo Petro’s running-mate in 2010, López became a harsh critic of Petro, especially after his 2011 election as mayor of Bogotá and subsequent controversial policies of his administration.

The Polo agreed with the government on the peace process, and López promised to honour whatever agreements the Santos government had reached. The Polo, however, disagrees with Santos on most other issues. López promised substantial state investments in housing, a judicial reform to make it more democratic and transparent, a restructuring of the health system, reforming private health insurers (who manage public healthcare funds), free education to the university level, doubling spending on education, stricter regulation of big mining companies and banning big mining projects in fragile natural ecosystems.

López shifted her campaign towards the centre, trying to appeal to a wider crowd of unhappy voters rather than the narrower left-wing base. She placed more emphasis on issues which differentiated her from Santos – education, healthcare – and argued that he was disconnected from the reality.

The Polo’s 2014 strategy revolved around harnessing the 2013 social protest movements. Many of its congressional candidates in March were recruited from social movements (miners, truckers, healthcare, academia, agriculture) or trade unions. López’s candidacy was endorsed by the main teacher’s union (Fecode) and the largest trade union confederation in the country (CUT), and supported by the UP (which was recreated in 2013) – López’s running mate was from the UP.

Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, a former coffee worker union leader from Tolima, was the Polo’s top candidate for Senate in March and was the single most voted candidate in the country (191,910 votes or 1.3% of the total votes cast), although that didn’t stop the party from losing a total of 5 seats in both houses of Congress. Robledo gained notoriety and popularity for being an active, competent legislator and as a vocal congressional opponent to Uribe and Santos (free trade, defense agreement with the US, agricultural policy). He was investigated by the Attorney General for presumed ties to the FARC, but it is widely believed that the investigation, now dropped, was politically-motivated.

Enrique Peñalosa was the candidate of the Green Alliance (Alianza Verde) – or perhaps more accurately, the Green Party (Partido Verde, PV). Peñalosa won the Green Alliance’s nomination in a successful open primary organized alongside the congressional elections in March.

The Green Alliance is the result of the September 2013 alliance of the Green Party with the Progressives Movement (Movimiento Progresistas). Located in the centre of the spectrum, the Greens adopted their name in 2009 (although they were founded in 2005) and did, all things considered, remarkably well in the 2010 presidential election with the candidacy of the eccentric former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus. Mockus placed a very distant second with 21.5% in the first round, but lost heavily in the second round (27.5%). In Congress, however, the Greens won few seats in 2010 – 5 senators and 3 representatives. The Greens are something of a big-tent party, with little ideological cohesion – pro-government voices (the Greens were considered part of the governing coalition until recently), some close to Uribe and others on the left opposed the government.

Enrique Peñalosa, who comes from a political family (his father was a Liberal cabinet minister in the 1960s and a diplomat), was elected mayor of Bogotá as an independent Liberal dissident in 1997 (on his third try) and held the office until 2000, when he was replaced by Antanas Mockus, the gadfly maverick who had defeated him in 1994. Given his background in urban studies, Peñalosa’s administration liked big infrastructure projects and expanding public spaces. Peñalosa is hard to define ideologically – he leans to the left on matters such as social equality but strongly supports law-and-order, which made him sympathize with the legal paramilitary groups/private militias (CONVIVIR) in the 1990s (that idea went about just as well as you’d expect it, before it was ruled unconstitutional in 1997) and, later, with Álvaro Uribe’s security policies. In his 2007 mayoral candidacy, Peñalosa was supported by the Liberal Party and the uribista coalition, but lost 28.2% to 43.7% to Samuel Moreno, the left-wing Polo candidate. In 2011, Peñalosa ran for mayor, losing against Gustavo Petro, but Uribe’s endorsement of Peñalosa’s candidacy split the Greens and led Mockus to leave the party.

The Progressives Movement was founded in 2011 by the Polo’s 2010 presidential candidate and former Senator Gustavo Petro, who represented a moderate (social democratic, notably pro-FTA with the US) and more resolutely anti-FARC wing of the fractious left-wing party. Petro left the Polo shortly after the 2010 election, after having lost the leadership of the party to his former running mate, Clara López, and strongly criticizing the corrupt municipal administration of Bogotá mayor Samuel Moreno. Petro was elected mayor of Bogotá in 2011; he has been unpopular with some voters (he has a personality which can alienate some) and was criticized for a trash removal crisis in 2012 (he decided to not renew the city’s contract with private companies, and instead hand it over to a public company, but errors by the government and the resistance by the unhappy private firms led to a chaotic trash crisis). He was facing a recall vote.

In early December 2013, the Inspector General’s office removed him from office and banned him from holding public office for a period of 15 years, on the grounds that his actions in the waste collection crisis had violated the constitution. The decision, which was later temporarily suspended by a court awaiting judgement from a higher court, reeked of political persecution (as Petro claims): the decision was unexpectedly severe (especially the long ban from holding office; Moreno faced only a year-long ban from office), the Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez, is a conservative supporter of Uribe and opponent of the peace talks. In March, the Superior Council of the Judiciary and the Council of State struck down the court’s decision and confirmed the Inspector General’s ruling, but later that month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the immediate suspension of his removal from office, but President Santos ignored the decision. In late April, a higher court in Bogotá ordered the government to comply with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ ruling and immediately reinstated Petro. It is unclear if the recall referendum, originally scheduled for April 6, will still be held.

The primary was a major success, with over 4.2 million votes being cast (over 3 million of them valid).  Enrique Peñalosa handily won the primary, taking 47% and 2 million votes, against only 17% for Progressives Senator Camilo Romero and 8.2% for ‘Mockusian’ Green John Sudarsky. However, Peñalosa’s victory continued to divide the newborn alliance – his proximity to Uribe totally alienates a good deal of the left from him. Sudarsky immediately announced that he would not support Peñalosa, adding that he considered Peñalosa’s victory to be illegitimate because he was, he claimed, elected with Uribe’s votes. Two week before the first round, Gustavo Petro and his party announced that they would support Santos, to endorse the peace process.

Despite his left-wing opponents’ constant emphasis of his friendship-alliance with Uribe, Peñalosa still supported the peace process – but criticized the government for playing politics with the issue, and stressing that FARC members should face sanctions in accordance with international law. Peñalosa also focused heavily on education issues, promising to increase teachers’ pay and build more schools. On environmental issues, Peñalosa supported ‘sustainable mining’ respectful of the environment, because such projects would provide resources to fund infrastructure projects; he also supported the use of sustainable methods of public transit in urban areas and measures to protect natural environments.

Results – First Round

The first round was held on May 25. Turnout was 40.09%, down from 49% in 2010 and 43.6% in the March congressional elections.

Turnout in Colombia has generally been very low – in fact, 40% is by no means a record low or even particularly unusual – turnout was about 33% in 1994, and turnout in presidential elections has not been over 50% since 1998, and it had already been quite low since the 1960s. The armed conflict, in which the Colombian government often lacked total sovereignty over its own territory and which saw armed groups bar voters from voting, has played a major role in Colombia’s very low turnout. Areas controlled by the FARC have historically had very low turnout, although on the other hand, in some regions controlled by paramilitaries, turnout was often quite high as a result of some paramilitaries supporting candidates and marshaling voters to the polls. In addition, since the 1960s-1970s, discontent with the political system – seen as corrupt and with few differences between the parties – has likely played a major role in reducing turnout further. All in all, Colombia’s history has meant that there is no strong civic culture promoting electoral participation.

In total, 13.2 million out of 32.975 million potential voters participated. 12.87 million votes (97.3%) were valid – that is, votes for a candidate (94% of the valid votes) or a voto en blanco (6%). Not counted in these totals are invalid votes (2.3% of all votes cast) and unmarked ballots (0.3%). The number of voto en blancos has increased significantly since 2010, when only 1.5% of the valid votes were invalid (about 223k) – but it is down from the congressional elections (in the Senate election, 10.4% of ballots were invalid, 5.9% were returned unmarked and 6.2% of valid votes were votos en blanco. Results are calculated as a percentage of valid votes.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga (CD) 29.28%
Juan Manuel Santos (UN) 25.72%
Marta Lucía Ramírez (Conservative) 15.52%
Clara López (Polo-UP) 15.21%
Enrique Peñalosa (Green) 8.27%
Votos en blanco 5.98%

Colombia 2014 [R1]

The results of the first round shook up the incumbent President’s campaign. Santos placed second, with only 25.7%, behind uribista candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who won 29.3%. The actual result was not a surprise or totally unexpected, however. When I wrote my post on the congressional elections, it still seemed as if Santos would win reelection fairly easily, because none of his opponents had managed to stand out by then. He had a double digit lead over his main opponents at the time – Zuluaga and/or Peñalosa, although Santos was only in the high 20s or low 30s himself in those polls. This indicated that Santos was weak himself, because of his relative unpopularity, but remained the favourite because of the weakness of his opponents. Many felt that Santos would win, but that there would be a huge number of blank votes in protest.

Zuluaga’s position was looking so weak at the time, unable to break through, that there was lots of talk in uribista circles about dumping him with a better candidate (who?). Furthermore, from the congressional elections, if anybody came out with momentum, it was certainly Enrique Peñalosa – notwithstanding the bad blood in the Green Alliance – who had won over 2 million votes in the Green primary, nearly as many as the Uribe-led CD list for the Senate. Indeed, Peñalosa did enjoy a surge in the polls after the congressional elections, with polls showing him leading in a runoff against Santos and looking as the strongest candidate against the incumbent President in all runoff scenarios. However, Peñalosa’s surge proved to be short lived, and quickly petered out while Zuluaga finally broke through and cemented himself as Santos’ top rival. Final polls showed the two in a dead heat in the first and second rounds.

Juan Manuel Santos had become unpopular because of some controversial policies (the failed judicial reform, education), his handling of the strikes and social movements in 2013 and the general sense that, since 2010, Santos hadn’t accomplished much at all either in terms of socioeconomic issues or security. He struggled to find a message for his campaign, he showed himself to be somewhat disdainful of the Unidad Nacional‘s caciques and Germán Vargas Lleras’ pick as his running mate created problems within the coalition. At any rate, Vargas Lleras proved to be a disappointment as a running mate and lead figure for the Santos campaign, which meant that he was kept away from the runoff campaign. This also means that his potential presidential candidacy in 2018 might not be such a sure thing anymore.

Results of the first round by municipality – % margin of victory (source: Saint Brendan’s Island)

On the issue of peace, many voters agreed with aspects of both Santos and Zuluaga’s platforms – the vague idea of peace (Santos) appealed, but many voters disliked the idea of political rights for former FARC rebels or letting them get off the hook easy. Many voters who disliked Santos finally found a home with Zuluaga, whose 3.769 million votes far surpassed the 2.045 million votes won by the Uribe-led CD list for the Senate in March. This is not surprising, because it was clear that the CD had not won the support of all uribistas – Uribe continues to be quite popular with a majority of the electorate. On the other hand, Santos failed to match the 4,975,869 votes won by the U+PLC+CR in the senatorial race in March (he won 3,310,794 in the first round) – which, again, is not surprising because a lot of those votes were votes for local senatorial candidates-caciques from these parties rather than votes for the President. A number of Liberal or other strongholds failed to show up for Santos and the personal strongholds of pro-Santos strongmen around the country didn’t follow their local boss. Turnout was very low in the Caribbean coastal region, departments which are strongholds of the Unidad Nacional, and particularly of powerful pro-Santos caciques. Although turnout is usually low in this region, it was very low in the first round – only 24% in La Guajira, 24.3% in Atlántico or 26.7% in Bolívar – indicating that the local caciques might have sat on their hands. The central regions, where Zuluaga won, had higher turnout and – unlike the Costa – tend to show up more for presidential elections than congressional elections.

Marta Lucía Ramírez came out much stronger from the presidential election, despite placing third. With 15.5% and nearly 2 million votes on her name, she definitely proved her naysayers and opponents in the Conservative Party wrong. Despite lacking the support of many Conservative caciques, who preferred to back their benefactor (Santos), she managed to win more votes than her party had won in the senatorial race in March (1.944 million, she won 1,997,980) – keeping in mind that a lot of those Conservative votes were for Conservative caciques who backed Santos. In 2010, Noemí Sanín’s disappointing campaign only won some 893k votes. Her success boosts her profile and standing within the Conservative Party, and places her in a good position to become the party’s leading contender for the presidency in 2018 – however, the party remains internally divided.

Clara López was another winner, which, like with Ramírez, comes out strengthened while her – which was revealed to be internally divided over López’s strategy and its attitude vis-á-vis Santos – is weakened. López won 1.958 million votes, far more than the 540,000 or so votes received by the Polo’s candidates for Senate in March. She still falls far short of the 2.6 million votes received by the Polo against Uribe in 2006, but still more than the 1.3 million leftist base held by the Polo in 2010. Her ‘reinvention’ – a more centrist outlook (despite an alliance with the markedly left-wing UP), an attempt to broaden the party’s reach beyond the narrow left and a physical makeover for the candidate (see this article from La Silla Vacía) – certainly played some role in her success.

The other main loser was Enrique Peñalosa, whose much-vaunted campaign turned out to be a damp rag which quickly petered out. He was hurt by his inability to impose his leadership either within the Green Alliance – which finds itself more or less dead with Petro’s friends backing Santos from the first round – and in the first round campaign. He had a real opportunity to make himself into Santos’ top opponent, but his support ended up collapsing quickly and largely moving (probably) towards Zuluaga. In the Green primary, Peñalosa had won 2 million votes himself, but in the election he lost a bit less than half of that – only left with a bit over 1 million votea. He did not endorse any candidate in the runoff and kept silent – maybe an honourable thing to do, but politically stupid because he became irrelevant (while Ramírez and López kept their relevance).

The first round ‘defeat’ shook up the Santos campaign – it proved to be a major warning call to the President’s reelection campaign, which seems to have awoken them to the risk that he could lose reelection if things didn’t change. Germán Vargas Lleras, who was more centre stage in the first round campaign, was sidelined and former President César Gaviria (1990-1994) – who has retained a major role in Liberal backrooms since then – took the reins of the campaign, which proved to be a good thing for the campaign (and a boon for the Liberal Party, which had kind of gotten shafted when Santos picked Vargas Lleras his running mate). The Santos campaign more or less adopted two, quite contradictory, strategies: appealing to the left (on the theme of peace) and bolstering the positions of the Unidad Nacional‘s caciques in the reelection campaign (as the congressional elections showed, they are the main strength of the U and the other parties, rather than any high-profile national stars). The message also became extremely clear: peace. Santos’ campaign sought to draw a black-white dichotomy between Santos (peace) and Zuluaga (war) – in campaign ads, like the one shown below, the message was that there was ‘only one choice’ – between peace (associated with flowery and colourful images of happy daily life or Colombia’s beauty) and war (a shock, grayscale image of a body bag or rows of graves in a cemetery). Santos’ supporters in the press often painted Uribe as a fascist warmonger, a ‘criollo Rasputin’ or ‘Terminator’ and his allies as obedient sheep. On the other hand, though, Uribe’s allies in the press insinuated that Santos was going to surrender to the FARC.

Ramírez, López and their respective parties found themselves as the main kingmakers for a very closely disputed second round. It also happened that both of their parties were deeply divided, and that the candidate’s word was not gold.

Ramírez’s rivals within the Conservative Party were taken aback by her success, but they remained firmly in the santista camp. Ramírez and her ramirista followers pushed for an official endorsement of Zuluaga by the party, claiming that there was more common ground with him than there was with Santos and because they opposed Santos’ reelection. Santos’ supporters in the party sought to prevent the Conservatives from officially endorsing Zuluaga, which would give them more leeway to use their machines to back Santos. Furthermore, these congressmen have little to no experience in actually being in the opposition, given that they’ve been in government (officially or unofficially) for the good part of the last 15 years, and that they have no taste to abandon the perks of power. Many santista Conservatives also feared that if Ramírez broke all bridges with the Unidad Nacional by endorsing Zuluaga, angry members of the Unidad Nacional coalition would be out for blood and would punish Conservative congressmen by denying them committee chairmanships or the like. Ultimately, the different factions of the Conservative Party resolved to go their separate ways. On May 28, over 30 Conservative congressmen officially endorsed Santos. Ramírez officially endorsed Zuluaga. As a result of Ramírez’s endorsement, Zuluaga took a more moderate and pragmatic tone on the issue of the peace talks – the text of the deal signed between the two candidates made no mention of Zuluaga’s previous maximalist conditions (giving the FARC an unrealistic 8 days to declare a verifiable and permanent cease-fire), and instead read that the new government would evaluate the agreements reached to date and ask the FARC to show goodwill to continue the talks (these ‘signs of goodwill’ being more or less the conditions which Ramírez’s first round campaign had laid out). Zuluaga downplayed the implications of his pragmatic shift, styling his (new) policy as ‘peace without impunity’. Many noted that Zuluaga’s less dogmatic stances threatened to weaken Santos’ runoff argument that it was a black and white battle between war and peace.

As this graphic shows, a large chunk of the Conservative caucus sided with Santos – powerful veteran Senator Roberto Gerlein (from Atlántico, he has served since 1974), Senator Efraín Cepeda (Atlántico), Senator Hernán Andrade and Senator-elect Laureano Acuña (also from Atlántico). Ramírez-Zuluaga’s supporters included senators Nora García Burgos, Myriam Paredes, Javier Mauricio Delgado, Jorge Hernando Pedraza and Conservative leader Ómar Yepes.

The Polo was similarly divided between those who wanted to endorse Santos to defend the peace negotiations and those who opposed any endorsement of the incumbent because of ideological differences (usually economic issues). Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, the most voted senator in March, led those who argued that Santos and Zuluaga were two sides of the same coin and that the Polo, therefore, should endorse no candidate (Robledo personally endorsed a voto en blanco). Senator Iván Cepeda led those members of the Polo, more focused on peace issues than economic issues, who supported Santos’ reelection to protect the prospect of peace. A few days after the first round, the Polo officially decided to not endorse any candidates and leave their voters free to choose. This position sought to conciliate the two opposing tendencies within the parties – the anti-santista one led by Robledo, emphasizing the lack of common ground with Santos on economic issues (who argue that peace is not sufficient reason to endorse Santos); and one led by Iván Cepeda and Clara López, emphasizing the shared commitment to peace (arguing that there is a real, historic need to defend the peace process, and to keep the uribistas out). López’s running mate, Aída Avella, who comes from the UP, shared the latter position.

Clara López, however, decided not only to publicly endorse Santos but to campaign for him and appear in a TV ad for him. Robledo, understandably angry, accused her of breaking the Polo’s agreement, but even soft strategic santistas/anti-uribistas within the Polo were visibly bothered by López’s very public support of the incumbent President. Others in the Polo criticized López and Santos for appropriating the symbols and logo of the party for Santos’ runoff campaign – for instance, there was lots of unease about the use of the Polo’s logo on Santos campaign banners.

Santos was therefore quite successful in giving his runoff campaign the appearance of a broad, civic movement for peace backed by parts of the left and the right. In addition to Clara López and other members of the Polo/UP, the Santos campaign publicized the endorsements of Antanas Mockus (who had been defeated by Santos in 2010), well-known former FARC hostage and 2002 presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, Progressives Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff (one of the Colombian left’s most well-known figures, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group until its 1990 demobilization who became a leading politician afterwards) and Green Senator-elect Claudia López (the most voted Green candidate in March, who has worked on election observation and investigating corruption and parapolitics). Claudia López, however, in her campaign ad for Santos, underlined that she was only endorsing the President to support the peace talks.

The other, much less publicized aspect of Santos’ reelection campaign was activating the Unidad Nacional‘s lucrative and powerful network of party bosses and regional caciques – including strategic, opportunistic alliances with corrupt caciques which the Santos campaign did not want to be made public. Under Santos’ administration, millions in state funds have been doled out to congressmen by ministries, parastatals and government agencies – the (in)famous mermelada (marmalade), as it has been known in Colombia. The system, described in great detailed by an article from La Silla Vacía, works as follows: government officials negotiate directly with individual congressmen, giving them a ‘quota’ in pork-barrel spending; the congressmen turn around and inform local mayors of the amounts conceded so that they may submit project requests (which get approved and funded from various public sources); the contractor who wins the contract is usually pre-determined and is a local ally who pays a commission to the congressmen. The system operates so that it benefits everybody: the government effectively ‘buys’ the votes of congressmen with marmalade, the local mayors return the favour by getting out the vote for their local cacique and contractors usually get a good deal as well. The government defends itself by saying that marmalade is no different from traditional public investment – of course, omitting to mention that marmalade is a very opaque process and absolutely not transparent. U Senators Ñoño Elías and Musa Besaile, political bosses from the Caribbean department of Córdoba, are usually known as being the ‘champions’ of marmlades (ingesting millions of dollars in marmalade). To prove how well it pays off, both men were the most voted U senators nationally in March – with particular strength in Córdoba (where they allowed the U to win 41.2%), although Musa Besaile has used his share of marmalade to build personal networks in other Caribbean departments (Sucre, Magdalena, Bolívar) and parts of Antioquia. The aforecited article details how these two senators increased their preferential votes in March 2014 in the municipalities treated to their marmalade.

Ñoño Elías and Musa Besaile were both shunned by the Santos campaign in the first round, because Santos did not want to show himself publicly with these two controversial posterchild of corruption. One even more embarrassing ally of the reelection campaign was Yahir Acuña, a representative-elect from Sucre and leader of his own family enterprise-cum-party, 100% Colombia (which won the most votes in Sucre in the election for representatives in March). Yahir Acuña, who also controls the two representatives for the Afro-Colombian minority in the Chamber, is a fascinating (and very controversial) figure: he is the former protégé of former governor Salvador Arana (now a convicted murderer in the parapolitics scandal, serving 40 years), has close ties to other unsavoury figures of local politics (local businesswoman ‘La Gata’, now convicted for links to paramilitaries and for homicide) and is himself suspected of parapolitics (ties with the local AUC). Acuña aptly built alliances with no less than seven senatorial candidates in March 2014 (which is rare: usually, in Colombia, senators are the ones who back candidates for the lower house), allegedly offering them votes in exchange for money; in the congressional elections, Acuña convincingly imposed himself as the new cacique of Sucre (displacing the clan behind former senator Álvaro ‘El Gordo’ García and his wife, senator Teresita García; ‘El Gordo’ is serving a 40-year jail sentence for links to paramilitaries and masterminding a 2000 massacre which killed 15). Acuña managed to force his way into a first round campaign event with Germán Vargas Lleras (and appear in a picture with him), much to the displeasure of other santistas and Vargas Lleras.

Santos himself is personal friends with former U senator Piedad Zuccardi (currently on trial for parapolitics) and other figures of the García clan in Bolívar department (Juan José García, a former senator and original godfather of the clan – convicted for corruption and paramilitary ties, who is the brother of ‘El Gordo’ and in-laws with an extradited drug trafficker; their son, Andrés García Zuccardi, was elected to the Senate for the U in March). Despite the fact that both husband and wife are convicted or on trial for parapolitics, they were welcomed to the Santos campaign and attended several campaign events and ‘Juancho’ García retains significant influence (he successfully managed to get José David Name elected as President of the Senate – backed in this effort by former U senator Dilian Francisca Toro, indicted for money laundering on behalf of the Cali cartel).

Both Zuluaga and Santos courted the Civic Option, the latest incarnation of the National Integration Party (PIN), a ‘party’ founded and led by politicians tied to paramilitaries or relatives of such politicians. The party, which remains to this day a haven for convicted or suspected ‘parapoliticians’, their families and other criminals, still has 5 senators and 6 representatives. Zuluaga met with the Santander caucus of Civic Option (chaired by Senator Nerthink Mauricio Aguilar, the brother of current governor Richard Aguilar and the son of former governor Hugo Aguilar, arrested for parapolitics in 2011; the Aguilar clan are the local rivals of Liberal strongman Horacio Serpa), but he refused to ally with the Caribbean caucus of the party (which includes Teresita García, Acuña’s ally Julio Miguel Guerra and ‘La Gata”s ally Antonio Correa). The Civic Option gave no endorsement and decided to give its ‘members’ freedom to choose in the runoff – the costeños supported Santos, Mauricio Aguilar endorsed Zuluaga but his brother endorsed Santos (I guess the family wanted to put their eggs in both baskets).

Results – Second Round

The second round was held on June 15. Turnout was 47.89%, up from 40% in the first round and higher than the turnout in March or the last three presidential decisive rounds (runoff in 2010, first rounds in 2002 and 2006).

In total, 15.79 million out of 32.975 million potential voters participated. 15.34 million votes (97.1%) were valid – that is, votes for a candidate (96% of the valid votes) or a voto en blanco (4%). Not counted in these totals are invalid votes (2.6% of all votes cast) and unmarked ballots (0.3%). Results are calculated as a percentage of valid votes.

Juan Manuel Santos (UN) 50.95%
Óscar Iván Zuluaga (CD) 45.00%
Votos en blanco 4.03%

Colombia 2014 [R2]

After a tough first round, President Juan Manuel Santos was reelected by a comfortable margin of about 6 points, defeating uribista candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga. However, the victory came at a heavy price for Santos: the campaign showed him to be a fairly week politician and administrator (especially when compared to Álvaro Uribe), he comes out of the 2014 electoral cycle with a much weaker majority in Congress and a reduced majority for himself and the opposition which comes out of 2014 is much stronger than the disparate mess of an opposition which come out of 2010.

The final section of this post (geographic analysis) will provide a detailed answer to the factors which allowed for Santos’ reelection, but to put it quickly, Santos owes his victory to the successful mobilization of first round left-wing voters in his favour in urban areas (especially in Bogotá, one of the few departments which switched from the first round, in his favour) and the Unidad Nacional‘s caciques showing their muscle and mobilizing their powerful political machines (above all in the Costa-Caribbean region) in the President’s favour (after many caciques had only half-assed it in the first round). Much of the turnout increased benefited the incumbent, especially in the Costa. Between the two rounds, Santos’ vote total increased from 3.3 million to 7.81 million – a gain of over 4.5 million votes, from abstention and the Polo, Greens or Conservatives.

Therefore, Santos is indebted to a lot of people as he begins his second term: the caciques (who is not fond of, but must live with), the left (whose support was only strategic and ephemeral) and the Liberal Party (thanks to César Gaviria and other Liberal bosses, who contributed a lot to his victory).

The reelected President faces a number of major challenges in the next four years: a difficult and tortuous peace process with the FARC/ELN, which he would like to finalize before 2015; economic challenges including inequalities and natural resources and corruption. He will need to face these challenges with a reduced congressional majority, and a much stronger and vocal opposition led from the Senate by Uribe himself.

Álvaro Uribe, and Zuluaga, were winners despite losing. Lacking almost all the advantages of the Unidad Nacional – the state apparatus, the political machinery of the caciques, access to the marmalade, the support of most of the media and a good part of the business circles, Uribe’s CD nevertheless managed to impose itself as the leading opposition party to Santos, winning 6.9 million votes (45%) in the second round – that is, an additional gain of over 3.1 million votes from Zuluaga’s first round total (3.75 million), despite most of the left (Polo) and Greens being against him and his potential reserve (Ramírez’s Conservative votes) being only a bit less than 2 million. The 2015 regional and municipal elections will likely confirm the CD as the leading opposition force in Colombia, especially on the back of the CD’s strong results in Antioquia and Medellín. Some have suggested that the emergence of a clear, ideologically coherent right-wing around uribismo and the CD will lead to a realignment of Colombian politics, perhaps following the model of post-Pinochet Chilean politics with the broad-based Concertación coalition opposing a right which is off-putting to many. At the same time, however, given that the caciques and their politics of clientelism were the other main winners of 2014, it is unlikely that Colombia will move towards Chile’s tradition of strongly ideological and party-based politics (which remains fairly unique for South America).

Geographic analysis

Results of the second round by municipality – % margin of victory (source: Saint Brendan’s Island)

Crucial to Santos’ support in both rounds were the patronage machines of the caciques in the Costa region (departments of La Guajira, Cesar, Magdalena, Atlántico, Bolívar, Sucre and Córdoba). Santos won all of these departments by comfortable margins in both rounds – the main, key difference being that turnout in the Costa in May was low (lower than in March) and Santos failed to capture all the votes cast for the Unidad Nacional in March. For example, in the department of Córdoba, the U – with senators Ñoño Elías and Musa Besaile – had won over 270,000 votes in March but Santos won only 206,000. In the second round, the most notable increases in turnout were registered in the Costa (according to the Observatorio de Procesos Electorales, turnout increased from 30% to 44% in the region); an analysis by the Foro Ecónomico found a very strong positive correlation between higher turnout and support for the President (estimating that about 90% of ‘new voters’ backed Santos).

Santos won his best result in the second round in Atlántico, where he won 78.2% against 20.1% for Zuluaga (he had already won 48% in May) – between the two rounds, Santos increased his vote intake from a bit less than 195k to about 541.5k (including an increase from 81.8k to 267.6k in Barranquilla, the departmental capital). Turnout, which was only 24.3% in May, surged to 41.4% in June. While Zuluaga also increased his own vote share from May, it is quite clear that Santos’ massive gains between both rounds in the department played a key role to his regional and national victory (his margin of victory in Atlántico came close to cancelling out Zuluaga’s margin of victory in Antioquia – the second most populous department, while Atlántico is only the fifth). In Atlántico, Santos had the support of the entire local political machinery and caciques – Conservative senators Roberto Gerlein, Efraín Cepeda, Laureano Acuña; the Char dynasty (now represented by CR senator Arturo Char); U senators José David Name and Miguel Amín Escaf and Liberal senator Álvaro Ashton. La Silla Vacía examined the Atlántico ‘phenomenon which gave the victory to Santos’, and cited other factors including government investments following 2010 floods, fear of paramilitaries and a voto de opinión (ideological vote, not ‘tied down’ by the caciques) in Barranquilla (where López won over 16% in the first round).

Santos also triumphed in the second round by wide margins in Magdalena (67.7% vs 30.7%), La Guajira (71.1% vs 27.3%), Cesar (60.6% vs 37.3%), Sucre (60.1% vs 38.3%) and Córdoba (63.6% vs 34.9%), while his tightest margin came from Bolívar (58% vs 39.7%). The President had already done well in the first round, percentage-wise, breaking 50% in Córdoba and Magdalena, but a significant increase in turnout (from 36% to 52.3% in Córdoba) in these departments meant that Santos built up his margin of victory. It was largely thanks to the support of the region’s powerful caciques: Ñoño Elías and Musa Besaile (U, Córdoba), the García-Zuccardi clan (U, Bolívar), Yahir Acuña (100% Colombia, Sucre), the Gnecco clan (Cesar, led by U senator José Alfredo Gnecco, allied with former governor of La Guajira ‘Kiko’ Gómez, arrested for murder in 2013), Sandra Villadiego (U, Bolívar, wife of parapolitician Miguel Ángel Rangel), Yamina Pestana (Conservative, Sucre/Córdoba, heir of her imprisoned brother) and the inconvenient allies from the Civic Option (from Sucre: Julio Miguel Guerra Sotto, Teresita García Romero and La Gata’s senator Antonio Correa). After being snubbed by the President in the first round, the reelection campaign kicked into full gear and activated these cacique’s powerful GOTV operations.

Of course, not all the costeño vote comes from caciques and not all caciques are costeños. There was a significant voto de opinión for Zuluaga and López in the region – Zuluaga, in the first round, placed first in Cartagena (30.1% vs. 24.9% for Santos and a solid 20.1% for López; he lost 41 to 55 on June 15) and López won solid results in Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta. Zuluaga had much less machine support (he had some from Conservatives Nora García and David Barguil in Córdoba, a part of the Guerra clan in Sucre around CD senator Maria del Rosario) although he did have some solid bases with cattle ranchers and businessmen in the cities. In the second round, Santos successfully built an amusing alliance uniting the caciques with left-wing activists.

The strongest uribista margin came from the department of Antioquia, the second-most populous department in Colombia centered around Medellín and its valley. The department, which is Uribe’s home turf (he was governor of Antioquia before becoming President), is the stronghold of the CD – uribismo and anti-santismo are very strong in the department, the CD’s senatorial bench is large here (6 senators, led by Álvaro Uribe himself), uribismo is supported by the networks of former governor Luis Alfredo Ramos (now in jail, his son is a CD senator) and the ideological draw of Uribe easily cancelled out the weak machinery backing Santos. In the first round, Zuluaga won 37.5% in Antioquia against 16.2% for Santos, who landed third behind Ramírez (18.9%); in Medellín, Santos placed fourth with only 10% behind Zuluaga at 39.5%, Ramírez at 19.5% and López at 16.2%. In the Medellín suburbs of Bello and Itagüí – despite backing from local Conservative senators – Santos only placed fourth. However, thanks to a mobilization of the vote led by César Gaviria, Santos did manage to close the gap in the second round – Zuluaga still won clearly, 57.8% to 35.8% (and 63% to 29% in Medellín), but Santos grew his vote from 286k to 704.1k, and made some significant gains in Medellín’s metro Valle de Aburrá. However, despite support from parts of the Conservative machines in the Medellín metro and Oriente, Santos still lost badly – uribismo was stronger than any machine support (which was weak and disorganized, compared to the massive GOTV efforts in the Costa). The incumbent President dominated the more remote regions of Urabá and the Bajo Cauca (the far west and north of the department respectively), where the political machines are stronger.

Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city, was the major battleground and a major factor in Santos’ reelection. In the first round, it was practically a free-for-all in the capital: Zuluaga won 22.1% (although this was a poor result, below the CD’s senatorial result in March), López won 20.4% (and placed first in several neighborhoods), Santos won 18.1%, former Green mayor Enrique Peñalosa won 16% and Ramírez won 14.9% (considered a strong result given Conservative weakness in the city). Like in other regions, Santos’ first round campaign was a mess but the runoff campaign was much better coordinated and orderly – around Carlos Fernando Galán (CR senator, son of Luis Carlos Galán), Gina Parody (2011 mayoral candidate, now minister of education), David Luna (an adviser to the President), Armando Benedetti (U senator, known as an advocate of progressive causes and LGBT rights in the U), Germán Varón (CR senator) and others from the Liberal Party. The runoff campaign could also count on strong support from the left – mayor Gustavo Petro, who endorsed Santos before the first round, Clara López (who is now often cited as a leading mayoral candidate for 2015) and other organizations (the UP, Marcha Patriótica, some Greens, trade unions, LGBT rights movements). Zuluaga could count on the support of ‘Pacho’ Santos (a potential mayoral candidate for the CD in 2015), the anti-Petro movement in the capital and the second round endorsement of Marta Lucía Ramírez – on top of the image of Álvaro Uribe, popular in Bogotá like in much of Colombia.

In the second round, both candidates made impressive gains in Bogotá – Santos from 444k to 1.337 million and Zuluaga from 542.4k to 1.075 million – but Santos won, 52.5% to 42.2%, making Bogotá one of the few close races in the country.

Bogotá’s result symbolized the other key aspect of the Santos reelection: attracting voters who had supported the left in the first round, as well as some Conservatives. In other regions of Colombia where López had done well in the first round, Santos clearly dominated in the runoff. In the first round, López had placed first in a number of communities in the Catatumbo region of the Norte de Santander department, the region of campesino leader (and now Polo senator) Alberto Castilla; in the runoff, Santos won over 80% in the three municipalities won by López. As a result, Santos, who had lost the department by 3 to Zuluaga in May won it by 4 in June. In the first round, the Polo’s candidate had placed first in the oil refineries city of Barrancabermeja in Santander (with 32.1% against 29.2% for Santos); in the runoff, Santos won 74.2% in the city. The department of Santander, where Santos could also rely on the old (but weakened) networks of Liberal boss Horacio Serpa, was another department which switched from Zuluaga to Santos (53.2% to 43.1% for the CD candidate).

In the department of Cundinamarca, Santos – while losing 41.4% to 54.2% for Zuluaga – still made substantial gains from the first round, where he won only 17.9% and third place. Ramírez, the Conservative candidate, did very well in the department – 23.1% and second, and she thoroughly dominated most of the Bogotá savanna municipalities located in the high plateau north of the capital (which seems to be her native region). Her support extended in the department of Boyacá, where she won 20.6% (López actually placed second here, with 21%, thanks to the 2013 agrarian strike movement in the department). In both regions, while Ramírez’s vote largely went to Zuluaga (and López’s support for Santos), it is clear that the Conservative vote in May didn’t unanimously support Zuluaga.

Correlation between Santos 2010 and Santos 2014, and Santos 2010 and Zuluaga 2014 at the municipal level (source: Foro Económico)

The Foro Económico’s analysis, linked above, estimated that over 80% of López’s voters backed Santos in the runoff. Ramírez’s voters split, in majority, in Zuluaga’s favour but Santos attracted a fair share of her voters in the second round. Surprisingly, it also estimated that Peñalosa’s supporters largely supported Zuluaga.

Zuluaga dominated much of central and inland Colombia – besides Antioquia and Cundinamarca, he also dominated the Eje Cafetero (Caldas, Risaralda, Quindío), the Andean region (Tolima, Huila), the Llanos (Meta, Casanare, Vichada; defeated narrowly in Arauca) and parts of the Amazonian region (Caquetá, Guaviare and Amazonas). Most of these regions are strongly uribista, where the CD had already done well in March, and where the Unidad Nacional‘s machines are weaker or lack the GOTV capacity (although in many cases, including the Zuluaga bastions of Casanare and Huila, much of the local machines backed the President). In addition to the weakness of the local pro-government machines, Zuluaga also benefited from some support from local Conservatives – Samy Merheg (Risaralda, the brother of former senator Habib Merheg, under investigation for parapolitics), for example. Zuluaga’s second-best national result came from Huila (70.8%), an Andean department which was particularly hit by FARC violence in the past decade. His best result was from Casanare, a Llanos department (where I assume Zuluaga was supported by cattle ranchers and the oil industry), where he won 77.7% (Santos won less than 10% in Casanare in the first round) – Casanare was ironically Santos’ best department in 2010. Departments like Huila, Casanare, Meta and Arauca were also on the losing side of a recent royalties reform, which may have hurt relations between locals, mayors and the central government.

La Silla Vacía analyzed, after the first round, all departments won by Zuluaga and suggested some reasons for his success in each of them.

Casanare reveals a rather ironic, albeit unsurprising, aspect of this election: there was a negative correlation between Santos’ support in 2010 and his 2014 vote, but there was a strong positive correlation between Zuluaga’s 2014 support and Santos’ 2010 vote. This confirms that Santos’ 2010 vote – at least half of it (since Santos lost half of his 2010 vote in the first round) was an uribista vote which voted for Santos as he was Uribe’s candidate in 2010, but abandoned him to back Uribe’s candidate in 2014. Santos’ 2014 support was very different from his 2010 support – four years ago, he had an uribista map while this year he has a new santista map, including huge numbers in departments (such as Atlántico, Chocó, La Guajira etc) which were always rather anti-uribista and/or of Liberal tradition (while Zuluaga won most, but not all, of the core uribista departments and/or those with a Conservative tradition).

Zuluaga won in departments such as Caquetá, Casanare, Meta, Tolima and Huila which have been hurt by the armed conflict and FARC activity, but a closer analysis by La Silla Vacía of the results in the 76 municipalities which are the most affected by FARC violence actually backed Santos more heavily in both rounds (even in departments which voted for Zuluaga, such as Antioquia). In another analysis of atypical results at the local level, La Silla Vacía identified a few cases of FARC pressure in Santos’ favour in Nariño (on the Pacific coast). After the election, the CD denounced ‘over 200′ municipal results in which they claimed that there was FARC influence in Santos’ favour, but the CD’s numbers are clearly big over-exaggerations.

The other Amazonian departments were more supportive of Santos – the President won 70.5% in Vaupés and 54.6% in Guainía, and won the jungle in Amazonas (Zuluaga won thanks to the Amazon port city of Leticia) and most of Vichada. This may be due to strong support from indigenous organizations – about two-thirds of the population of Vaupés and Guainía are indigenous (the highest in the country), and other regions of Colombia with significant indigenous populations also backed Santos (La Guajira, which is 45% indigenous, and Cauca, which is 21.5% indigenous) thanks to strong support from indigenous organizations (ASI in Guainía, MAIS in Cauca).

On the Pacific coast, Santos clearly dominated. He won than 63.4% in Chocó, a remote and impoverished department with an overwhelmingly (82%) Afro-Colombian population; 72.1% in Cauca, which has large indigenous and Afro-Colombian minorities which heavily backed Santos; 66% in Nariño and – most importantly – 61.5% in the Valle del Cauca, the third-most populous department in the country (it includes the city of Cali).

In the Valle, Santos had won a mediocre 27.4% in the first round, with decent results from Ramírez (19.6%, who had support from local Conservatives), López (18.7%, who won second in Cali with 20.5% and Buenaventura) and Zuluaga (19%). Zuluaga received support from local Conservatives in the second round – freshman senator Javier Mauricio Delgado (the nephew of Conservative governor Ubeimar Delgado and the heir of his uncle senator César Tulio Delgado), who did well in March (especially in the Norte del Valle, culturally integrated with the uribista regions of the Eje Cafetero and Antioquia), and it would appear that a lot of Ramírez’s Conservative votes in the Norte del Valle did indeed flow well to Zuluaga on June 15. Santos, however, was supported by U senator-elect Roosevelt Rodríguez, who is the candidate of former U senator Dilian Francisca Toro, under investigation for money laundering of drug trafficking proceeds for the Cali cartel. With Toro’s machinery, Roosevelt Rodríguez was the most popular candidate in the Valle in March. In the runoff, Santos won thanks to the unification of the left-wing vote behind his candidacy – especially in Cali, where with López’s support (and part of Peñalosa’s 12%) he jumped from 24% to 61.8%; and strong support in the coastal city of Buenaventura (79.3%), a troubled Pacific port city which is overwhelmingly Afro-Colombian (89%) and unfortunately famous for the rife criminality, drug trafficking and its sky-high homicide rate.

Results of the 2002 presidential election by department (own map)

Results of the 2002 presidential election by department (own map)

In Cauca and Nariño, Santos won several near-unanimity results in several municipalities (over 90% of the vote), thanks to a mix of factors: Afro-Colombian support for Santos (desire for peace and autonomy), indigenous support (see above), Liberal machines, FARC influence (either pressure or a desire for peace) and a left-wing base in some places (Carlos Lozano, the leader of the Communist Party and Green senatorial candidate in March, did quite well in a few municipalities in Cauca).

Compared to the results of past presidential elections, particularly Uribe’s 2002 victory against Liberal candidate Horacio Serpa, there is an imperfect but still very perceptible correlation between anti-uribismo or Liberal votes and Santos’ support in 2014 (at the departmental, macro-level). The Caribbean departments are shown to be Liberal – in 2002, Horacio Serpa carried all of them, with the exception of Magdalena (which still voted for the Liberals in 1994 and 1998); Antioquia and, to a lesser extent, Bogotá and Cundinamarca are Conservative and uribista in 2002; the Eje Cafetero was traditionally Conservative prior to 2002 and voted very heavily for Uribe in 2002; Boyacá and Norte de Santander are Conservative; the Valle del Cauca voted Uribe by a wide margin in 2002 but had leaned to the Liberals in elections past; the Pacific coast, except Conservative Nariño, were Liberal (especially Chocó) and the Amazon regions were solidly Liberal until Uribe made major gains in 2002. In 2014, most departments which supported the Liberals over Uribe in 2002 voted for Santos while Zuluaga won most of Uribe’s 2002 departments, again with the leading uribista stronghold being Antioquia.

Colombia is certainly at a key moment in its history, with the peace negotiations with the FARC offering the prospect of some kind of peace while, politically, the return of uribismo as a major electoral force signals an interesting shakeup of the political system.

Colombia 2014

Legislative elections were held in Colombia on March 9, 2014. All 167 seats in the Chamber of Representative (Cámara de Representantes) and all 102 seats in the Senate of the Republic (Senado de la República), the two houses which make up the National Congress (Congreso Nacional) were up for reelection. The five Colombian members of the Andean Parliament (Parlamento Andino) were also up for reelection.

The Chamber of Representatives, the lower house, is made up of 162 seats elected in 33 multi-member circunscripciones territoriales – that is, Colombia’s 32 departments and the capital district of Bogotá. Each department has at least two seats, with an additional seat for every 365,000 inhabitants or fraction greater than 182,500 inhabitants in excess of the first 365,000 inhabitants. The capital district of Bogotá has the most seats, 18, followed by the departments of Antioquia (17) and Valle del Cauca (13). The distribution of seats between the departments is detailed in this presidential decree from 2013 setting the number of seats. The remaining five seats in the Chamber are split between two seats elected by Afro-Colombians, one seat elected by native indigenous Colombians and two seats elected by Colombian citizens living outside the country.

The Senate, the upper house, is made up of 102 seats. 100 of these seats are elected at-large, in a nationwide constituency (circunscripción nacional), while the remaining two seats are elected in a nationwide constituency for indigenous native Colombians.

Congress is elected by party-list proportional representation, with seats distributed according to the largest remainders method. The two houses of Congress and the Andean Parliament are elected on separate ballots. When voting for the Senate and Chamber, voters must choose whether they will vote in the national/territorial constituencies or if they will vote in one of the special constituencies (for the Senate, the indigenous seats; for the Chamber, the Afro-Colombian seats or the indigenous seats) – they may only vote in one constituency. The vote may be preferential or non-preferential – the choice is up to the political parties, who either decide to present a closed list of ranked candidates or an open list. If the party run a closed list, voters only mark the logo of the party. If the party runs an open list, voters must vote for a single candidate (marking the box with their chosen candidate’s number, or marking both the party logo box and the candidate number box). On all ballots for all constituencies, there is also an option to officially cast a blank/white vote (voto en blanco).

Background

I posted a very lengthy election preview, detailing all the historical background to Colombian politics and recent happenings. These congressional elections serve as a sort of dress rehearsal for the presidential elections, the first round of which will be held on May 25.

President Juan Manuel Santos, first elected in 2010, will be running for reelection on May 25. Santos was elected to the presidency with the support of Álvaro Uribe, and by presenting himself as Uribe’s somewhat natural successor. Elected in 2002, Álvaro Uribe, a former Liberal who had been governor of Antioquia department (centered around Medellín) in the 1990s, was widely known in Colombia and abroad for his tough, uncompromsing stance (‘democratic security’) against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), the leftist guerrillas-cum-narcoterrorists who have been the most active and violent anti-governmental guerrilla group in Colombia since the mid-1960s.

When Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia was in a chaotic state: guerrilla violence had increased significantly since the late 1990s, in the forms of murders, kidnappings, extortion; at the other extreme, far-right paramilitaries, financed by drug trafficking and assisted by many in government and the military, had grown in size, power and influence and were behind the massacres of hundreds of civilians in the countryside. Between 1998 and 2002, an attempt to reach a negotiated settlement with the FARC in exchange for the concession of a large demilitarized zone to the FARC had ended in disaster; the FARC using that DMZ to rearm, train and continue their campaign of terror. Just months before the 2002 election, Bogotá, exasperated, ordered the army to retake the DMZ. Uribe promised a hard line against the FARC – there would be no peace until armed groups agreed to demobilize on the state’s terms. Uribe was elected in a landslide. In 2006, having managed to amend the constitution to allow consecutive reelection, he was reelected in a landslide again.

In office, Uribe successfully managed to significantly reduce the toll of political violence on the country – under his two terms in office, the homicide rate fell significantly. The largest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defenses of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), were demobilized gradually between 2003 and 2006. Uribe’s government claimed success and argued it had balanced the considerations of peace and justice. However, the demobilization was rife with controversy: the government was found to be lenient on the paramilitaries and a 2005 ‘justice and peace law’ passed by Congress offered shortened jail sentences to paramilitary leaders if they confessed (even if only partially) some of their crimes. Since the demobilization, many demobilized paramilitaries have recycled themselves in new criminal gangs, which may have as many as 6,000-10,000 members. Beginning in 2006, the parapolítica (parapolitics) scandal revealed to the general public the extent of ties between the murderous paramilitaries and high-ranking politicians (ministers, governors, congressmen, military officers). Most of those politicians implicated in the parapolitics scandal were supporters of President Uribe.

The government’s military strategy against the FARC began paying off, especially in 2008: in March, a cross-border raid in Ecuador killed the FARC’s second-in-command, Raúl Reyes (sparking a diplomatic row with Ecuador and Venezuela); in July, the military successfully rescued several FARC hostages, including the most well known of them, Ingrid Betancourt, a 2002 presidential candidate who had been held captive by the FARC since 2002. However, by the time Uribe left office, the FARC was still nowhere close to total defeat: they remained a real and potent threat, with a strong offensive capacity and robust bases in remote regions. However, Uribe’s security policies were also criticized – there were (are) strong concerns regarding human rights violations by the military, tragically exemplified by the ‘false positives’ scandal – a long-standing practice (revealed in 2008) of extrajudicial assassinations of civilians by the army to present them as guerrillas killed in action, to embellish the army’s record. Human rights concerns were often cited by American lawmakers seeking to reduce the hefty multi-million dollar US military aid to Colombia (officially in the name of the war on drugs, and, post-9/11, in the ‘war on terror’ against the guerrillas). Latin American left-wingers, notably Hugo Chávez, strongly criticized Uribe’s strongly pro-American stance and Bogotá’s military alliance with the US – a 2009 Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US led to a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela, which charged that Bogotá was preparing for an invasion of Venezuela with US assistance.

Santos, who had served as Minister of Defense under Uribe’s second term, was seen as somebody who would continue in Uribe’s footsteps. That being said, it’s worth noting that Santos wasn’t Uribe’s first choice in 2010 – his preferred successor (besides himself – an attempt to allow him to run for a third term was struck down by the court) was agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias, who was defeated in the Conservative primary. As it turned out, however, Santos has been very much his own man. Santos’ policies and political style has been rather different from Uribe. Santos is more diplomatic, quickly normalizing and improving relations with Venezuela (on the brink of war when Santos took office in August 2010), in contrast to Uribe, more bellicose and confrontational. Some of Santos’ domestic policies went against Uribe’s own policies or aroused Uribe’s opposition – most significantly, a much-debated 2011 ‘victims and land restitution law’ which allows compensation to the victims of the armed conflict (including victims of government forces) and for those whose land was illegally stolen or purchased during the conflict (often by the paramilitaries) to reclaim their land. Finally, Uribe was particularly irked by the promotion of anti-Uribe politicians to cabinet, while the courts were bringing charges against several of Uribe’s close allies.

While he continued the successful military targeting of senior FARC leaders – managing to kill FARC military mastermind ‘Mono Jojoy’ and later FARC leader Alfonso Cano – Santos also signaled early on that he felt that peace was not possible solely through a military strategy – if the FARC were to surrender, they would need concessions and incentives to negotiate. In September 2012, Santos confirmed that the government had been engaged in secret negotiations with the FARC in Cuba and Norway. The talks have not been accompanied by any FARC cease-fire (besides for a two-month ceasefire in late 2012) or the concession of a DMZ to the FARC inside Colombia. The two parties are set to discuss five contentious issues: land reform (agreement reached in May 2013), political participation for the FARC (agreement reached in November 2013), ending the conflict, drugs and drug trafficking (most FARC revenue comes from drug trafficking) and justice for victims (of both parties).

Uribe has been strongly against the negotiations with the FARC, refusing to talk with a group who he considers (along with the US, EU and Canada) to be terrorists. He has become an implacable foe of Santos’ government. There are also concerns about displeasure with the talks in the military forces, following a February 2014 spy scandal in which the military was found to be spying on the government’s negotiating team in Havana and Oslo. Public opinion has generally been supportive, but there is little optimism for the talks’ success – deep pessimism resulting from the total failure of previous attempts at negotiation in the 1980s, mid-1990s and 1998-2002.

Santos is less popular than his predecessor, who left office with very high approval ratings. Santos suffered from major protests from farmers, truckers, miners, students and civil servants in August 2013.

Parties and Candidates

Traditional Colombian parties, except for small parties on the left of the spectrum, have been quite unencumbered by ideology or any political consistency. The politicians who make up these parties are much the same: their political loyalties are often rather variable, their ideology hard to discern and, of course, many are quite corrupt or have very iffy ties to less than charming groups and people. At best, many parties are coalitions of regional caciques; at worst, a few are quasi-criminal organizations with ties to drug trafficking and paramilitary groups.

Especially since the collapse of the two-party system in 2002, many politicians have switched parties several times. Voting patterns, as a result, often owe more to individual politicians or, more so in the past, to the influence of non-state actors (guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug cartels, criminal organizations) in certain areas.

Santos will run for reelection at the helm of the National Unity (Unidad Nacional) coalition, a three-party alliance made up of the Social Party of National Unity (Partido Social de la Unidad Nacional, PSUN; commonly known as the Partido de la U or ‘Party of the U’), the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano, PLC) and the Radical Change party (Cambio Radical, CR).

The Party of the U was founded in 2005 by Liberal dissidents such as Santos to support Uribe. The party became the most prominent of the uribista parties, but unlike some other ambitious politicians (notably his leftist rivals, Chávez, Correa and Morales), Uribe never really tried to consolidate his broad coalition in a single party. Instead, Uribe was backed by a broad coalition including the Party of the U but also the Conservative Party and, at the outset, CR. Santos was the Party of the U’s candidate in the 2010 presidential election and the party became the largest party in both houses of Congress in March 2010. Under Santos’ presidency, the Party of the U (no cookies for guessing what the U referred to at the outset) shifted from being the leading party in the uribista coalition to being the leading force in a santista coalition. As such, the party has shifted ideologically from a conservative and strongly hawkish position to a more moderate and pragmatic positions. Santos is, if such terms can be used, on the centre-right and declares himself to be an admirer of Tony Blair’s Third Way.

The U’s top candidate for Senate was Jimmy Chamorro, a pastor and former Senator. Chamorro is a recent member of the party, and appears to have little ties to it: he flirted with both uribismo and The U before the election. He was followed on the party’s preferential list by retired General Fredy Padilla de León, the commander of the Colombian Military Forces between 2006 and 2010 and, subsequently, Ambassador to Austria until 2012. Under his military command, the Colombian army struck the hardest blows against the FARC with the assassination of Raúl Reyes and the successful liberation of Ingrid Betancourt. However, suspicions over his role in the false positives scandal have followed him since leaving the command, and it was those accussations, leveled against him by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, that forced him to resign his ambassadorship in Vienna. The third man on the list, Jorge Géchem Turbay, is a senior politician from Huila who spent 6 years in captivity as a FARC hostage.

The Liberal Party is one of Colombia’s two historically dominant parties, alongside the Conservatives. The Liberals, who were founded in the 1840s, originally stood for federalism, anti-clericalism, more democratic government, civil liberties and – in the 1930s – some left-wing Liberals supported social reforms. Until 1957, with some exceptions, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in power not through elections but rather through bloody civil wars. The last such civil war between the two parties, La Violencia, was so violent and destructive – lasting from 1948 until 1957 and killing 200,000-300,000 – that the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to share power and alternate in the presidency. This arrangement, the National Front, which lasted until 1974 (but power-sharing of government jobs lasted until 1990), signaled the end of sharp distinctions between the two parties who were no longer separated by any one issue (the old question of anti-clericalism no longer being a political issue) and agreeing on most issues of the day. The two parties, nevertheless, remained by far the two most important parties until 2002. After 1974, the Liberals held the presidency more often than the Conservatives. The Liberals were hit particularly hard by the defection of several of their members, first and foremost Uribe himself, to uribismo after 2002. The Liberal leadership joined the ranks of the opposition to Uribe; although they retained a fairly significant (if much reduced) bench in Congress, the Liberals have performed terribly in presidential elections since 2002: 11.8% in 2006 and 4.4% in 2010. Since 2011, the Liberals have joined the government. Rafael Pardo, the Liberals’ 2010 candidate, joined Santos’ cabinet as labour minister in October 2011.

The Liberal top candidate for Senate was Horacio Serpa, a political veteran who served as Minister of the Interior (1994-1997), OAS ambassador (2002-2004), governor of Santander (2008-2011) and three time unsuccessful Liberal presidential candidate (1998, 2002, 2006). Serpa, one of the main caciques of the department of Santander, gained notoriety as interior minister under embattled Liberal President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), whose entire presidency was marred by serious allegations that his campaign had been funded by the Cali drug cartel. Serpa, a loyal ally of Samper, steadfastly denied all allegations and defended Samper. He ran, unsuccessfully, for President three times – in 1998, he lost in the second round to a Conservative candidate backed by some of Serpa’s Liberal enemies; in 2002, he placed a distant second behind Uribe and in 2006 he placed a paltry third. Most Liberal candidates on the Senate list are acustomed politicians who have run for office in the past.

The Radical Change party is a small party founded in 1998 by Liberal galanista dissidents – supporters of assassinated Liberal political Luis Carlos Galán (killed by Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel in 1989), who notably opposed Serpa’s 1998 candidacy. In 2002, Germán Vargas Lleras, the grandson of a former President and Senator (1998-2008), joined the party along with his personalist outfit, ‘Colombia Siempre‘ (Colombia Always). In the Senate, Vargas Lleras was a noted opponent of the government’s peace talks with the FARC in 1998-2002 and, as such, he grew closer to another opponent, Álvaro Uribe. The CR came to become an uribista party, but it was also very much implicated in the parapolitics scandal – 8 of its 33 congressmen in the 2006-2010 term were arrested, investigated or ordered to be arrested by the Supreme Court and the Attorney General. Vargas Lleras opposed Uribe’s reelection for a third term and ran for president in 2010, placing third with 10.1% of the vote. He has since become a senior cabinet minister in Santos’ government, serving as Minister of the Interior (2010-2012) and Minister of Housing (2012-2013); he is currently Santos’ vice-presidential running mate in the May 2014 presidential election. There are rumours that Vargas Lleras might be eyeing the vice presidency as a springboard to run for President, with Santos’ support, in 2018.

CR’s top candidate was Carlos Fernando Galán, the son of Luis Carlos Galán and a former municipal councillor in Bogotá. Arturo Char, former senator and the heir to a powerful political dynasty headed by Senator Fuad Char, was second on the party’s list. Char’s family are an economic and political powerhouse in the Atlántico department in the Caribbean region. Germán Varón, a representative, CR president and Vargas Lleras’ right-hand man, was also on the party’s list.

Álvaro Uribe has created his own party to oppose Santos’ government, the Democratic Centre (Centro Democrático, CD), founded in January 2013. The CD is very much a personalist party built around and entirely dominated by Uribe: it was actually first known as the ‘Uribe Democratic Centre’ and the party’s original logo was Uribe’s face (the current logo is a man’s silhouette, which looks similar to Uribe). The party’s slogan, which is part of its official electoral name, is Uribe’s emblematic 2002 slogan – mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart). The CD include uribistas from other parties, notably The U and the Conservatives. Prominent members of the CD include Uribe’s Minister of Finance and Public Credit Óscar Iván Zuluaga (the CD’s 2014 presidential candidate), Uribe’s Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón and the former governor of Antioquia Luis Alfredo Ramos. All three men have been linked to the parapolitics scandal: Santos Calderón is under investigation for a meeting with AUC leaders in which he allegedly suggested that the AUC creates a front in Bogotá; in August 2013, Ramos was arrested on orders of the Attorney General for his presumed ties to paramilitaries; Zuluaga was investigated by the Attorney General in 2007 for a 2003 picture of him at an event for a former paramilitary running for mayor.

The party ran a closed list for Senate, with Álvaro Uribe as its top candidate. Most of the party’s other congressional candidates have relatively little political or legislative experience, which makes it likely that the CD’s caucus will vote as a bloc and continue to be Uribe’s electoral vehicle. María del Rosario Guerra de la Espriella, the CD’s second candidate on the list, is an economist who served as Minister of Information Technologies and Communications in Uribe’s second government. Although she has never held elected office, her family is a powerful political clan in the Caribbean department of Sucre – her father served in both houses of Congress and as governor, and her uncle is the incumbent governor. Her brother, Antonio Guerra de la Espriella, ran for Senate on the CR list. Paloma Valencia Laserna, an anti-peace talks journalist, was third on the list. José Obdulio Gaviria, one of the most controversial men in Uribe’s camarilla, is considered to be Uribe’s ideological strategist and mastermind. Pablo Escobar’s first cousin, he is particularly controversial, even toxic to some, because of family members’ ties to drug trafficking and his own controversial statements (denying the existence of an armed conflict and forced displacements).

La Silla Vacía, an excellent resource on Colombian politics, had an interesting feature detailing Uribe’s senatorial list and allowing you to sort candidates by different relevant filters.

The Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Colombiano, PCC) is Colombia’s other historically dominant party, which emerged around the same time as the Liberals (in direct opposition to them) in the 1840s. Back then, the Conservatives stood for a strong central government, strong ties to and privileges for the Catholic Church and support for traditional social hierarchies (landowners, the clergy etc). The Conservatives dominated much of the early twentieth century (until 1930) in Colombia, following the collapse of federalism and the adoption of a highly centralist and strongly conservative constitution in 1886. Like the Liberals, the Conservatives have always been a complex web of competing clans and factions – often led by mutually antagonistic caciques. The Conservatives last held the Colombian presidency between 1998 and 2002, with Andrés Pastrana, most famous for the failed peace negotiations with the FARC which very much weakened the Conservatives in the 2002 elections – so much that they ran no candidates and backed Uribe, while taking a major hit in Congress. Joining the uribista coalition, the Conservatives enjoyed a brief resurgence in congressional elections in 2006 and 2010 – they’re currently the second largest party in the Senate. However, the Conservatives’ presidential candidate in 2010, former ambassador and two-time (1998, 2002) independent presidential candidate Noemi Sanín, won only 6.1% and fifth place. The party has been very much divided over the current government and its strategy for 2014: most of its congressional candidates were santista, but the party has a strong pro-Uribe group and the party’s presidential candidate, Marta Lucía Ramírez, is seen as pro-Uribe. Alejando Ordóñez, the somewhat controversial Inspector General, is a Conservative and close ally of Uribe, known for conservative and Catholic positions on social issues. It is unclear if the Conservatives will back Uribe, Santos or run a candidate of their own in May.

The Conservatives’ senatorial list was largely made up of old caciques and incumbents – the list’s top 12 candidates were all incumbent Senators. Atop the list was Roberto Gerlein, one of the most powerful congressmen in Colombia who has served in the Senate since 1974. Gerlein, because of his stature and his powerful electoral machine in the Atlántico department, has tended to be fairly independent of his party in the past – for example, in the 1990s, he supported Liberal President Ernesto Samper against the will of his party. Nowadays, he is considered pro-Santos. Jorge Hernando Pedraza, a Conservative boss from Boyacá, was second; Efraín Cepeda, another Senator from Atlántico, was third. José Darío Salazar, a pro-Uribe and pro-Ordóñez senator, ranked fourth on the list.

Civic Option (Opción Ciudadana) is the latest incarnation of the National Integration Party (PIN), a ‘party’ founded and led by politicians tied to paramilitaries or relatives of such politicians. In the 2006-2009 congress, 5 of 15 congressmen were arrested or ordered to be arrested in the parapolitics scandal. Located on the right, these politicians have tended to support uribismo, although their unsavouriness has meant that the more ‘respectable’ parties have hesitated to openly associate with them. Because of their ties to political machines, business empires or criminal organizations, the PIN/whatever it’s called has managed strong results in congressional elections – in 2006, it won 7 senators and 8 representatives and in 2010 the PIN won 9 and 11 seats respectively.

Most of the party’s senatorial candidates were incumbent congressmen and all but one of the top 10 candidates are classified by La Silla Vacía as ‘heirs of persons sentenced or on trial’. For example, the party’s second candidate, Doris Vega de Gil, is the wife of former senator and party founder Luis Alberto Gil, who spent six years in prison for the parapolitics scandal. Teresita García Romero, incumbent Senator, is the sister of Álvaro ‘El Gordo’ García (and considered to be his puppet), a Sucre cacique spending 40 years in jail for masterminding the massacre of 15 people in 2000.

The Independent Movement of Absolute Renovation (Movimiento Independiente de Renovación Absoluta, MIRA) is one of the weirdest political parties. The party’s ideology is miraísmo, a ‘transversal’ ideology which claims to focus on the common good, peace and transcending the left and right. MIRA is the political arm of the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International, a neo-Pentecostal Colombian church with a presence in 45 countries. The party’s most famous figure, retiring Senator Alexandra Moreno Piraquive, is the daughter of the church’s founders. She was elected to the Senate in 2002, and reelected in 2006 and 2010. The party’s president is Carlos Baena, a pastor-politician, who was elected to the Senate in 2010 on a closed list led by Alexandra Moreno.

The retirement of the party’s most popular politician, Alexandra Moreno, promised to weaken MIRA this year. Its senatorial list was led by Bogotá representative Gloria Stella Díaz. Senator Manuel Antonio Virgüez, a veteran party leader, was the second candidate; Carlos Baena was third.

On the left of the spectrum, the Democratic Alternative Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo, PDA), is the largest left-wing party in Colombia. But the country stands out from its neighbors because the left has always been weak: the ties (real or imagined) of many left-wingers to the FARC have brought the leftist brand into disrepute while paramilitaries and drug cartels have often assassinated left-wing politicians – in the 1980s, for example, politicians in the pro-FARC Patriotic Union (UP), was largely purged of its leadership by assassinations and forced to stop participating in elections. The Polo was founded in 2005, by the merger of two parties. Since then, it has been one of the few parties unambiguously in opposition to both Uribe and Santos. Many of its politicians were members or sympathized with armed guerrilla movements in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the demobilized (in 1990) M-19 group.

In 2006, the Polo benefited from a polarization of public opinion and its candidate, Carlos Gaviria (called a communist by Uribe), won 22% and placed a distant second to Uribe. However, it won only a few seats in Congress (10 in the Senate, 8 in the Chamber). In Congress, however, many Polo leaders over time have gained notoriety for leading charges against the government – under Uribe, then-senator Gustavo Petro blew the whistle in the parapolitics case and the Polo opposed the FTA with the US and backed same-sex marriage bills. In 2010, the party was weakened by rising internal dissent between moderates (clearly anti-FARC) and leftists (some with lingering sympathies for the FARC); the Polo lost seats in the congressional elections (8 and 5 seats in the two respective houses) and the party’s candidate, moderate senator Gustavo Petro, won 9%. After the election, a major internal crisis led to moderates around Petro quitting the party, which is now led by Clara López, a former UP member and the party’s 2014 candidate.

The Polo had some strength in Bogotá, where it held the city hall with two successive mayors between 2004 and 2011; but the Polo has been crippled by the corruption scandals (construction kickbacks) which led to the dismissal of mayor Samuel Moreno in 2011. López was a close ally of Moreno when he was mayor, and served as appointed mayor between June and December 2011 following his removal from office by the Inspector General.

The Polo’s 2014 strategy, a desperate attempt to save seats and perform honorably in May, revolves around harnessing the 2013 social protest movements. As a result, many of its senatorial candidates have been recruited from social movements (miners, truckers, healthcare, academia, agriculture) or trade unionism. The Polo’s lead candidate was popular incumbent senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, a former coffee worker union leader from Tolima and Senator since 2002. Robledo has gained notoriety and popularity for being an active, competent legislator and as a vocal congressional opponent to Uribe and Santos (FTA, DCA, agricultural policy). He was investigated by the Attorney General for presumed ties to the FARC, but it is widely believed that the investigation, now dropped, was politically-motivated.

The Green Alliance (Alianza Verde) is the result of the September 2013 alliance of the Green Party with the Progressives Movement (Movimiento Progresistas). Located in the centre of the spectrum, the Greens adopted their name in 2009 (although they were founded in 2005) and did, all things considered, remarkably well in the 2010 presidential election with the candidacy of the eccentric former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus. Mockus placed a very distant second with 21.5% in the first round, but lost heavily in the second round (27.5%). In Congress, however, the Greens won few seats in 2010 – 5 senators and 3 representatives. The Greens are something of a big-tent party, with little ideological cohesion – some in the movement are fairly pro-government (the Greens were considered part of the governing coalition until recently), others (former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa) are also favourable to Uribe while other (such as Mockus, who left the Greens in 2011) are more left-leaning (and, as such, anti-government and anti-Uribe). In the 2011 Bogotá mayoral election, Green candidate Enrique Peñalosa supported the government and was endorsed by Álvaro Uribe, something which divided the Greens and led Mockus to leave the party.

The Progressives Movement was founded in 2011 by the Polo’s 2010 presidential candidate and former Senator Gustavo Petro, who represented a moderate (social democratic, notably pro-FTA with the US) and more resolutely anti-FARC wing of the fractious left-wing party. Petro left the Polo shortly after the 2010 election, after having lost the leadership of the party to his former running mate, Clara López, and strongly criticizing the corrupt municipal administration of Bogotá mayor Samuel Moreno. Petro was elected mayor of Bogotá in 2011; he has been unpopular with some voters and was criticized for a trash removal crisis in 2012. In early December 2013, the Inspector General’s office removed him from office and banned him from holding public office for a period of 15 years. The decision, which has since been temporarily suspended by a court awaiting judgement from a higher court, reeked of political persecution (as Petro claims): the decision was unexpectedly severe (especially the long ban from holding office; Moreno faced only a year-long ban from office), the Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez, is a conservative supporter of Uribe and opponent of the peace talks. Petro will face a recall referendum on April 6.

The alliance between the Greens and the Progressives has already run into problems. The Green Alliance held a primary election to nominate its presidential candidate alongside the congressional elections, and the favourite in the race was Enrique Peñalosa, a former Liberal who served as mayor of Bogotá from 1998 to 2000 and ran for mayor in 2007 and 2011 (both times with Uribe’s backing). The Progressives consider Peñalosa to be an uribista. His two other primary opponents were John Sudarsky, a ‘Mockusian’ Green senator; and Camilo Romero, a Progressive senator.

The Green Alliance’s senatorial list was topped by Antonio Navarro Wolff, one of the Colombian left’s most well-known figures. Navarro Wolff was a member of the M-19 guerrilla group between 1974 and its demobilization in 1990, rising through the ranks as a military commander but also a leading peace negotiator in the 1989-1990 talks with the government which led to M-19’s demobilization and its transformation into a major political party, AD M-19. Navarro Wolff replaced the AD M-19’s assassinated 1990 presidential candidate, winning 12.7%. Since then, Navarro Wolff has served in both houses of Congress, Minister of Health, mayor of Pasto and governor of Nariño. As governor, he governed pragmatically, combining participative decision-making with economic alliances with the private sector; also supporting Uribe’s democratic security and coca eradication policies, although combined with direct economic aid to peasants to develop an alternative economy to coca. Incumbent senator Jorge Londoño, a former Liberal governor of Boyacá (2004-2007), was second on the list. The Green Alliance’s senatorial list was largely made up of left-leaning candidates, with a mix of politicians and outsiders from social movements or NGOs.

Results

Turnout was 43.58% (43.57% for the Chamber), down from 44.2% in the 2010 congressional elections and 45.7% in 2006. Turnout in Colombia has generally been very low – in fact, 43% is by no means a record low or even particularly unusual – turnout was about 33% in 1994. Turnout in presidential elections has been no higher: it has not been over 50% since 1998, and prior to that it had been quite low since the 1960s. The armed conflict, in which the Colombian government often lacked total sovereignty over its own territory and which saw armed groups bar voters from voting, has played a major role in Colombia’s very low turnout. Areas controlled by the FARC have historically had very low turnout, although on the other hand, in some regions controlled by paramilitaries, turnout was often quite high as a result of some paramilitaries supporting candidates and marshaling voters to the polls. In addition, since the 1960s-1970s, discontent with the political system – seen as corrupt and with few differences between the parties – has likely played a major role in reducing turnout further. All in all, Colombia’s history has meant that there is no strong civic culture promoting electoral participation.

It is also worth noting that there is a huge number of invalid votes. This year, out of 14.3 million votes cast (for Senate), only 11.1 million were for parties. 5.88% of ballots were returned unmarked, 10.38% were invalid and 6.17% were white/blank votes (voto en blanco). Recall that, in Colombia, each ballot paper provides an option for the voter to cast a blank vote which is recognized as a ‘valid vote’ (similar, for example, to the valid ‘NOTA’ option in Nevada).

Results below are unofficial preliminary results (preconteo), with about 98% reporting. The Colombian Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil, which administers elections, calculates each party’s percentage on the total of votes cast.

Senate

Party of the U 15.58% (-11.87%) winning 21 seats (-7)
CD 14.29% (+14.29%) winning 19 seats (+19)
Conservative 13.58% (-7.99%) winning 19 seats (-3)
Liberal 12.22% (-4.45%) winning 17 seats (nc)
Radical Change 6.96% (-0.88%) winning 9 seats (+1)
Green Alliance 3.94% (-0.96%) winning 5 seats (nc)
Polo 3.78% (-4.06%) winning 5 seats (-3)
Civic Option 3.68% (-5.14%) winning 5 seats (-4)
MIRA 2.28% (-0.66%) winning 0 seats (-3)
Indigenous parties 2.16% winning 2 seats (nc) – 1 ASI, 1 MAIS
Blank vote 6.17%

Chamber of Representatives

Party of the U 16.05% (-13.04%) winning 37 seats (-10)
Liberal 14.13% (-8.9%) winning 39 seats (+2)
Conservative 13.17% (-8.65%) winning 27 seats (-11)
CD 9.47% (+9.47%) winning 18 seats (+18)
Radical Change 7.74% (-1.96%) winning 16 seats (+1)
Green Alliance 3.35% (+1.53%) winning 6 seats (+3)
Civic Option 3.26% (-3.41%) winning 6 seats (-6)
Polo 2.89% (-0.14%) winning 3 seats (-2)
MIRA 2.87% (+2.27%) winning 3 seats (nc)
100% Colombia 1.1% (+1.1%) winning 3 seats (+3)
UP 0.69% (+0.69%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Por un Huila Mejor 0.51% (+0.51%) winning 1 seat (+1)
AICO 0.46% (+0.46%) winning 1 seat (+1)
ASI 0.32% (+0.32%) winning 1 seat (nc)
Others 0.03% winning 1 seat (nc)
Afro-Colombian parties 1.11% winning 2 seats (nc) – 2 Fundación Ébano
Indigenous parties 0.55% winning 1 seats (nc) – 1 AICO
Blank vote 6.56%

Andean Parliament

The Andean Parliament is a deliberative body with five members from each of the four member states of the Andean Community of Nations (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia). With no law-making powers, almost all political leaders in the four countries agree that the body is outdated, pointless, a waste of time and a waste of money. President Santos wants to abolish the body and cast a blank vote himself. Most parties did not run lists. Turnout was only 30.97% – and that’s not all – 28% of ballots were unmarked, 5.01% were invalid and 35.61% were blank. In all, only 31.35% of the ballots were cast for parties (3.189 million votes only). Because more of the valid votes were ‘blank’ (NOTA) rather than for parties, it is likely that the election will be cancelled and repeated (wasting more money).

Blank vote 35.61%
Conservative 9.31% winning 2 seats
Green Alliance 8.01% winning 2 seats
Polo 7.09% winning 1 seat
Civic Option 3.04% winning 0 seats
UP 2.52% winning 0 seats
100% Colombia winning 0 seats

The results are a relative victory for both Santos and Uribe, a mix of both good and bad results. The three parties of the National Unity coalition lost their majority in the Senate (47/102 seats) but held it in the Chamber (92/167); with the support of many Conservative congressmen, given that, according La Silla Vacía, all Conservative senators are considered santistas; the government does retain a comfortable majority in both houses and its law-making powers should not be impeded too much. However, Santos will no longer have the comfort of dispensing with the Conservatives; the Conservatives could theoretically form a coalition with the uribistas and the Civic Option. He will therefore need to deal with some blackmail and bargaining with the Conservatives, lest he turns left to the small Green caucus. On matters such as the peace talks, Santos will probably need to work with his left, despite bad relations between Vargas Lleras and the Polo/Progressives.

The Party of the U, the leading oficialista party, remained the largest party in the Senate (by a hair) and nearly did so in the Chamber. It remains the largest force in the National Unity coalition. Despite substantial loses to the uribistas and apathy, the party – contrary to most predictions – remained on the top, ahead of the CD. It did so thanks to the continued electoral power of the U’s regional caciques – mostly incumbents with machines, pork and money (sounds even better in Spanish: con plata, mermelada y maquinaria). A geographical analysis and a look at the preferential votes, later in this article, confirms this.

The major winner in the governing coalition was Vargas Lleras’ Radical Change, the only coalition party to increase its seat count. Thanks to strong candidates and Vargas Lleras’ place on Santos’ reelection ticket, the CR was the other major winner in the election besides the CD. The party’s strong results reinforces Vargas Lleras’ position both in the short-term and in the long-term (president in 2018); it is also significant that he will be backed by loyal senators – Galán and Varón.

The Liberals appear pleased with their result, but they failed in their attempt to become the largest political party in Colombia; the Liberal Party’s result and the U’s relative success means that the Liberals don’t have enough power to argue for a renegotiation of the coalition dynamics or to make their weight felt (especially as it concerns Santos’ succession in 2018). The Liberal leadership placed high hopes in Horacio Serpa, their veteran political topping the party’s open list for the Senate. However, as explained below, Serpa’s performance – both nationally and his home turf of Santander – was quite underwhelming and failed in its mission to help the Liberals.

Uribe can be considered as the other main winner of the night, although Uribe’s closed list narrowly missed out on first place in the Senate (it had led the vote count for most of the night). Uribe brings with him 18 other senators to the Senate, forming the largest opposition bloc in the Senate. Also significant is that, as touched on in the intro, the new CD caucus consists of persons with little/no prior political or legislative experience and closely connected to Uribe. According to La Silla Vacía, Uribe is the only CD senator who has served in Congress before – compared with all but two of the U’s senators, all but 3 Liberals and 3 Conservatives. However, not all CD senators are foreign to politics: 7 (besides Uribe) have held public office, and 7 have other family members involved in politics. For example, journalist Paloma Valencia is from a powerful political family although she has no prior political experience. Alfredo Ramos is the son of the former governor of Antioquia investigated for parapolitics, but he too has no prior political experience. These people, along with Paola Holguín (an adviser to Uribe during his presidency) or María del Rosario Guerra de la Espriella, can be counted upon to be loyal uribistas. This means that the CD caucus will likely vote as a bloc, being a constant thorn in the side to the government and inconveniencing Santos.

The CD will not, on its own, have the weight to prove more than an inconvenience and hassle to the government, unless they are able to reach an agreement with the Conservatives (hard given the attractiveness of government patronage to them) and the Civic Option (most of its senators are considered uribistas, and the government likely has more resources to bribe them). Nevertheless, Uribe will have a platform from which to lead the opposition to the government.

The other matter is whether Uribe’s 2 million votes for the Senate can be considered an accurate reflection of uribismo‘s true weight. While Uribe has very high approval ratings, only about a third of those who approve of him (60%) actually voted for him. Furthermore, there was a marked difference between the CD’s results in the Uribe-led Senate race and the Chamber race, where Uribe was not a candidate and where the CD cared less. The CD only won 9.5% or 1.35 million votes in the Chamber of Representatives. That being, Uribe’s result is still a net success, given that he controlled little existing political machines in the departments and went up against powerful government caciques backed by patronage and pork.

The result of the left was quite terrible. The Polo was one of the main losers of the election. Although the Polo’s lead candidate, popular senator Jorge Robledo won the most personal preferential votes in Colombia – 191,910 votes or 1.3% of the total votes cast, the party still lost many votes and five congressmen. Although the Green Alliance retained its seats and strength, the Progressives around embattled Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro did poorly in Bogotá, where right-wing parties supporting the mayor’s recall outpolled his supporters by a mile. Within the Green Alliance, Antonio Navarro Wolff was not the most popular individual candidate, winning only 55.4 thousand votes against 81 thousand votes for Claudia López, a political analyst who has worked on election observation and investigating corruption and parapolitics.

Nevertheless, the major silver lining for the Greens was the huge success of their presidential primary. With 92% reporting, the Green primary drew 4.1 million votes (or 2.9 million valid votes), against only 564,663 votes for the Greens in the senatorial election. Enrique Peñalosa handily won the Green primary, with 47.4% against 16.5% for Romero (Progressives) and 8.4% for Sudarsky (Mockusian Green). It is a remarkable victory for Peñalosa, who was not really wanted by most of his own party and had to face relatively low media attention and much antagonism within the Green Alliance.

Therefore, looking the presidential race, the one coming out with momentum is Peñalosa rather than Uribe’s candidate Zuluaga. Peñalosa himself won 1.96 million (with more votes to come), coming close (perhaps beating, when all is done) with Uribe’s vote in the Senate, and easily surpassing the core Uribe vote for the Chamber. It’s clear that not everybody who voted in the primary is a supporter of the Green Alliance, and it is not clear if everybody who backed Peñalosa in the primary will vote for him in the actual election. John Sudarsky, who will not support Peñalosa, claims that Peñalosa’s victory is not legitimate because he won with Uribe’s votes; although a cursory analysis shows no correlation between Peñalosa and Uribe’s support.

Regardless, Peñalosa’s big win places him as the favourite to become the main anti-Santos candidate. Zuluaga’s candidacy is weak and petering out; if he wins only the 1.3 million voters who backed the CD in the Chamber election, he will barely win 10% of the vote. Some on the left, particularly the left-wing of the Greens, think that Uribe is looking to dump Zuluaga and fear that Uribe will ally with Peñalosa. Even in the absence of such an unlikely alliance (Peñalosa supports the peace talks with the FARC), Peñalosa could attract some of Uribe’s voters, if he consolidates himself as the main opponent to Santos in the polls.

MIRA fell below the 3% threshold for seats in the Senate, thereby losing all their seats in the upper house, but paradoxically, MIRA won its best result in the lower house, winning 2.9% of the vote and taking 3 seats. Given the loss of the party’s most popular and emblematic legislator, MIRA’s results were still pretty decent.

Geographical analysis

Senate results by department (leading party; source: registraduria.gov.co)

It is clear that what mattered for the U was the support of regional machines and their caciques, controlling patronage and pork. It becomes quite clear once you look at the distribution of preference votes on the U’s senatorial slate: the ‘media’ star candidates, led by General Fredy Padilla de León, did poorly – the retired military commander won only 16.3 thousand votes (0.1%), failing to be elected to the Senate because he placed so low on the vote count of all candidates. Of the U’s star candidates, the only one who enjoyed more success was Jimmy Chamorro, who counted on the backing of a Christian machine. Instead, the U candidates who did well are the caciques, who brought with them their departments and allowed the U to narrowly win nationally. The U candidates who won the most votes nationally were Musa Besaile (145.4k votes), Bernardo ‘Noño’ Elías (140.1k votes) – two political bosses from the Caribbean department of Córdoba; José David Name (103.2k votes), the head of a powerful political family in Atlántico; Roosevelt Rodríguez (100.2k votes), a representative from the Valle del Cauca linked to Dilian Francisca Toro, a U Senator investigated by the Supreme Court for money laundering for the Cali cartel; and José Alfredo Gnecco (97.7k votes), the corrupt cousin of the corrupt governor of César and allegedly supported by the former governor of La Guajira, Francisco ‘Kiko’ Gómez, arrested in 2013 for murder.

With machine support, the U swept the Caribbean departments. In César, the U won 29% of the vote – and Gnecco won 20% of the total votes just for himself; in neighboring La Guajira, the U won 27%, with 7.6% for ‘Noño’ Elías and 6.6% for Gnecco. In Córdoba, with three incumbent U caciques, the U won 41%, most of that coming in the form of preferential votes for the department’s three U caciques: ‘Noño’ Elías (12.7%), Musa Besaile (12.4%) and Martín Morales (9.7%). In Bolívar, the U obtained 21.2% thanks to Sandra Villadiego, a representative and wife of Miguel Ángel Rangel (former congressman, sentenced for parapolitics) and Andrés García Zuccardi, a political novice who is the heir to the García-Zuccardi clan (both of his parents are in jail or have been detained for corruption or parapolitics). In Magdalena, the U won 25.8% of the vote, with 6.4% of the vote for Miguel Amin Escaf, a representative from neighboring Atlántico.

In the Caribbean department of Atlántico, the victory went to the Conservatives, led by the septuagenarian Conservative cacique, Senator Roberto Gerlein. The party won 28.9% of the votes, with 10% of the total votes for Gerlein and 8.1% for representative Laureano Acuña, a rival of Gerlein who has built his own smaller machine with his wife and other politicians. The U won 22% in Atlántico, pushed by José David Name (6%). The CR placed third with 14%, with 8.3% for Arturo Char, the heir to Senator Fuad Char’s powerful local dynasty.

The only Caribbean department to escape the National Unity parties was Sucre, where the Civic Option won 23.9% against 20.5% for the U, 12.7% for the Conservatives and 10.9% for the Liberals. The Civic Option’s victory is the result of its two local machines: Julio Miguel Guerra Sotto, the son of the Liberal governor Julio César Guerra (Guerra Sotto was denied the Liberal nomination because of a corrupt business deal with a corrupt local businesswoman [Enilse López, “La Gata”] in his father’s administration), who won 9.6% of the preferential votes thanks to his father’s machine; incumbent Teresita García Romero, introduced above, the sister of a jailed Sucre cacique involved in a paramilitary massacre in 2000, won 6.3%. Incumbent Senator Antonio José Correa (who admitted that his 2010 campaign was funded by a convicted murderer), the candidate of Enilse López’s clan, won 5.5%. In Sucre, the U trailed closely, with support coming from neighboring regional caciques Musa Besaile and ‘Noño’ Elías.

The CD was very weak in the Caribbean region, except for César, where it placed second with 11.4%; it won single digits in all other departments.

In the Andean region, home to large cities (Medellín and Bogotá) and territories less ‘tied down’ by powerful machines and caciques, Uribe (and the left) was more successful. The CD won the senatorial vote in Antioquia, Bogotá DC, Risaralda, Quindio, Tolima, Huila and Cundinamarca; the Andean region provided the CD with 60% of its national vote, and all but one or two of the CD’s representatives are from Andean departments. The Liberals won Santander while the Conservatives won Boyacá and Norte de Santander.

Uribe is from Antioquia and many of his candidates, both for Senate and the Chamber, came from Antioquia: seven senators and five of the CD representatives are antioqueño. In Antioquia, which includes Medellín, the CD won 25.8%, a ten point advantage over the Conservatives; a lot of the CD’s victory comes from Medellín, where Uribe’s party won 34.9%. The Conservatives were led by Nidia Marcela Osorio, candidate of a political machine in the Medellín suburb of Itagüí; and Senator Olga Lucía Suárez, former mayor of the northern Medellín suburb of Bello and inheritor of her husband’s Senate seat (when he was convicted for parapolitics).

In Bogotá, the CD won 20.3%, a margin of about nine points over the Liberals, in second with 11.1%. The Polo and the Greens each won only 7.9%, bad news for Gustavo Petro. Bogotá, along with Antioquia (for the Polo) and Boyacá (for the Greens), remains these two centre-left parties’ main strongholds in Colombia. Although CR won only 7.3% in Bogotá, its star candidate Carlos Fernando Galán got a comparatively hefty personal vote (2.68%), the second most voted single candidate in the city behind the Polo’s Jorge Robledo (2.7%).

The U won Caldas, thanks to Óscar Mauricio Lizcano, the heir of Conservative cacique Óscar Tulio Lizcano. The Conservatives won Boyacá, with two incumbents leading the pack (Jorge Hernando Pedraza, Juan de Jesús Córdoba – only the former was reelected). The main surprise in Boyacá was the Greens’ poor performance; the party won only 7.4% and the incumbent senator/former governor Jorge Londoño only won 4.2%, losing reelection. Although the CD fell short in both departments, they placed strong seconds.

In Norte de Santander, more closely controlled by caciques, the CD placed fourth behind the Conservatives, Liberals and the U. All the three parties were led by local senators-caciques: Conservative three-term senator Juan Manuel Corzo (6.7%), Liberal newcomer Andrés Cristo, the brother of the retiring President of the Senate Juan Fernando Cristo (12.4%) and the U two-term Senator Manuel Guillermo Mora (6.6%). The Polo won a number of small municipalities, certainly due to local campesino leader Jesús Alberto Castilla, who was elected to the Senate.

In Santander, Liberal boss Horacio Serpa, a long-time fixture of national and local politics, allowed his party to top the poll with 20.5% of the vote. But, overall, the results in Santander a considered a defeat for Serpa. The Liberals had placed high hopes in Serpa’s ability to attract significant votes both nationally and in Santander, but he failed to do so. In terms of preferential votes in Santander, Serpa won 40.4k (5.5%), far less than the candidate of Serpa’s sworn enemies – Senator Nerthink Mauricio Aguilar, from Civic Option, won 82.5k (11.3%). Aguilar, first elected to the Senate in 2010 with 51k votes, is the son of former governor Hugo Aguilar (2004-2007), Serpa’s main rival who was arrested for parapolitics in 2011 (given that Nerthink Mauricio Aguilar lacked any political experience in 2010, he was only elected thanks to his father’s machinery) and his brother, Richard Aguilar, is the incumbent governor of Santander (elected in 2011, defeating the candidate backed by outgoing governor Serpa). It is true that Serpa had to deal with serious Liberal challenges: Senate Jaime Enrique Durán won 5.3% of the vote, just a bit less than Serpa. Yet, it’s a major defeat both for Serpa and the Liberals. In the Chamber election, Civic Option won Santander and two seats.

National Unity held the upper hand in the four Pacific departments, notably the most important of them – Valle del Cauca (Cali), won by the U. In that department, the U’s Roosevelt Rodríguez, an incumbent representative who was the candidate of embattled Senator Dilian Francisca Toro, under investigation for money laundering of drug trafficking proceeds for the Cali cartel. Toro was behind Rodríguez’ campaign operation and had her machine behind him; with a great result: he won 77.2k votes in the department (that’s over three-quarters of all the votes he won nationally), or 6.3%. Overall, the U won 14.9% in the department, followed by the Conservatives (12.5%), the Liberals (12.1%) and Uribe (10.5%). The Conservatives elected Javier Mauricio Delgado (5.5%), the political heir of his uncle Senator César Tulio Delgado and the candidate backed by governor Ubeimar Delgado (his other uncle); the Liberals reelected Édinson Delgado (2.9%). The other interesting aspect of the race in the Valle is the end of the Civic Option, which used to be a powerful party in the department when it was backed by the Abadía clan (Juan Carlos Abadía, now-deposed governor of the Valle from 2008 to 2010) and Senator Juan Carlos Martínez (senator from 2002 to 2009, convicted in the parapolitics scandal and under investigation for drug trafficking); with its main backers politically dead, it won only 5.3% and its incumbent senator, Carlos Arturo Quintero (controversial because of a link to a drug cartel assassin) was soundly defeated.

In Cauca, the Liberals won handily with 22.3% of the vote; two-term senator Luis Fernando Velasco, who comes from a family of politicians, won 7.8%. In Nariño, the Conservatives, with two influential senators, topped the poll with 25.2% – senators Myriam Alicia Paredes (9.7%) and Carlos Eduardo Enríquez (8.7%) are both close allies of the government, especially Enríquez. The Liberals (21.3%) won a strong second, thanks to incumbent senator Guillermo García Realpe (8.9%, but lost reelection) and representative Javier Tato Álvarez (7.4%, elected). Puzzling was the Greens’ weak result (6.7%), particularly Antonio Navarro Wolff’s very poor performance (2.6%, only the second most popular Green candidate), given that he has served both as mayor and governor.

The sparsely populated departments of the Amazon, the llanos and the Orinoquía split between the government and the CD – with governing parties winning Putumayo, Meta, Guaviare and Vaupés and the CD winning Arauca, Casanare, Vichada, Guianía, Caquetá and Amazonas. In Meta, the U won a resounding victory (34.4%), with 16.4% for Senator Maritza Martínez, the political boss of the Orinoquía (the only senator representing the region’s four departments); but the U nevertheless lost the other three departments there (Arauca, Casanare, Vichada), though her appeal likely extended into the Amazon (Guaviare and Vaupés). Martínez is the heiress of her husband, sentenced for parapolitics. In Casanare, the CD (26.4%) was followed by the Greens (23.6%), led by former governor Jorge Prieto Riveros, who won 19.2% on his name. In thinly populated Caquetá, the governing parties were badly trounced – the top winners were the CD (22%), MIRA (10.5%), the Polo (10%, including 7.5% around local candidate Alonso Orozco Gómez) and the Conservatives (9.5%). In Amazonas, the Greens were second behind the CD (16.8% vs 14.9%), seemingly because the governor is Green and his wife was a Green candidate (10.9% on her name). The Liberals swept Putumayo (28.9%), with 18.4% preferential votes for the department’s representative, Guillermo Rivera.

Chamber results by department (leading party; source: registraduria.gov.co)

A detailed analysis of the Chamber results is less important; the games are still defined by regional caciques, who tend to run their tools and pawns as candidate for the Chamber. The CD did, as noted above, far more poorly in the race for the Chamber – the only departments the CD won are Antioquia and Bogotá DC, the two most populous departments which can be expected to be the least ‘tied down’ by caciques. Additionally, several regional parties which did not run for Senate did well in the Chamber race. Worth mentioning is the ‘100% Colombia’ movement, which won 3 seats – 2 from Sucre and one from Casanare. The party won 31% of the vote in Sucre, against 25.6% for the U and 13.3% for Civic Option (which won the senate race in the department). The party is the outfit of Yahir Acuña, an Afro-Colombian representative  under investigation for parapolitics who has alliances with senators (notably Julio Miguel Guerra Sotto) and has gubernatorial ambitions. His Afro-Colombian party, Fundación Ébano, won the two seats reserved for Afro-Colombians in the Chamber. In Casanare, the party’s rep-elect, José Rodolfo Pérez, the candidate of a clan led by his father, a former two-time governor (sentenced to 15 years in jail for parapolitics) and backed by two other governors (one who was deposed for being a crook, and the incumbent).

What comes out of all this is the weight of governors in ‘deciding’ elections. Some notable cases were mentioned above: Nerthink Mauricio Aguilar, the brother of the governor of Santander, elected in a landslide; José Alfredo Gnecco, the cousin of the governor of César; Javier Mauricio Delgado, the nephew of the governor of the Valle whose only previous political experience was being a local councillor in Cali; and Julio Miguel Guerra Sotto, soundly defeated in 2010 but easily elected in 2014 because his father became governor of Sucre in 2011. Another remarkable example is that of Sara Piedrahíta Lyons (The U), a 25-year old beauty queen with zero political experience whose cousin just appears to be the governor of Córdoba. With her cousin’s support, she won 105k votes in Córdoba, or 15.8% of the votes cast in the department. The opposite is true: when nobody in your clan happens to be governor, you lose reelection. In 2010, the Liberal Party’s Arleth Casado was elected senator with the backing of her husband, sentenced for parapolitics. This year, with only 48k votes in Córdoba, she lost reelection – her clan’s candidate lost the governorship in 2011. In Tolima, Conservative Senator Juan Mario Laserna, elected in 2010 with the muscle of then-governor Óscar Barreto, was badly defeated (15k votes in Tolima, only 3.4%) – it so happens that the Barreto clan lost the governorship in 2011 to Liberals and rival Conservatives. In Santander, Liberal Senator Honorio Galvis also lost reelection, having been unable to play his cards correctly with the candidacy of Horacio Serpa – who, as governor, had supported him in 2010. Finally, in Boyacá, Green Senator Jorge Londoño was defeated, his candidate having lost the governorship in 2011.

It is interesting, finally, to look at the national distribution of votes between individual senatorial candidates. For the Conservatives, naturally, the top vote winner nationally was Roberto Gerlein (with 127k votes on his name), followed by his Atlántico colleague Efraín Cepeda (98k), Córdoba Senator Nora María García (86k), Gerlein’s Atlántico rival Laureano Acuña (85.6k) and Yamina Pestana (85k), a political novice controlled by her imprisoned brother (a political boss from Córdoba and Sucre). For the Liberals, Serpa obviously topped the vote count, with 129,974 votes on his name – mostly from Santander but also from other departments – but that was far less than hoped for by the Liberals. Andrés Cristo, the heir to the political boss of Norte de Santander, ranked second nationally with some 85.4k votes; Juan Manuel Galán, a senator from Bogotá, won 75.3k votes.

For the CR, it was Arturo Char, the heir of a clan in Atlántico, who topped the poll with 108,454 preference votes. Carlos Fernando Galán, the CR’s star candidate, won 87.4k votes while Germán Varón, the ally of CR leader/VP candidate Germán Vargas Lleras, won 79.7k votes.

As noted previously, the Green top candidate, Antonio Navarro Wolff, only ranked second (55.4k votes), far behind Claudia López (81k). The Polo’s Jorge Robledo was the top candidate in Colombia, with 191.9k votes – or 1.3% of the total votes cast nationally. Iván Cepeda, an incumbent representative from Bogotá working on human rights and crimes against humanity, won 84,126 votes.

For Civic Option, Nerthink Mauricio Aguilar won 100,159 votes (0.7%). Senator Antonio José Correa, from Bolívar, took 81.9k votes. The Civic Option’s five senators are all classified as ‘cuestionado’ by La Silla Vacía, meaning that they have been cited in alleged (or proven) corruption cases.

The elections left many questions unanswered. Uribe did well, but not well enough to jeopardize Santos’ chances at reelection. Indeed, as noted above, if anyone comes out strengthened from the elections, it is the Green Alliance’s Enrique Peñalosa, not Uribe’s candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who is struggling to take off in polls. For the time being, although Santos’ approvals and polling numbers are not particularly impressive and the likelihood of a strong voto en blanco on May 25 means that he won’t win by the first round; Santos nevertheless remains the runaway favourite to win reelection. His opposition is divided and no opposition candidate has so far managed to emerge as a credible opponent with the ability to unite the very heterogeneous opposition to Santos on his name.

Election Preview: Colombia 2014

Map of Colombia (source: ezilon)

Legislative elections will be held in Colombia on March 9, 2014. All 167 seats in the Chamber of Representative (Cámara de Representantes) and all 102 seats in the Senate of the Republic (Senado de la República), the two houses which make up the National Congress (Congreso Nacional) were up for reelection. The five Colombian members of the Andean Parliament (Parlamento Andino) were also up for reelection. Member of Congress and of the Andean Parliament are elected for four-year terms.

These congressional elections will be followed by presidential elections on May 25, 2014. The President, who is the head of state and government, is elected to a four-year term, renewable once, using a two round system.

Electoral and political system

The Chamber of Representatives, the lower house, is made up of 162 seats elected in 33 multi-member circunscripciones territoriales – that is, Colombia’s 32 departments and the capital district of Bogotá. Each department has at least two seats, with an additional seat for every 365,000 inhabitants or fraction greater than 182,500 inhabitants in excess of the first 365,000 inhabitants. The capital district of Bogotá has the most seats, 18, followed by the departments of Antioquia (17) and Valle del Cauca (13). The distribution of seats between the departments is detailed in this presidential decree from 2013 setting the number of seats. The remaining five seats in the Chamber are split between two seats elected by Afro-Colombians, one seat elected by native indigenous Colombians and two seats elected by Colombian citizens living outside the country.

The Senate, the upper house, is made up of 102 seats. 100 of these seats are elected at-large, in a nationwide constituency (circunscripción nacional), while the remaining two seats are elected in a nationwide constituency for indigenous native Colombians.

Congress is elected by party-list proportional representation, with seats distributed according to the largest remainders method. The two houses of Congress and the Andean Parliament are elected on separate ballots. When voting for the Senate and Chamber, voters must choose whether they will vote in the national/territorial constituencies or if they will vote in one of the special constituencies (for the Senate, the indigenous seats; for the Chamber, the Afro-Colombian seats or the indigenous seats) – they may only vote in one constituency. The vote may be preferential or non-preferential – the choice is up to the political parties, who either decide to present a closed list of ranked candidates or an open list. If the party run a closed list, voters only mark the logo of the party. If the party runs an open list, voters must vote for a single candidate (marking the box with their chosen candidate’s number, or marking both the party logo box and the candidate number box). On all ballots for all constituencies, there is also an option to officially cast a blank/white vote (voto en blanco).

Colombia is an electoral democracy, although the presence of guerrilla and neo-paramilitary criminal groups in more isolated areas have an incidence on the electoral process and there are publicized cases of vote buying and intimidation. Freedom House considers Colombia a ‘partly free’ country, notably because of threats to journalists by criminal groups (guerrilla, neo-paramilitary, drug cartels etc), restrictions of constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and association (because of violence), judicial corruption, limited civilian oversight of the military, human rights abuses by the military and impunity for crime. Land rights associations, social movements, labour unions and NGOs are often killed by criminal groups.

Political history

Colombia’s history is sometimes described as ‘paradoxical’ because it mixes a long tradition of democratic rule with free and fair elections and respect for political and civil rights with a long history as a fractured and polarized society where democratic competition exists alongside political violence. Colombia is also peculiar on several counts, most notably as being the only South American country in which the Liberal and Conservative parties have survived into the twentieth country and by the continued existence of guerrilla groups which challenge the Colombian state’s authority within its own territory. Colombia, finally, is the third most populous country in Latin America with a population of over 47 million, but it often seems as if its history isn’t as well known or popularized as that of Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and even Venezuela.

The roots of modern Colombia’s political history were sown during Gran Colombia (1819-1832), the state which included modern-day Colombia (then known as New Granada, present-day Colombia’s name under Spanish colonial rule), Venezuela and Ecuador. Early conflicts in the fractious and weak country related to the territorial organization of the state, with the familiar debates between federalists and centralists. Gran Colombia’s 1821 Cúcuta constitution adopted a highly centralized form of government, with powerless provincial assemblies and local governors appointed by Bogotá. The 1821 constitution otherwise revealed the US influence, with a traditional presidential system of government and separation of powers. The legendary libertador, Simón Bolívar was Gran Colombia’s first President, with his fellow liberator general Francisco de Paula Santander as Vice President (and de facto ruler during Bolívar’s campaigns against the Spanish crown in Peru). When Bolívar returned from Peru in 1826, he came to favour a more autocratic form of rule, with a president serving for life and appointing his successor. In August 1828, Bolívar took power as dictator, with the backing of military officers and the Catholic Church. While clearly elitist, Bolívar, a free-mason and opponent of slavery, was probably not a true conservative. Yet, he felt that some of the early anticlerical reforms were going too fast, and favoured a more gradual pace in the adoption of various reforms. Bolívar’s autocratic rule was backed by the military and aristocratic families. He ran into the opposition of his Vice President, Santander, who was forced into exile in the US. Santander’s liberals were mostly from the emerging upper-classes of hitherto peripheral provinces in New Granada. Venezuela and Ecuador seceded from Gran Colombia in 1829-1830, and a sickly Bolívar resigned in May 1830, a few months before he died.

Gran Colombia’s short-lived conflict between Bolívar and Santander’s supporters informed the formation of the Liberal and Conservative parties in nineteenth century Colombia. Santanderismo supported federalism, separation of Church and State, equal rights and responsibilities, public education, civilian government and free trade; bolivarianismo – in Colombia – came to be associated with centralized government, support for the Catholic Church’s privileges and a more elitist and autocratic conception of government. However, Bolívar, because of his stature as the libertador and the contradictions in his political career, has been used across Latin America by both the left and right to legitimize their own political agenda. It is fairly telling that, in Colombia, bolivarianismo has tended to be associated with Conservatives, while in neighboring Venezuela, bolivarianismo has been widely used by Chávez’s socialist government as some kind of ‘ideological foundation’.

Gran Colombia, a rump state by 1830, adopted a new constitution in 1830 similar to the 1821 Cúcuta constitution. In 1832, the country reconstituted itself as the Republic of New Granada, with a new constitution which expanded provincial autonomy somewhat and abolished military (but not ecclesiastical) legal privileges. The military had suffered from its association to Bolívar’s dictatorship and most of its officers were lost to Venezuela following the collapse of Gran Colombia. The new state was weakened by the country’s broken topography and primitive infrastructure, which made asserting control over the entire territory rather difficult. The economy was equally as weak: most of the population were farmers or raised livestock for domestic consumption, foreign trade was very low, gold mining employed few people and was disconnected from the rest of the economy. Santander became the country’s president in 1832, ruling as a moderate liberal (promoting education, holding down military spending) until 1837. Uncharacteristically for the era, Santander accepted the defeat of his favourite candidate, general José María Obando, by a more conservative man, José Ignacio de Márquez.

The very Catholic region of Pasto rose in rebellion in 1839, after Congress closed small convents. They were backed, in an unholy alliance, by federalist liberals and the Ecuadorian president. José María Obando became the leader of the opposition after Santander’s death in 1840 and began a civil war. While Obando’s liberal federalist rebels had early successes, by the end of the year 1840, they were soundly defeated by the government forces. Márquez completed his term and he was succeeded by the two distinguished government commanders during the War of the Supremes: Pedro Alcántara Herrán (1841-1845) and Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera (1845-1849). The dominant conservatives adopted a new constitution in 1843, which centralized powers in the central government and allowed the Jesuits, expelled by the Spanish, to return to play a key role in education. However, President Mosquera’s policies alienated some conservatives and the conservatives’ divisions allowed a liberal, José Hilario López, to win the presidency in 1849. The 1849 election marked the formation of Colombia’s two major political parties, which exist to this day, the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Colombiano). The Liberals came from the santanderista tradition, while the Conservatives took their ideological influences from Bolivarianism. Both parties differed on some important issues (notably the Church), but both were elitist and opportunist. For example, the Liberal victory in 1849 owed partly to the backing of protectionist artisans, who opposed Mosquera’s low tariff policies – even if the Liberals, like many Conservatives, were no protectionists.

The new Liberal administration began to challenge the Church’s predominant position and favour federalism. The Jesuits, who returned in 1843, were again expelled in 1850. The Liberals abolished the last vestiges of slavery, Amerindian communal land, reduced the size of the army and proclaimed the freedom of the press. Conservative landowners and slaveholders were defeated by the Liberals in a brief civil war in 1851. In 1853, the Liberals adopted a new constitution, which introduced unqualified freedom of religion, universal male suffrage, devolved powers to the provinces and made provincial governors directly elected. The new constitution did not settle matter, and the fairly rapid pace of reforms worried some moderate Liberals. In 1854, one of them, General José María Melo, overthrew President Obando’s government in a coup in April 1854. The Liberal and Conservative elites united against Melo, backed by artisans, both to restore constitutional legality and thwart social change from below. Melo was run out of town in December 1854; the 1854 civil war allowed the Conservatives to reenter government, increasingly gaining the upper hand. Mariano Ospina Rodríguez, a Conservative, was elected President in the first direct election in 1857, defeating a radical Liberal candidate and former President Mosquera. The election demonstrated to what extent the population had become aligned with the two parties: local priests (for the Conservatives) or potentates (for both parties) recruited their people to vote for one party, local and individual partisan affiliation was handed down over generations and inherited party affiliations became important.

The 1853 constitution was not a federalist document per se, but it led various parts of the country to demand autonomy. In 1855, Panamá, which never had much affinity with the rest of New Granada, obtained self-government. Other states (Antioquia, Santander) followed suit in 1856 and 1857, before Congress granted self-government to five states in June 1857. Ironically, it was a Conservative administration which adopted the first federalist constitution, in 1858. The country was renamed as the Granadine Confederation.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives, as far as the Liberals were concerned, still leaned towards centralism and Ospina’s government was accused of not faithfully observing the intent of the federal constitution. Another civil war between Liberals – federalists – and Conservatives – centralists – broke out in 1860. In 1861, Liberal leader Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera declared the independence of the state of Cauca, the largest federated state, and his Liberal forces attacked the government (Conservative) forces. In July 1861, Bogotá fell and Mosquera proclaimed himself as President of the United States of New Granada, renamed later that year as the United States of Colombia.

Map of Colombia in 1863 (source: wikipedia)

With the federalist Liberals back in power, a new constitution – even more federalist in orientation – was adopted for the new country in 1863. Under the new constitution, the federal states could exercise power over all matters not explicitly reserved to the central government; they could raise their own militias and determine voting rights (some states used this to retreat from universal male suffrage). The constitution could only be amended by unanimous consent from all states. Finally, the President was no longer directly elected – to weaken the office, the President would be elected by the states (one state, one vote) for a single two-year term. The constitution granted wide individual rights, with the right to bear arms, no limits on the spoken word and freedom of religion. Nevertheless, the Liberals remained very much anticlerical. Mosquera expelled the Jesuits (again), who had been allowed to return under Opsina’s Conservative government. He also seized most Church property and legally abolished the religious orders of monks and nuns. The Liberals’ harsh anti-clericalism drove a further wedge of bitterness between the two parties.

Mosquera lost reelection in 1864, when the Liberals preferred the less megalomaniac Manuel Murillo Toro, a radical Liberal. In 1864, Murillo signed a law banning ecclesiastical orders who had not sworn loyalty to the constitution, further increasing tensions with the clerical Conservatives. The central government’s authority was weakened by power struggles between caciques in the various federal states. When Mosquera, reelected in 1866, moved to bar states from raising their own militias, he faced armed opposition from Panamá, Antioquia and Santander. Congress allowed states to raise their own militias again in 1867. However, that same year, facing a civil war in Magdalena, Mosquera sought to amend the constitution to grant the President discretionary powers in times of crisis. He arrested Murillo, tried to strongarm Congress into approving his measures and finally resorted to a coup d’état in April 1867 and dissolved Congress. States coalesced against him and Mosquera was overthrown a month after his coup by the president of the state of Boyacá.

Stability returned and prevailed until 1876. Railroads, mostly short and foreign-built, were developed in present-day Colombia. The Liberals paid significant attention to the neglected field of education, promoting public secular education through foreign assistance. However, unlike in Argentina, the push for public education was less successful because cooperation from state governments was not always forthcoming and ecclesiastical backlash. Conflict over religion and Church-State relations (especially in education) led to the outbreak of another civil war between Liberals and Conservatives in 1876. In a short but bloody conflict, the Liberals defeated the Conservatives and the leading Liberal general, Julián Trujillo, was elected President in 1878. The 1876-1877 civil war was a rare nationwide conflict, but there were several civil wars within the states between competing Liberal and Conservative (or even only Liberal) factions.

The pitiful state of public order in Colombia led some Liberal dissidents, led by distinguished intellectual and diplomat Rafael Núñez, to argue that anarchic federalism was hindering Colombian development. Instead, they sought a more centralized form of government, which would be able to lead Colombia’s regeneración (as Rafael Núñez’s movement came to be known). This position brought them closer to the Conservatives, who allied with Núñez to elect him to the presidency in 1880. During his first term in office, Núñez, constrained by the 1863 constitution, moved to increase central powers by creating a central bank and overseeing the opening of works on the Panamá Canal by France’s Ferdinand de Lesseps. A proxy candidate for Núñez was elected in 1882 (but died in office). In 1884, Rafael Núñez returned to the presidency, defeating the radical Liberals. In his second term, Núñez put his program of regeneración into action, but he first had to defeat opposition from the radical, federalist Liberals – especially in the radical Liberal stronghold of Santander. In yet another civil war, the central government defeated various radical Liberal caudillos in November 1885.

Federalism had not changed social relations in Colombia, which remained a very class-stratified society – a legacy of Spanish colonial rule. Penetrating the upper strata was made even harder by the weakness of the military as an institution – the generals of civil wars were part-time fighters, full-time politicians, landowners or lawyers. Living conditions were harsh for most Colombians, who were illiterate, poorly housed and victims of early mortality. Even rural upper and middle-classes did not live lavish or impressive lifestyles, even if they were of lighter skin tone and better educated. The poor state of infrastructure and the country’s terrain made trade, transportation and internal commerce very difficult.

Opposition having been defeated, a new constitution was adopted in 1886. The country became the Republic of Colombia, a centralized state with a strong central government. The President was indirectly elected by an electoral college, serving a six-year term with possibility for immediate reelection. The President named the governors of each department (as the states became known), and the governors named all mayors in their departments. The directly-elected departmental and local councils were powerless. The broad array of individual rights and the secular, humanist orientation of the 1863 constitution was dropped: the death penalty, abolished in 1863, returned; Catholicism became the official religion; and literacy was required to vote in national elections. A more autocratic, conservative, clerical and ultra-centralist state replaced Colombia’s last experiment with federalism.

Rafael Núñez was a religious freethinker, but was convinced that the Catholic Church – as a powerful institution controlling much of the population – needed to play a key role to support law and order in Colombia. In 1887, Bogotá signed a Concordat with the Vatican, under which the Church was compensated for seized property, religious orders allowed to return and the Church’s legal privileges were restored. Public education was entrusted to the Church, divorce (legalized by the Liberals) was forbidden and remarriages of divorced persons were retroactively annulled.

Núñez’s positivist regeneración saw the state take a more active role in the economy with the adoption of protectionist measures. In an effort to break the bitter partisan rivalries, Rafael Núñez created his own party, the National Party (Partido Nacional), made up of like-minded Conservatives and moderate Liberals. But the National Party quickly became more of a Conservative faction, as Liberals became displeased with the government’s clericalism, conservatism and authoritarianism. Some Conservatives, the so-called ‘históricos‘, opposed Núñez’s government and decried its economic policies (issuing paper money, new export tax on coffee).

Rafael Núñez, President of Colombia and leader of the regeneración (source: Wikipedia)

Rafael Núñez was reelected in 1892, but he was in poor health and he died in September 1894. In 1895, the Liberals, excluded from political representation and persecuted by an autocratic government, took up arms in a brief civil war, which was crushed by the government within a few months. Although the National Party, with Manuel Antonio Sanclemente, held the presidency in 1898, the government was weakened by rebellious Liberals and disgruntled Conservatives.

In October 1899, the Liberals launched another, stronger and more coordinated, uprising against the government. The Liberals were most successful in Santander and Panamá – and Cauca to a lesser extent – but their forces remained in a consistent position of inferiority to government/Conservative troops. Nevertheless, the Liberals could count on the assistance of foreign Liberal governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The Thousand Days’ War, as the bloody conflict came to be known, lasted longer and was far bloodier than any of the previous civil wars in Colombia. In July 1900, politicians and military officers overthrew Sanclemente’s government in favour of his Conservative Vice President, José Manuel Marroquín. The war ended with a Liberal defeat in 1902, with the signature of a treaty (the Treaty of Wisconsin) mediated by the US, which was taking an active interest in Colombian politics to defend American interests in the Panama Canal zone. The war is estimated to have killed 100,000 people (3.5% of the population), devastated the economy and bankrupted the country.

As a result, Bogotá was powerless to face the Panama situation. The Americans, who already controlled the railway line crossing the isthmus, had acquired the rest of the bankrupted French canal company and in 1903 signed a treat with Marroquín’s government in which Colombia ceded a Canal Zone in exchange for monetary indemnity. However, the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty. The Americans gave their support to the existing Panamanian revolutionary movement, and in November 1903 the Americans orchestrated Panama’s secession from Colombia (and made clear to Bogotá that it would oppose Colombian moves to regain the territory).

Rafael Reyes, a Conservative, won the presidency in 1904. His goals were reconstruction and reconciliation; in the spirit of the latter, Reyes welcomed Liberals in his cabinets and allowed them to gain some degree of political representation, to the dismay of intransigent Conservatives. But he was also rather autocratic: he dissolved Congress and convened a new constituent assembly in its stead, extended his term of office from 6 to 10 years and took heavy-handed measures against opponents. At the same time, Reyes successfully professionalized the military, reached an agreement with foreign creditors, promoted public works and offered tariff protection to industries. But Colombia still lagged behind in terms of railroad infrastructure and corruption was rampant. In 1909, Reyes’ one-man rule displeased the elites and a treaty he signed with Washington recognizing Panamanian independence (in return for monetary compensation) incensed public opinion. Reyes was forced out of office in July 1909.

A constituent assembly was convened in 1910, with the goal of reforming the 1886 constitution. Carlos Eugenio Restrepo, a Conservative backed by Liberals and Conservatives who had overthrown Reyes in 1909, was elected President by the assembly. Under the 1910 reforms, immediate presidential reelection was banned, the term of office reduced to 4 years and the President would henceforth be elected directly (but literacy and income requirements still conditioned the franchise, obviously limited to males).

Until 1930, an era of stability and growth prevailed under Conservative presidents. Coffee took off as the country’s main export crop, especially in the 1920s when Colombia accounted for 11% of the world market, making it the second largest producer after Brazil. Fruits (bananas, grown by the United Fruit), petroleum (in the Magdalena valley, with Standard Oil’s Barrancabermeja refinery) and textiles for domestic markets (in Medellín). Unlike other Latin American countries, foreign investment remained low – although governments were favourably disposed towards foreign investors – and coffee, Colombia’s main crop, remained in Colombian hands.

Relations with the US were normalized in 1921, largely thanks to president Marco Fidel Suárez, although the issue did not come without problems – the president was compelled to resign the presidency in order to facilitate passage of the treaty, under which Colombia recognized Panamanian independence in return for a $25 million indemnity from the US. The US indemnity was huge for Colombian standards, and led to a huge of influx of foreign loans for Colombia and government splurges on public works projects. The economy and infrastructures grew rapidly, but at the cost of rising indebtedness and suspicions of government corruption.

The Conservative hegemony, as the era is commonly called, was generally peaceful – in the sense that there were no civil wars and violence was limited to election time or isolated regional uprisings. Elections were not wholly free and fair, but they had some legitimacy. Furthermore, unlike in the early years of the centralized republic, the Liberals were represented in legislative bodies and sometimes ran candidates in presidential elections (notably in 1922, officially taking 38.3%). However, social unrest mounted during the later years of Conservative rule and ultimately undid the Conservative hegemony. The first strikes erupted in 1918-1919, famously with a tailor’s demonstration in Bogotá which led to the death of several workers. In rural areas, some tenants and sharecroppers rebelled against landowners. Tropical Oil, a local subsidiary of Standard Oil, faced major strikes at Barrancabermeja in 1924 and 1927. The worst conflict was the ‘banana massacre’ in December 1928, when the military opened fire on striking workers at a United Fruit banana plantation in the northern Magdalena department. A young Liberal politician, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, investigated the massacre and claimed that over 100 people were killed.

The banana massacre and the Liberals’ handling the issue, combined with the Great Depression which hit in 1929, led to the collapse of Conservative rule. The Conservatives were unable to resolve their divisions and the party had two candidates in the 1930 election, one moderate and one radical. The Conservative division allowed the Liberal candidate, Enrique Olaya Herrera to win the presidency with 44.6%. It was the first peaceful transfer of power between the old rivals.

The new Liberal government needed to deal with the Great Depression, which took a heavy toll on Colombia as the price of vital exports – coffee, oil and bananas – collapsed. The government, a coalition cabinet led by a moderate, took little bold measures but industrial production and internal demand nevertheless increased. By 1932, Colombia’s economy was out of recession. Colombia briefly went to war with Peru over the disputed Amazonian town of Leticia, in the Colombian Amazonian ‘trapezoid’. In May 1934, the League of Nations confirmed the border between the two countries, which was set in 1922 (and remains unchanged today, following the Putumayo river except for the Amazonian trapezoid, which allows Colombia an opening on the Amazon river).

Olaya’s successor, Alfonso López Pumarejo (1934-1938), a Liberal, was more progressive and took bold moves. Unlike previous administrations, he proved friendlier to labour and even received sympathy from the Communist Party, founded in 1930. Under the name revolución en marcha (revolution on the march), the Liberal government amended the constitution to restore universal male suffrage (women were still not allowed to vote, but under Olaya they had gained equal rights to men to dispose of property), condition property rights to social rights and obligations, guarantee the freedom of religion and eliminate the previous requirement that public education be in accord with Catholic doctrine. The educational reform reopened the old clerical issue, which had generally been put to the sleep by the Conservatives. The government also passed an agrarian reform law, largely symbolic in the end, for sharecroppers. A fiscal reform made the income tax, adopted in 1918, more progressive.

In 1935, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a left-wing populist, abandoned the Unión Nacional Izquierdista Revolucionaria (UNIR) which he had founded in 1933 to rejoin the Liberal Party. As a Liberal, Gaitán became mayor of Bogotá in 1936. As mayor, Gaitán beautified the city, improved public amenities, sent homeless children to shelters, promoted public health and sought to help poorer residents. But Gaitán’s policies, and the reformist policies in general, unnerved Conservatives and many Liberals. In 1937, the president compelled Gaitán to resign and the administration became less friendly with workers. His Liberal successor, Eduardo Santos (1938-1942), was a moderate and ‘paused’ the revolución en marcha. 

López regained the presidency in 1942, winning with some 58.7% against Carlos Arango Vélez, a moderate Liberal dissident backed by the outgoing president and the Conservatives. López took office in a time of crisis: after Pearl Harbor, Colombia became a close ally of the US and declared war on the Axis in November 1943; at home, the war badly hurt the economy, with foreign trade dropping, the United Fruit ending banana production after a disease ravaged crop and stagnating oil production. López tried to make further reforms, for example with a labour law to protect workers, but he faced the unrelenting opposition of the Conservatives, led by the vitriolic Laureano Gómez, a fascist sympathizer who admired Hitler and Franco. López was shaken by a failed coup attempt in the summer of 1944 and the combination of wartime economic woes, family issues and the strength of opposition demotivated him. He resigned the presidency in August 1945.

The Liberals were divided in the 1946 presidential election. The Liberal Party nominated Gabriel Turbay, a moderate. But Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, leader of the Liberal Party’s left-wing faction, had been focusing on a 1946 candidacy since 1944. Gaitán, who had since served as education minister (1940-1941, falling due to Liberal and Conservative opposition to centralize public education) and labour minister (1943-1944), led a populist campaign which appealed to the disgruntled urban middle-classes, the working-class, rural radicals and a progressive bourgeoisie. Gaitán attacked both parties, but some Conservatives, including Gómez, openly sympathized with Gaitán’s criticism of capitalism and the ‘political and economic oligarchy’. The Conservatives, who briefly tried to woo Gaitán to their side, ultimately nominated Mariano Ospina Pérez, a more moderate leader from Antioquia. With the Liberal vote divided, Ospina won the presidency with 40.5%, against 32.3% for Turbay and 27.2% for Gaitán, who won most urban areas.

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, assassinated Liberal politician (source: Wikipedia)

Like Olaya in 1930, Ospina tried to bridge opposites in a politically polarized country, forming a coalition government (albeit one dominated by his own Conservatives). However, re-empowered Conservatives took matters into their own hands and violently attacked Liberals to seek revenge. In the 1947 congressional elections, the Liberals held a majority in both houses; within the Liberal Party, the gaitanistas now held the upper hand over the moderate leadership (22 senators and 44 representatives, against 13 and 30). The Liberals were now reunited, if only in appearance, behind Gaitán, who was proclaimed at the party’s new leader and already openly campaigning for the 1950 presidential election. On April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated by a young man who was lynched to death by an angry mob within hours. It is therefore unclear what the assassin’s motivations were, and whether Gaitán was the victim of a Conservative conspiracy (or perhaps even the CIA) as his devoted followers claimed.

Gaitán’s assassination unleashed bloody and destructive riots in Bogotá and around Colombia, riots which are known as the Bogotazo. Gaitán’s followers did not heed their fallen leader’s opposition to armed struggle, and crowds attacked major government buildings and looted stores in Bogotá. Ospina’s government did not fall, and quickly regained control of Bogotá. Liberal leaders s reluctantly rejoined the government. However, violence continued – opening a chaotic and very violent period known as La Violencia (the violence). The Liberals did not contest the 1950 election, citing the climate of extreme violence which existed, so the more extremist Conservative leader, Laureano Gómez won the presidency unopposed. Under Gómez’s presidency, La Violencia became a disorderly civil war opposing the conservative and Catholic right to a more progressive and populist left. He suspended Congress and cracked down on Liberals and Communists. Gómez wanted to replace democracy with a corporatist system inspired by Franco’s Spain. After suffering a health attack, Gómez resigned the presidency in November 1951, but ensured that his successor was a sycophant.

La Violencia was predominantly rural: in the countryside, both Conservative government troops and police and Liberal/Communist guerrillas were violent and thuggish. Some of the elements of that conflict in the 1950s influenced later forms of violence in Colombia: in lawless rural areas, vicious pro-government conservative paramilitaries – Los Chulavitas and the pájaros – attacked bandoleros, groups of poor peasants (unaffiliated with either party) who attacked landowners.

In June 1953, the government was overthrown in a military coup led by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a distinguished military officer backed by former Conservative president Ospina. Rojas’ coup was welcomed by most politicians in Colombia, and some Liberals joined the government and accepted Rojas’ offers of amnesty. Violence declined somewhat in 1953, but picked up again because Rojas, who quickly became a repressive dictator, showed little interest in actually ending the conflict. However, La Violencia degenerated into economic competition and banditry (rather than partisan wars). By 1958, about 200,000-300,000 people had died in the violence and La Violencia directly affected about 20% of the country’s population in one way or another.

Despite chaos, however, the economy grew steadily in the early 1950s, buoyed by high coffee prices on the world market. Economically, the Conservatives were pro-business but also intervened in the economy and industry: in 1951, they created a Colombian-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, to take over production at Tropical Oil’s wells when Tropical Oil’s lease expired. Tariffs increased, benefiting the Medellín textile industry and industry in general. Under the Conservatives and Rojas, there was some innovation in social policies to help the working-classes. It was also under Rojas that women finally gained the right to vote.

Rojas, originally elected with Conservative and Liberal backing, quickly broke with the two parties and created his own movement, a corporatist-type movement which initially could count on the support of the Church and industrialists. Rojas’ movement threatened both Liberal and Conservative elites, who feared that Rojas would become akin to Argentina’s Juan Perón or Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas. Therefore, the threat to their power prompted to the old enemies to put aside old conflicts to protect their political hegemony: Liberal leader Alberto Lleras Camargo and Conservative leaders Laureano Gómez and Mariano Ospina Pérez signed two agreements in 1956 and 1957, creating the National Front (Frente Nacional), an agreement to share power for 16 years and alternate the presidency between the two parties every four years. In May 1957, Rojas was overthrown in a coup backed by the two parties and an interim junta prepared the transition to civilian National Front rule.

The National Front agreement was ratified by 95% of voters in a 1957 referendum, followed by a presidential election in which Alberto Lleras Camargo, backed by the Liberals and Conservatives, handily defeated a Conservative dissident. In an odd congressional election held in 1958, both parties were guaranteed equal representation in both houses of Congress. The more radical laureanista Conservatives won more seats than the ospinista Conservatives. Under the National Front agreement, both parties were guaranteed equal representation in law-making bodies (Congress, departmental assemblies etc), cabinet and appointed offices. Although the National Front could be seen as restricting political participation by other parties, those parties – weak to begin with – got around the deal by running as Liberals or Conservatives. The National Front’s biggest success was ending the violence between the two old enemies – political violence therefore diminished sharply, with the elimination of old antagonisms but also military action and social assistance in rural areas.

Under the National Front agreement, the presidents were the Liberal Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962), the Conservative Guillermo León Valencia (1962-1966), the Liberal Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) and the Conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero (1970-1974). Political opposition existed within the two parties. The Liberal Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal, MRL), led by Alfonso López Michelsen (the son of former President Alfredo López Pumarejo), united left-wing Liberals and socialists/Communists opposed to the National Front. More importantly, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla returned to Colombia to create the Popular National Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular, ANAPO), which ran both Liberal and Conservative candidates. Alfonso López Michelsen won 23.8% as an (illegal) candidate in the 1962 elections, while ANAPO’s popular support increased over the 1960s. In 1970, ANAPO won 38 senators and 71 deputies, becoming the second largest bloc in Congress behind the Liberal Party leadership (oficialistas). That same year, Rojas ran for president against the official Conservative-Liberal candidate (Misael Pastrana) and two other Conservative dissidents. Rojas narrowly lost, according to official results, winning 39.6% against 41.2% for the official candidate. Rojas denounced fraud and vote rigging, and there is indeed pretty serious evidence to indicate that Rojas probably won but the government tampered with the results to give the victory to the National Front candidate.

The National Front governments intervened in the economy, making important investments in healthcare, education and infrastructure. President Lleras Camargo’s government passed an agrarian reform law in 1961, which aimed to resettle landless workers and very small landowners (subsistence farmers) on public land. On the whole, while the government followed the ISI economic model, it was a fairly ‘responsible’ government (controlling inflation) and did not neglect exports. The result of substantial government investments in education was a spectacular fall in illiteracy from 40% to 15% in the space of two decades. Socially, the National Front era was marked by rapid urbanization, very high annual population growth in the 1960s (later checked by government family planning policies) and the declining influence of the Catholic Church. The declining power of the Church allowed for the legalization of divorce (but only for those married in a civil ceremony) and an end to rabid anti-Protestantism from the Catholic clergy (during La Violencia, the clergy urged Catholics to attack Protestants). Yet, change did not meet expectations and there remained several problems: poor education, inadequate infrastructure, high income inequality and far too many Colombians still living in poverty.

The National Front ended La Violencia, but it did not end armed conflict in Colombia. Fed by social inequalities and the radicalization of old guerrilla leaders who had refused to surrender their arms after the end of La Violencia, guerrilla activity – influenced by agrarian struggles, the Cuban Revolution, Marxism and Maoism – continued in rural, isolated areas of the country where the Colombian state had long struggled to impose its authority. The Communists organized ‘self-defense communities’ in which mobilized peasants united to resist the military and landowners, the most famous of which was the ‘Republic of Marquetalia’ in a remote mountainous region in the departments of Huila and Tolima. Bogotá could not tolerate the existence of ‘autonomous republics’ within its territory where the state had no authority; even if the Communist leaders of the ‘republics’ sought pacific coexistence. In 1964, with American logistical and material assistance, the Colombian military launched a vast counterinsurgency operation against the guerrilla hotspots and Marquetalia fell in June 1964.

Several men escaped from Marquetalia, including the community’s leader, Manuel Marulanda. In 1966, these men formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), the armed wing of the Communist Party. Two years earlier, leftist radicals influenced by the Cuban Revolution and Liberation Theology founded the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN was influenced early on by Camilo Torres Restrepo, a radical ‘revolutionary-priest’ who was killed in 1966. In 1967, a Maoist splinter from the Communist Party founded the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL). Finally, the allegedly rigged 1970 election led several left-wing ANAPO members to take up arms and create the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril, M-19).

Initially, the FARC, which was crushed by a military offensive on their bases in Quindío and Caldas in 1967, retreated to their traditional bases (Huila and Tolima) to regroup. The ELN, influenced by Castro’s ‘foco’ strategy of revolution through guerrilla warfare, won attention for several spectacular attacks and bombings. The FARC, controlled by the Communists, grew silently but the Communists felt that the conditions for an armed revolution were not there and privileged urban struggles. The ELN was nearly crushed by a Colombian military operation, Operación Anorí, in 1973, but again a small group of fighters managed to escape, allowing the ELN to regroup. By the end of the National Front, therefore, all had been contained in large but remote areas where the state had never had much footing and where the guerrillas were out of sight and out of mind.

The 1974 elections were the first elections free from the legal constraints of the National Front, allowing a clear contest between Liberals and Conservatives. In the event, the Liberal candidate, Alfonso López Michelsen, the former leader of the anti-National Front MRL, was elected with 56.3% against 31.4% for Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, the son of former President Laureano Gómez (who died in 1965). María Eugenia Rojas, the daughter of former President Gustavo Rojas, won 9.5% as ANAPO’s candidate. The Liberals won a majority in both houses of Congress, with ANAPO suffering major loses. However, the National Front’s agreement on the equal distribution of government positions lasted one more term, until 1978. López Michelsen’s presidency was generally calm, but it was during his presidency that the infamous Medellín and Cali drug cartels grew, something which the government turned a blind eye to. Despite good returns on coffee (and cocaine) exports, the rest of the economy was sluggish and dragged down by high inflation. The government brutally suppressed a general strike in 1977, killing 22, and thereby strengthening the appeal of guerrilla groups, especially M-19. The guerrilla groups could continue to claim that the Liberals and Conservatives were two sides of the same coin, a claim reinforced by the little ideological differences between both now that clericalism was off the table and that both parties supported relatively orthodox economic policies.

Areas of coca cultivation, 2000-2004 (source: UNODC, UNEP)

The Liberals, with Julio César Turbay, held the presidency in 1978, winning 49.3% against 46.6% for Belisario Betancur, the Conservative candidate backed by the majority of ANAPO and some Liberal dissidents. But in a sign of growing public dissatisfaction with politics, turnout was only 45%. Turbay’s government, despite being under no legal obligation to do so, continued power sharing with the opposition – under a slightly modified form which represented the opposition Conservatives in public sector jobs in proportion to their share of the vote in the election. Under Turbay’s presidency, a controversial state security statute was adopted, which is often cited as laying the groundwork for the later proliferation of right-wing paramilitary groups and covering up gross human rights abuses by the military. While the government tolerated and supported paramilitary groups, it continued to tolerate the rapid growth of drug trafficking and the drug cartels.

As a geographical crossroads, diverse geography and landscape, strong entrepreneurial culture and networks allowed Colombia to become the key location in drug trafficking in the Americas. The Medellín and Cali cartels grew in the mid-1970s and, by the early 1980s, cocaine had surpassed coffee as Colombia’s top export, creating a new class of wealthy and powerful drug lords – owning large tracts of land, laundering money, eliminating rivals and those peeking their noses into their business, and gaining social status to join the ranks of the elite. Pablo Escobar, the famous boss of the Medellín cartel, was not only an international drug smuggler and drug lord, he was also a businessman, local philanthropist, employer of death squads to kill rivals and even a second-string Liberal politician (elected to Congress in 1982). Drug lords, led by the Medellín cartel, teamed up with the military, Texaco, politicians, local industrialists and cattle ranchers to form a paramilitary organization in the 1980s, Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS), supported by an active legal front. MAS killed opponents, protected local elites from extortion and kidnappings by the guerrillas and employed counterinsurgency tactics against the guerrillas. MAS also terrorized community organizers and brutally murdered innocent civilians. In the mid-1980s, the MAS had amassed a weapons arsenal equal to that of a military.

At the same time, the leftist guerrillas increased their activities. In 1980, the M-19, the most moderate and middle-class of the groups, seized the embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogotá and took a number of foreign ambassadors hostage. The standoff ended when the M-19 guerrillas were paid a ransom and offered safe-passage to Cuba. The FARC picked up steam, with an attack on an army column in 1980. In 1982, at the FARC conference, the movement decided to expand its armed ‘fronts’ and adopted the name FARC-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). The ELN regrouped under a Spanish-born priest and focused on kidnappings and extortion. In 1980-1981, the M-19 launched a number of offensives against the government, but all failed in the face of the military’s superiority. However, there was growing demand for peace and negotiations, so that in the 1982 elections, both the Liberal and Conservative candidates supported peace.

The Liberal Party entered the 1982 elections divided between former President Alfonso López Michelsen and Santander department senator (and former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo’s protégé) Luis Carlos Galán, who founded the New Liberalism movement. Galán attacked corruption, drug trafficking and politicking. The divisions of the Liberals allowed Belisario Betancur, the Conservative, to win with 46.6% against 41% for López Michelsen and 10.9% for Galán. In power, Betancur continued to honour the unofficial power sharing agreement, splitting jobs equally between both parties.

Betancur opened negotiations with guerrilla movements, beginning with a cease-fire by the FARC and two other groups in February 1984. In March 1984, the Colombian governments and the FARC signed the La Uribe agreements, which included a bilateral cease-fire and the creation of the Unión Patriótica (UP), a leftist party backed by the FARC. In August 1984, a similar deal was signed with M-19 and the EPL. But the M-19 broke the deal in November 1985, when a M-19 guerrilla commando seized the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, holding over 300 people – including Supreme Court judges – hostage. The army stormed the building, killing over 100 people, including almost all the M-19 guerrillas. At the same time, the government was unable to check the power of the paramilitaries, dedicated to exterminating the guerrillas. Paramilitaries, drug lords and law enforcement were responsible for the assassinations of thousands of UP members between 1985 and 1994. The FARC also used the peace deal as a cover to regroup. By 1987, the truce with the FARC had collapsed, with the army and FARC rebels engaged in isolated battles. There was little willpower and interest in peace from either politicians and the guerrillas, while powerful radical forces on both sides continued fighting.

On the other side of the crisis, the drug cartels began turning against the government, after the signature of an extradition treaty with the US in 1979 – the drug lords feared being extradited to the US. In April 1984, the pro-extradition justice minister (a member of Galán’s New Liberalism) was assassinated by drug cartels; the assassination marked the end of the pacific relations between drug lords and politicians. Escobar briefly allied with the M-19, leading to some questions over the drug cartel’s role in the 1985 attack on the Palace of Justice. Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and other cities became the terrain of urban warfare between cartels and authorities, with the cartels effectively controlling major neighborhoods in each city – especially Escobar’s base of Medellín.

Liberal candidate Virgilio Barco, a unity candidate backed by the Liberal establishment and Galán’s New Liberalism, easily defeated Álvaro Gómez Hurtado in the 1986 presidential election. The Liberals won 58.3% of the vote, against 35.8% for the Conservatives and 4.5% for the FARC-backed UP. Barco inaugurated a Liberal government, finally breaking the National Front tradition of power sharing with the opposition. But that was his only ‘achievement’ – violence continued, with little hope for the President’s peace initiatives or constitutional reforms (decentralization, direct election of mayors, human rights watchdogs). The situation worsened beginning in 1987, as the M-19, ELN, EPL and FARC increased their armed struggle with offensives, counter-offensives, assassinations and kidnappings. The military responded in kind, and the size and resources of the Colombian military expanded under Barco’s administration, with US assistance. At the same time, Barco’s government was able to negotiate a lasting settlement with M-19, crushed militarily, in which the M-19 agreed to lay down arms and compete electorally, with the Democratic Alliance M-19 (AD-M19). The FARC and ELN continued their obstinate armed struggle.

The paramilitary and drug wars expanded simultaneously. The Castaño family, wealthy ranchers in Antioquia, organized deadly paramilitary groups which savagely murdered civilians and attacked leftist politicians and guerrillas. The government tried to limit the paramilitaries’ power by a number of anti-paramilitary decrees, finally outlawing them in 1989 (a 1968 law had actually made the existence of ‘autodefensas‘ legal); but its efforts were constantly undercut by close links between politicians/law enforcement and the paramilitaries and widespread corruption in the police and military.

Closely tied to the paramilitaries, the drug lords, led by the Medellín cartel, organized powerful and well-armed private armies, which targeted UP politicians and the government in general. Prominent cabinet ministers, left-wing politicians, presidential candidates and journalists were all assassinated by the paramilitaries or the cartels. The cartels also begun fighting amongst themselves, as Escobar tried to dominate the whole drug trafficking operation in Colombia.

In August 1989, Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, the favourite to win the 1990 election, was assassinated – most likely by Escobar and his military lieutenant José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, with the involvement of a rival Liberal politician. President Barco declared an all-out war against the cartels – to which the Medellín cartel responded by a savage terrorist bombing campaign in the fall of 1989, killing about 300 people in nearly 300 attacks. In November 1989, a Avianca domestic flight from Bogotá to Cali exploded in mid-air, killing 110 people. Escobar was behind the bombing, hoping to kill César Gaviria, the new Liberal presidential candidate. In December 1989, a truck bomb destroyed the HQs of the Administrative Department of Security. José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha was killed in mid-December 1989, but the war continued unabated.

It was in this dramatic context that the 1990 presidential elections took place. César Gaviria, a young former cabinet minister, took the Liberal nod with the backing of Galán’s supporters after Galán’s death in August 1989. The Conservatives split between a right-wing faction led by Álvaro Gómez Hurtado (the leader of the Movimiento de Salvación Nacional) and a moderate faction supported by former President Misael Pastrana which put forward a little known contender, Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo. The M-19’s presidential candidate was assassinated in April 1990 and replaced by Antonio Navarro Wolff, while the pro-FARC UP’s two candidates were both assassinated, pushing the UP out of the race entirely. Gaviria easily won, with 47.8% against 23.7% for Gómez, 12.5% for the M-19 candidate and 12.2% for Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo.

On the political and constitutional front, an increase in demands for social change (expressed peacefully, by demobilized guerrillas from M-19 or by students). A grassroots movement during the 1990 elections, asking voters to drop an additional blank ballot paper to express support for a constituent assembly, was ultimately successful and led to the election of a constituent assembly in 1991. The Liberals remained the largest party, in good part due to the Conservatives’ divisions, but the AD-M19 became the second largest party with 26.7% of the vote and 19 seats, against 31.2% and 25 seats for the Liberals. The new 1991 constitution, promulgated in June 1991, included strong guarantees for fundamental human rights, declared Colombia to be a ‘social state of law’, recognized ethnic and religious diversity (full legalization of divorce, removing references to Catholicism as the official religion), replaced the state of siege with a more restrictive state of emergency and decentralized powers to departments (and governors, along with mayors, were now directly elected).

The reality was significantly harsher: if the new constitution, social reforms and reinsertion programs pushed more guerrillas from the EPL and other groups to demobilize, the FARC and ELN remained locked in their obstinate views and continued their bloody terrorist campaigns. The ELN successfully regained a presence by extorting a German firm building a pipeline, and other oil industry suppliers, contractors or private citizens.

In 1990, Jacobo Arenas, the ideological and theoretical brain of the FARC, died, leaving Manuel Marulanda, a hardened guerrilla fighter since Marquetalia in the 1960s, as the only man in charge. That same year, Gaviria ordered a military offensive on a FARC base (Casa Verde), completely breaking off the intermittent negotiations between the two parties which had continued since 1987. In 1991, the FARC under Marulanda broke with the Communists and UP, and decided on a total war strategy. The FARC remained the largest guerrilla organization and gained a foothold in the drug underworld, selling protection to coca farmers or entering drug trafficking on its own account. Drug trafficking has allowed the FARC to maintain a hefty war chest and large arsenal. According to the UNDP in the early 2000s, $204 million of the FARC’s $342 million average annual income derived from drug business. In 1991 and 1992, negotiations between the government and the guerrillas (FARC, ELN) in Caracas and Tlaxcala both failed.

In an attempt to reduce tensions with the cartels, the government promised domestic trials and lesser sentences for narcos who turned themselves in and confessed to crimes, and the 1991 constitution banned extradition. Escobar ultimately turned himself in, but he continued operating his drug empire and extortion business from behind bars, and escaped from prison in July 1992 before the government could transfer him to another location. The US JSOC joined a Colombian military manhunt for Escobar; at the same time, rivals of the drug lord – the Cali cartel, Medellín cartel dissidents and the Castaño family’s paramilitaries – formed a vigilante group, Los Pepes, to hunt him down. The official US-Colombian manhunt often colluded or directly associated with the Los Pepes death squads to track him down. Escobar was killed in Medellín in December 1993. Escobar’s death signaled the demise of the Medellín cartel, to be supplanted by the Cali and Norte del Valle cartels. The Cali cartel, no less violent, gained the upper hand in Colombian drug trafficking. Gaviria’s presidency also saw the US take an active role in the drug war, collaborating with Colombian authorities and eradicating coca crops. The narcotics problem did not go away, and the situation was complicated by an increase of coca cultivation in Colombia itself, and by the growing involvement of the paramilitaries and guerrillas in the drug trafficking business.

Economically, the Gaviria administration followed neoliberal policies – loosening restrictions on foreign trade and investment, increasing the flow of foreign goods and capital, reducing tariffs although privatization was rather limited. While these reforms had some beneficial effects, like elsewhere it increased inequalities and favoured capital at the expense of labour, especially unskilled workers. Indigenous and Afro-Colombians were particularly hurt and protested the economic reforms. The social changes and protests also provided a favourable terrain for the FARC, although during the 1990s, the FARC’s violence meant that popular support for the guerrillas became extremely low.

Liberal candidate Ernesto Samper, a candidate from the party’s left who had defeated a candidate backed by President Gaviria in Liberal primaries, won the 1994 presidential elections against Conservative candidate Andrés Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogotá. Samper and Pastrana took the vast majority of the vote in a first round in which only 34% of voters participated; Samper defeated Pastrana with 50.6% in the runoff. The M-19, which had done so well in 1990 and 1991, lost most of its seats in Congress and won only 3.8% of the presidential vote.

Samper’s presidency saw little change in the conflict. Once again, the government initially sought dialogue with the FARC and ELN, and the guerrillas invariably refused and continued their ever-grower offensives. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, the FARC was able to mobilize between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters across Colombia and the rebels demonstrated their military might with a series of major offensives between 1996 and 1998. In August 1996, the FARC overran a Colombian army base at Las Delicias (Caquetá). Much of southeastern Colombia had turned into a lawless zone (outside departmental capitals) controlled by the FARC or constantly threatened by FARC/ELN violence (kidnappings, assassinations etc). The state had little choice but to abandon large swathes of its own territory to the guerrillas, leading to strong criticism from the US and hawks.

The Castaño brothers expanding their paramilitary operations, forming the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU). The government fed the paramilitary phenomenon by authorizing the creation of legal paramilitary groups, or CONVIVIR groups, as private militias in recently pacified areas. Far-right paramilitaries took advantage of the CONVIVIR laws to gain legality; in the field, FARC/ELN attacks were met with retaliations from the paramilitaries, violence feeding off violence. Álvaro Uribe, the governor of Antioquia, gained notoriety as a strong supporter of the CONVIVIR scheme in his department.

In April 1997, the ACCU and other paramilitaries united to form the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a nationwide counterinsurgency/paramilitary organization. In November, the Constitutional Court ruled the CONVIVIR plans unconstitutional, but it changed little to nothing: the AUC now united the paramilitaries, and the AUC counted on the covert support of members of the military and politicians. The AUC was largely financed through drug trafficking, in which the paramilitaries were directly involved in themselves. According to the UNDP, some $190 million of the AUC’s average annual income of $286 million came from drugs. In many cases, the AUC and FARC, both active in zones of coca cultivation, fought for control of drug-growing regions. The AUC was responsible for a large number of massacres (oftentimes civilians not tied to the FARC), horrible acts of savagery (dismembering living persons with chainsaws and machetes) and the displacement thousands of Colombians from their homes by the mid-2000s. The paramilitaries, rather than the FARC/ELN, are generally agreed to be responsible for the majority of political assassinations and human rights violations in Colombia – with figures ranging from 60% to 85% of crimes being committed by the paramilitaries.

Ernesto Samper’s presidency rapidly ran into a huge scandal: shortly after taking office, Samper was accused of having accepted over $6 million in campaign donations from the Cali cartel. Samper denied any involvement or knowledge of dirty money in his campaign. An investigation was opened after incriminating tapes were leaked, and the investigation revealed the existence of a network of narcotics-linked corruption involving high-level politicians, judges, law enforcement and so forth. However, only scapegoats were convicted and Congress rejected the indictment of Samper, with the Liberal bench siding with their President. The case led to diplomatic crisis with the US, which limited its cooperation with Colombia in drug war operations and revoked Samper’s visa.

Samper tried to regain Washington’s favours by legalizing extradition (in 1996) and focusing his security policy on the drug war (ignoring paramilitarism and the guerrillas). Bogotá moved to eradicate coca crops, provoking a peasant protest movement – organized by the FARC, which forced peasants to join in – against the coca spraying policy. In 1995, the government managed to capture major leaders from the Cali cartel, gradually signaling the demise of the Cali cartel and its replacement by smaller, less hierarchic regional cartels which have been harder to counter. By the time Samper left office, the US had normalized relations with Colombia and its involvement in the drug war increased significantly.

The Liberals continued to be haunted by internal divisions bred by the Samper corruption case (the Proceso 8000) in the 1998 election. The Liberals chose Horacio Serpa, Samper’s loyal interior minister who had defended the President during the corruption case. However, Liberals hostile to the President, led by former Attorney General Alfonso Valdivieso, who had led the investigation in the Proceso 8000, joined forces with Andrés Pastrana, the Conservative candidate. Noemí Sanín, a former communications minister under Betancur, ran as an independent. In the first round, Serpa won 34.6% against 34.3% for Pastrana and 26.9% for Sanín. In the second round, Pastrana was elected with 50.4%.

Pastrana’s strategy against the conflict had two parts: a peace process with the FARC/ELN through negotiations and détente, and enlisting American support in the drug wars (although not necessarily using a militarist strategy). Prior to taking office, Pastrana met with Marulanda, the FARC leader. Just as he took office, however, the ELN and FARC launched offensives against Colombian military targets; in November 1998, in one of their most memorable actions, the FARC successfully seized the departmental capital of Mitú (Vaupés). At the same time, however, as part of the first step in the peace process, Bogotá ordered the military to withdraw from a 42,000km² zone (La Caguán), creating a DMZ to facilitate talks with the FARC (and, separately, the ELN). In January 1999, talks between the government the FARC began at La Caguán, although with the noted absence of Marulanda. But there was no truce: while the talks dragged on with no perceptible results, the FARC/ELN, who lacked commitment to actual peace, continued attacks, kidnappings, killings and extortion.

On the drug front, the Colombian government sought American assistance in the drug war, originally by focusing on aid and substitution of coca crops. However, under US influence, the Plan Colombia which was released focused heavily on a military solution to the drug crisis (but also the guerrilla war), with military aid to Colombia and the aerial spraying of coca crops. The Plan Colombia has been controversial in the US and in South America, criticized on a number of fronts: the excessive drug-focused analysis, ignoring serious human rights issues, ignoring the real causes of the conflict, the limited attention paid to humanitarian assistance and social development, supporting Colombia’s military and law enforcement forces despite records of human rights abuses and ties to illegal paramilitaries and the social/environmental impacts of aerial spraying.

Under Pastrana’s presidency, military spending increased significantly, expanding the size of the military. Applying the Plan Colombia policy, Colombia and the US extensively sprayed coca crops in southeastern Colombia, especially the department of Putumayo, destroying hundreds of thouands of hectares of coca crops.

Negotiations with the FARC dragged on with little result. The two parties failed to reach agreement on major issues; the FARC and ELN strongly opposed the government’s anti-narcotics policy, and they also accused Bogotá of not doing enough to fight the AUC, which strongly opposed the talks with the FARC and committed themselves to disturbing the negotiations with attacks and assassinations. Some progress was made on prisoner exchange, with the FARC releasing over 300 hostages in exchange for a handful of guerrillas.

The smaller ELN eventually withdrew from negotiations in 2001. In their DMZ, the FARC were setting up training camps, expelling government officials (judges, public servants) from the territory, abducting people (including foreigners), assassinating hostages and using it as a safe haven from which to launch attacks and continue drug trafficking operations. Hawkish public opinion felt that the government was conceding too much to terrorists, and the government itself grew impatient with the FARC. In 2000, military pressures forced the FARC to limit large-scale attacks to focus on kidnappings (mostly politicians) and urban bombings. An exasperated Pastrana suspended talks with the FARC in January 2002, and in February 2002, the President ordered the military to retake control of the DMZ. While the military was deploying to retake the DMZ, the FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen running for president as the candidate of the small Oxygen Green Party. Betancourt, a former senator who had gained some popularity for her tireless fight against political corruption in the Senate, was kidnapped as she was going to San Vincente del Caguán, the main town in the former DMZ which Bogotá now affirmed was firmly in government hands. Betancourt’s kidnapping and her captivity until 2008 garnered international attention and sympathy, especially in France. She was not the only high-profile politician to be kidnapped and, in fact, by managing to survive captivity, she was a ‘lucky’ one – the FARC kidnapped and killed many other politicians, including Guillermo Gaviria, the governor of Antioquia.

In 2002, Colombia was in a sad state. Under Pastrana’s presidency, the homicide rate, which had dropped from 72 in 1996 to 60 in 1998, increased to 70.2 in 2002. After the talks with the FARC were broken off in early 2002, the FARC unleashed a bloody campaign against the government which cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Since 1998, AUC paramilitary activity, designed to sabotage the negotiations, grew in scope while the AUC, thanks to drug trafficking, also saw their resources increase nicely. This came despite much disunity in AUC ranks: the fronts of the AUC operated independently from one another, with little coordination. However, the government’s policies, the AUC’s image as a popular response to FARC terrorism and the AUC’s close ties to the army and politicians gave the AUC significant popular support and a large base of (non-narcotics) resources to tap into.

Álvaro Uribe, a Liberal politician who had served in the Senate (1986-1994) and as governor of Antioquia (1995-1997), broke with the Liberals (who nominated Horacio Serpa again) to run as an independent on the hastily assembled Primera Colombia (Colombia First) label. Uribe, who had supported the CONVIVIR policy as governor of Antioquia, took a hawkish anti-FARC stance – under the slogan mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart), conditioning peace negotiations to military victory over the FARC. Uribe won a huge victory, taking 54.5% of the vote in the first round. Horacio Serpa won only 32.7%; leftist trade unionist Luis Eduardo Garzón, running for the new leftist Polo Democrático Independiente, won 6.3% and Noemí Sanín won 6%.

Álvaro Uribe’s Presidency (2002-2010)

Álvaro Uribe, President of Colombia

Álvaro Uribe has become modern Colombia’s most famous President, attracting strong popular support and admiration in Colombia and abroad but also significant criticism. He took a hard line against guerrillas, which had clear success as far as weakening the FARC’s power and reducing Colombia’s dramatically high homicide rate. However, his presidency was marred by numerous allegations of ties between politicians and paramilitaries, concerns over human rights abuses by the military and significant domestic and regional opposition to Uribe’s close security cooperation with the US government.

Upon taking office, Uribe took the offensive against the guerrillas, under the guises of the seguridad democrática (democratic security) doctrine. The aim of the the Uribe doctrine was to rout, militarily, the guerrillas (designated as terrorist organizations by the EU, US and Canada), combat the illegal use of arms, drug trafficking and reestablishing state control over the entire country. The Uribe government clearly conditioned negotiations with the guerrillas to demobilization and laying down their arms; a condition strongly rejected by the FARC, tentatively accepted by the ELN and (officially) accepted by the AUC.

Under Uribe’s presidency, the US, under George W. Bush, significantly expanded its contribution to Plan Colombia and explicitly linked the war on drugs to the post-9/11 war on terror (FARC, ELN, AUC). The lines between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency became blurred, as the US provided military training and assistance to Colombian troops in operations against the FARC, ELN and paramilitaries. Uribe became one of the Bush’s administrations strongest Latin American allies and an eager supporter of the ‘war on terror’ (which provided Bogotá with millions in additional military aid and expanded direct US military training and assistance). In Washington, the White House’s proximity to Uribe drew congressional criticism, because of concerns over the impact of aerial spraying, Uribe’s leniency with paramilitaries and corruption. Colombia also extradited a growing number of its citizens to the US; over 850 Colombians were extradited to the US between 1997 and 2010, including 789 under Uribe and 208 in 2008. There was some domestic backlash against the extraditions; in 2009, the Supreme Court blocked the extradition of FARC kidnappers of three American hostages.

The effectiveness of US-Colombian aerial spraying of coca plants has been called into questions by numerous statistics which show no reduction in coca cultivation and even perhaps an increase in coca-leaf cultivation; coca growing has simply been redistributed into smaller, harder-to-reach crops in border regions and along the Pacific. Colombia remains the world’s leading coca cultivator and supplier of refined cocaine; cocaine trafficking accounts for more $5 billion a year, or 2-2.5% of the GDP.

The Uribe government engaged in demobilization and reinsertion negotiations with the AUC, who had been pushed towards negotiations because of concerns over their 2001 classification as a terrorist organization by the US and growing disunity in the AUC. Negotiations with the AUC began in 2003 and progressed fairly well, with a preliminary agreement on demobilization in July 2003 and agreement in 2004 to set up a zone to relocate demobilized paramilitaries and conduct talks. However, the talks were fraught with controversy. The government’s apparent lenient stance towards the paramilitaries in the talks was quite controversial; there was no talk of reparation for victims or justice for crimes, but instead talks of reduced jail terms and even amnesties for paramilitaries who surrendered their weapons. At the same time, many questioned the AUC’s commitment to demobilization, because violence continued during the talks, result of increasing tensions in the AUC which culminated in the 2004 assassination of Carlos Castaño, one of the AUC’s founders.

In June 2005, Congress, after much legislative battling and negotiations with the US (demanding extradition of several AUC leaders to the US for drug trafficking charges), passed a ‘justice and peace’ law which set 5-8 year jail sentences for those charged with serious crimes (if those demobilized freely confessed to them). The law was not without controversy: the New York Times called it a ‘law of impunity for assassins, terrorist and drug traffickers’; the UN and human rights organizations said the law was too lenient on demobilized paramilitaries. Again, the law failed to provide justice and compensation to the victims; however, a 2006 decision by the Constitutional Court ordered full confessions, asset seizures and reparations to victims.

The government insisted it had reached a fair balance between justice and peace. Between 2003 and 2006, the government reported that 30,994 paramilitaries were demobilized and 17,564 weapons handed over. The Uribe administration’s counterinsurgency policies were also criticized, notably by the EU and UN, fearing that some of Bogotá’s policies may be incompatible with humanitarian law and fundamental rights guaranteed in the 1991 constitution.

According to critics of the demobilization of the AUC, many former paramilitaries have recycled themselves in criminal gangs or in new paramilitary organizations; which have been said to include as much as 6,000 members in 2010. Other sources have said that the AUC’s old drug trafficking networks have remained intact, and again law enforcement has been accused of tolerating or even being linked to these neo-paramilitary groups.

Militarily, however, the government’s tough strategy against the FARC and increased military successes after the disastrous 1990s did much to improve public perceptions of the military as an institution and also boosted Uribe’s popularity. In the war against the FARC, the military sought to improve their professionalism, compliance with human rights standards and their mobility, intelligence and readiness capabilities. Between 2002 and 2005, military operations against the FARC successfully destroyed a number of FARC fronts, killed thousands of fighters and forced the FARC to change their military centre of gravity to the Nariño, Putumayo and Cauca departments. During the same period, intermittent dialogue between the government the FARC on prisoner exchange and the release of hostages had limited success; the government refused to acquiesce to the FARC’s demand of creating a DMZ for prisoner exchange, but the government also released some prisoners in a sign of goodwill. In 2006 and 2007, some hostages held by the FARC were released or managed to escape.

In May 2005, Congress approved a constitutional amendment allowing for one consecutive presidential reelection. In May 2006, Uribe was reelected by a landslide in the first round, winning 62.4% of the vote against 22% for Carlos Gaviria Díaz, the candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo (Democratic Alternative Pole, PDA) and only 11.8% for Horacio Serpa, the Liberal candidate. A few months prior, in March 2006, the uribistas won a majority in Congress; albeit the uribista forces were dispersed between several parties: the Conservatives backed Uribe but were intent on maintaining their independence and identity in a context marked by the decrepitude of the old parties, Liberal dissidents led by Juan Manuel Santos and Óscar Iván Zuluaga founded the Social Party of National Unity (Partido Social de la Unidad Nacional, PSUN) or ‘Partido de la U‘ in 2005 (no cookies for guessing what the U might refer to) while other Liberal dissidents grouped in the centre-right Radical Change (Cambio Radical, CR) party around Germán Vargas Lleras also backed Uribe. In the Senate, the Party of the U won 20 seats against 18 apiece for the Conservatives and Liberals, 15 for CR and 10 for the PDA; in the Chamber, the Liberals, in opposition, won 31 seats against 28 for the U, 26 for the Conservatives, 18 for CR and 8 for the Polo.

Around the time of Uribe’s reelection, one of the largest political scandals in recent Colombian political history took shape: the parapolítica (parapolitics) scandal, when several PDA politicians began denouncing links between politicians and the paramilitaries, confirmed by former AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso’s admission that 35% of legislators elected in 2002 were ‘friends’ of the AUC. In 2006, after the Constitutional Court conditioned the benefits of the ‘justice and peace’ law to a full confession of crimes committed, several paramilitary leaders began spilling the beans. The debate was taken up in Congress by PDA Senator Gustavo Petro, who revealed more information and directly named several congressmen and high-ranking politicians for their ties to paramilitaries and involvements in plotting the assassination of rivals. In early 2007, a bombshell came with the Pacto de Ralito, a 2001 document signed by representatives of the AUC high command and several politicians (sitting governors, mayors, congressmen, former office holders); the document detailed a strategy for the AUC to consolidate power and command over drug trafficking and later to seize power (perhaps establishing a military dictatorship). In May 2007, courts ordered the arrest of most political signatories of the document for conspiracy. Thus far, a number of those signatories have been sentenced to prison terms, including 40 years for the then-governor of Sucre (who later served as ambassador to Chile).

The scandal also involved the DAS, Colombia’s FBI, whose former leader (Jorge Noguera Cotes, who was then serving as consul in Milan) was accused of placing the DAS at the service of the AUC in northern Colombia and had assisted in the assassination of leftist trade union leaders. Although Uribe vigorously defended Noguera, he was nevertheless forced to give up his diplomatic job to face judicial accusations back home and arrested in February 2007. In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

By 2008, nearly 70 congressmen/women were involved in the parapolitics scandal (most of them from Uribe’s coalition), including several presiding officers. Some 30 of them were arrested and some later sentenced. The trials were highly controversial, marked by Uribe’s attempts to intervene in the judicial process; firstly by mulling the idea of amnesties or reduced sentences for those who confessed, and later a confrontation with the Supreme Court over an alleged judicial conspiracy against Uribe (probably fabricated by the President). Adding to the tense situation between Uribe and the courts, in June 2008 a former legislator was convicted of accepting bribes in 2004 in exchange for supporting the amendment on reelection; Uribe angrily responded by accusing the judges of political bias.

In May 2008, the government surprisingly ordered the extradition of AUC paramilitaries, including Salvatore Mancuso and “Jorge 40” (whose laptop’s files had started the whole scandal) to the US, where they were wanted for drug trafficking; some critics of the government thought that extradition would hamper investigation into the parapolitics case.

The parapolitics scandal had a deleterious effect on Colombia’s relations with Washington. Coinciding with the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 US midterm elections, the US Congress was increasingly opposed to military cooperation and the signature of a free trade agreement with Colombia. The US Congress voted to cut funding for Plan Colombia and delayed consideration of a free trade agreement strongly supported by Uribe until after Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

In 2008, the military’s credibility took a major hit with the ‘false positives’ scandal, in which the army was accused of assassinating innocent civilians and presenting them as guerrillas who were killed in action (to embellish the army’s results). The practice had existed in the past, and declassified CIA documents showed that the US had been aware of government ties to paramilitaries and of ‘false positives’ since 1994. In October 2008, Uribe dismissed 25 military officers, including army commander General Mario Montoya. The case was a black eye for Uribe’s democratic security policy, raising more concerns about human rights violations by the Colombian military.

The democratic security’s tough militarist strategy against the FARC began to take its toll on the FARC. In June 2007, the FARC killed 11 out of 12 departmental deputies whom the FARC had kidnapped in 2002, increasing domestic and international condemnation of the FARC’s terrorist methods. Around the same time, Uribe allowed his rival, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who Bogotá often accused of harbouring or assisting the FARC, to mediate a humanitarian exchange of prisoners with the FARC, but Uribe then blocked Chávez’s mediation efforts in November 2007, claiming that Chávez reneged on his agreement. However, in January 2008, Venezuela spearheaded an operation to release two hostages held by the FARC – a former senator and Clara Rojas, Ingrid Betancourt’s campaign manager (who had a son, born in captivity, whom the FARC had sent to Bogotá). In February 2008, three other hostages were released to Chávez as a ‘gesture of goodwill’ by the FARC.

Militarily, 2008 marked a sea change in the FARC’s fortunes. On March 1, the Colombian army raided a camp, located in Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second-in-command and spokesperson. Naturally, the cross-border raid by the Colombians incensed Ecuador’s leftist President, Rafael Correa, and led to a brief diplomatic crisis with Ecuador and Venezuela. In March, the FARC’s septuagenarian leader, Manuel Marulanda, also died, of ‘natural causes’ according to the FARC. The files on laptops seized from Raúl Reyes’ headquarters added to Colombian concerns of Venezuelan meddling in the conflict, with documents detailing meetings between FARC leaders and Venezuelan military officers or the existence of ‘safe areas’ in Venezuela.

In July 2008, defense minister Juan Manuel Santos announced the success of Operation Jaque, a remarkably well orchestrated infiltration of FARC ranks leading to a quick raid to release 11 Colombian policemen and soldiers, three American military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt. It was a major blow to the FARC and a major success for the Colombian military.

Military operations against the FARC, 2007-2013 (source: WaPo)

The government continued making military progress in the conflict against the FARC in 2008 – a 40% drop in FARC-held territory, a considerable human toll on the FARC (thousands of guerrillas killed in 2007 and 2008), a drop in morale, an increase in desertions and a sharp drop in FARC membership – from about 18,000 to 9-10,000. After Operation Jaque, more hostages were released or escaped from captivity. In an increasingly perilous position, the FARC, now led by the dogmatic Alfonso Cano, resorted to indiscriminate acts of terrorism and enrollment of child soldiers.

Despite military and political scandals involving Uribe and his government, security cooperation with the US was not compromised. In 2010, Colombia still received $434 million in US military/security aid. In August 2009, Colombia and the US signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) which allows the US to lease access to seven Colombian military bases for logistical support in counter-narcotics operations. The DCA required ratification by the Colombian Senate and consultative advice of the judiciary’s Council of State.  The DCA met with strong criticism from the Colombian left and left-wing leaders in the region, notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who considered the DCA an ‘imperialist’ threat to his country. The DCA further strained already tense relations between Colombia and Venezuela; Chávez announced a freeze in bilateral trade between the two countries.

Uribe’s high levels of popularity rested not only on his democratic security policies, but also on the country’s robust economic growth during his two terms – the economy grew by as much as 7% in 2007 and, unlike Brazil and Venezuela, did not go in recession in 2009. In office, Uribe generally favoured neoliberal and free-market policies, with a focus on improving public finances, reforming government and reducing inflation. The government claimed to have made progress in reducing poverty and income inequality in one of the region’s most unequal and class stratified countries. In 2010, 37% of Colombians still lived under the national poverty line and 39.5% lived on less than $4 a day.

Uribe and his allies, notably in the Party of the U, sought to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term in office in 2010. In October 2008, the Chamber of Representatives rejected a constitutional amendment allowing Uribe to run for reelection, but in May 2009, the Senate approved a measure allowing for a referendum to be held on the issue. Before anything could go ahead, both houses of Congress needed to reconcile their bills and the Constitutional Court would need to give a green light on the issue. The contentious topic raised significant opposition in Colombia, with resistance coming from the Church, the media and the business community. Around the world, Uribe was portrayed as an autocrat. In August 2009, both houses of Congress agreed on the referendum bill. In late February 2010, only days before the March 2010 legislative elections, the Constitutional Court voted 7-2 to reject Congress’ referendum bill, declaring both the bill and the legislative process deeply flawed and unconstitutional.

In the March 2010 congressional elections, the Party of the U became the largest party in both houses of Congress, with 28 senators and 48 representatives. The Liberals and Conservatives followed, with 17 and 38 seats and 22 and 36 seats respectively. Overall, the uribista coalition, made up of the PSUN, the Conservatives, the Cambio Radical and small parties linked to the parapolitics scandal (notably the National Integration Party, which won 9 senators and 11 representatives) retained a majority in Congress.

Uribe left office highly popular. The main reason for his popularity was the apparent success of his democratic security policy. As far as numbers are concerned, under Uribe’s eight years in power, Colombia’s homicide rate dropped from 70.2 in 2002 to 33.4 in 2010 (in raw numbers, 28,837 were killed when Uribe took office in 2002 and 15,459 were killed in the year he left office). Under Uribe’s presidency, the FARC lost significant ground and they were significantly weakened; however, by 2010, it appeared as if the situation had reached a stalemate, with the FARC still reigning supreme in many remote areas of the country and could resort to violent terrorist attacks in urban areas. Uribe’s democratic security strategy was associated with significant concerns for human rights, and the parapolitics, a DAS wiretapping case or the false positives scandals highlighted that corruption and human rights remained serious challenges to Colombia’s democracy. Nevertheless, there were some improvements in human rights and press freedom during Uribe’s presidency.

The May-June 2010 presidential election was more contested than either the 2002 or 2006 elections. The PSUN nominated Juan Manuel Santos, a former Liberal politician and heir of a powerful Colombian family (his uncle, Eduardo Santos Montejo, was a Liberal president from 1938 to 1942, and his family owned El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper). Santos, unlike Uribe, entered politics as an American-educated technocrat and held the portfolios of foreign trade under César Gaviria (1991-1994) and finances under Andrés Pastrana (2000-2002). He left the Liberal Party after Uribe’s election to become a leading uribista in Congress, helping to create the PSUN. He served as Minister of Defense between 2006 and 2009, a high-profile portfolio in which Santos was directly responsible for approving the operations which killed Raúl Reyes and freed Ingrid Betancourt. Santos was widely seen as Uribe’s preferred candidate, and his campaign repeatedly emphasized both Uribe’s record and his own record as his defense minister.

Santos was not the only uribista candidate in the race. The Conservatives nominated Noemí Sanín, who had run for president as an independent in 1998 and 2002 and had served as ambassador to the UK under Uribe’s presidency. Sanín, who was backed by former President Andrés Pastrana, was seen as close to Uribe; although perhaps Uribe’s favourite candidate of them all was Andrés Felipe Arias, his loyal Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. Germán Vargas Lleras, grandson of former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1964-1970), a Senator (1998-2008) and leader of the Cambio Radical (CR) party, was also a fairly close supporter of Uribe’s policies earlier on (but opposed Uribe’s reelection in 2010).

The Liberal Party, in opposition to Uribe, nominated the party’s leader and former Senator Rafael Pardo, who briefly supported Uribe during his first term before joining the ranks of the Liberal opposition to Uribe in 2003-2005. Pardo had previously served as Minister of Defense under César Gaviria between 1991 and 1994. The left-wing PDA nominated Gustavo Petro, a former supporter of the M-19 guerrilla movement, for which he was imprisoned and allegedly tortured in 1985. Petro was elected to the Senate for the PDA after two terms as a representative, and gained notoriety for blowing the whistle in the parapolitics scandal (but also a FARC-politics scandal, detailing links between some politicians the FARC). Although Petro was more hawkish and centrist than his party, his strong opposition to Uribe had lead to nasty shouting matches between Uribe and Petro, the former calling the latter a ‘terrorist in civilian dress’.

The campaign was marked by the rapid rise of Antanas Mockus, a senior politician who had served as mayor of Bogotá from 1995 to 1997 and 2oo1 to 2003. Mockus, a philosopher and academic of Lithuanian origin, gained popularity and notoriety as a successful but outlandish mayor – he dressed up as a superhero to clean up graffiti; already as Rector of the Universidad Nacional, he had been noted for his eccentricity, lowering his pants and showing his butt to a crowd of students blocking him from giving a speech. Mockus, a political independent, joined the new Green Party and selected Sergio Fajardo, a charismatic, innovative, and independent former mayor of Medellín (2004-2007). Mockus surpassed Santos in most first and second round polls, presenting himself as a centrist and neither pro or anti-Uribe.

The campaign was disturbed by Hugo Chávez’s meddling. The Venezuelan president called Santos a ‘real military threat’, a ‘mafioso’ and a pawn of the ‘Yankee imperialists’. He warned that he would not meet with Santos if elected and threatened that ‘there would be war’ if Santos won. Uribe, Santos and most candidates strongly criticized Chávez’s intervention in the campaign.

Despite polls indicating a close contest, Santos dominated the first round on May 30 with 46.7% against only 21.5% for Antanas Mockus, whose grassroots and internet-based campaign collapsed. Vargas Lleras placed a distant third with 10.1%, followed by Petro on 9.1%, Sanín at 6.1% and Rafael Pardo with 4.4%. A month later, Santos was handily elected President with 69.1% against 27.5% for Mockus.

Juan Manuel Santos’ Presidency (2010-2014)

In the immediate, Santos took office (in August) facing a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela. In early July 2010, the Minister of Defense had revealed proof of the presence of FARC and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela (among them was Iván Marquez, a leading FARC member), and Uribe announced that he would take the matter to the OAS. Venezuela denied Colombia’s allegations and responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Colombia and moving troops to border regions; Chávez claimed, as he had following the 2009 DCA, that Colombia – with US assistance and backing – was planning to invade Venezuela. Upon taking office, Santos organized to meet Chávez in Santa Marta (Magdalena), and the two Presidents resolved the crisis and diplomatic relations were restored.

Juan Manuel Santos has turned out to be his own man, much to Uribe’s dismay.

Upon taking office, Santos continued the military strategy against the FARC, but he also said that the door to peace talks with the FARC was not closed. However, in 2010, the FARC’s answer to Santos’ more conciliatory attitude was a wave of attacks and ambushes. In September 2010, the military scored a major success in a large-scale and well-orchestrated operation which killed ‘Mono Jojoy’, one of the FARC’s top military leaders. His death was hailed by both the government and the media as a significant blow to the FARC, given that Mono Jojoy was considered as one of the FARC’s leading military commanders and a key person in the organization. In November 2011, in another major blow to the FARC, the military killed Alfonso Cano, Marulanda’s successor as the political leader of the FARC.

Nevertheless, the FARC remained a potent – if reduced (and radicalized) force. The FARC retained a strong offensive capability and the government found that the FARC had turned to illegal gold mining (in addition to drug trafficking) to finance their terrorism. 2011 was one of the most violent years on record, with the FARC (and ELN) desperate to show their muscle with new kidnappings, attacks and car bombings.

Soon after taking office, Santos’ government proposed legislation to address the issue of land ownership – restoring land stolen or purchased under duress by paramilitaries and guerrillas. Unequal land distribution has been both a cause and consequence of the conflict, with some 16,000 people in 2005 owning over 62% of the land and about 6 million hectares illegally or violently seized. The government’s law proposed to return the land to their original owners, placing the burden of proof on owners. The law was passed in 2011, but application has been slow and claimants have lived in fear of neo-paramilitary groups, which have killed or threatened those claiming land.

The law was part of a wider landmark ‘Victims and Land Restitution Law’. The law was welcomed because, for the first time, the government recognized the existence of an ‘armed conflict’ and its legal, humanitarian implications. Secondly, the law also allowed for compensation to those who had been victims of abuses by state forces – not only the FARC and paramilitaries. An Amnesty International report, however, cited major concerns with the law including: definition of victims (excluding those who continue to suffer abuses from neo-paramilitaries, unrecognized as such by the government), the exclusion of many displaced persons from the process and playing down state responsibility. The analysis also looked into barriers to the restitution of land, clauses which may legitimize land theft and inadequate support for victims.

Santos has taken a more diplomatic demeanor in his relations with his neighbors; under Uribe, relations with Chávez’s Venezuela and Correa’s Ecuador were often strained while relations with left-wing governments in Brazil and Argentina were barely any better. In office, Santos restored diplomatic ties with Ecuador and Venezuela, effecting an unofficial truce with Venezuela. In exchange for Venezuela extraditing Colombian guerrillas, Bogotá extradited a Venezuelan accused of drug trafficking to Venezuela instead of the US. In August 2010, after the Constitutional Court struck down the 2009 DCA as unconstitutional, Santos did nothing to revive the contentious agreement which had soured Bogotá’s regional ties.

Santos’ foreign policy has been only one issue which has soured relations with Uribe. Santos has never been Uribe’s puppet, even when he was his ostensibly loyal defense minister, but relations between the two men started going south in 2011. Uribe faulted Santos for his cordial ties with Chávez, claiming that Colombia could not have diplomatic relations with a country which harboured terrorists. On domestic policies, Uribe also began criticizing his successor’s policies – he found Santos’ security policy ineffective and soft, he opposed the land restitution law, he opposed amending a bill to remove responsibility for judging abuses by security forces from military courts and strongly opposed any talks of negotiations with the FARC. The government’s tax reform in 2012 was seen as an attack on Uribe, given that it sought to remove tax breaks and incentives for companies created by Uribe. Finally, Santos welcomed two 2010 presidential candidates known as critics of Uribe into his cabinet: Germán Vargas Lleras became Minister of the Interior (until May 2012, he is now Minister of Housing) and Rafael Pardo, the Liberal candidate, is Minister of Labour.

Several high-ranking allies of Uribe have also been prosecuted in corruption cases. Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe’s agriculture minister, was arrested in 2011 for his role in the Agro Ingreso Seguro, an agricultural subsidy which ended up in the hands of powerful landowners and even a beauty queen. An arrest warrant, since dropped, was issued against Luis Carlos Restrepo, accused of staging a fake demobilization of a FARC unit. Uribe’s former chief of staff was also arrested for his role in a DAS wiretapping scandal. Uribe has stood by his allies, claiming they were victims of political persecution.

In June 2012, Santos ran into controversy over a proposed judicial reform which started out with fairly good intentions but turned, thanks to Congress, into a disaster for the government. The judiciary opposed the government’s early projects, but the situation became chaotic when Congress approved the bill including various advantages for corrupt congressmen/ex-congressmen: notably stripping the Supreme Court of its power to investigate corruption cases involving legislators. The Minister of Justice announced his resignation in disgust, there were several opposition protests against the bill and the PDA clamored for a referendum on the bill. Bowing to the enormous pressure, Santos convened Congress to repeal the law only a few days after it was passed.

Santos’ government has felt that, to secure peace, it needed to offer the guerrillas incentives to negotiate. In May 2012, Congress passed a law giving itself the power to decide the criteria determining which crimes would be investigated by prosecutors and which would be investigated by others. The bill was opposed by both Uribe and human rights groups, the latter claiming that it guaranteed impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity. Now that Colombia is a full member of the ICC, crimes against humanity and war crimes are the full jurisdiction of the ICC and amnesty could be challenged there.

In September 2012, Santos publicly confirmed that Colombian officials had been engaged in secret negotiations with the FARC in Cuba and Norway. The talks, in secret, likely began in January and by October, the two parties reached agreement on a framework for those talks. Santos claimed that they had learned the mistakes of the past and they would not be repeated; notably, the talks are being held abroad, and there is no concession of a DMZ to the FARC within Colombian territory. The talks were accompanied with a two-month ceasefire from the FARC, which they generally respected; but in 2013, the FARC returned to kidnappings (albeit many hostages were quickly released) and killing police officers. Some saw the attacks as a way for the FARC to prove that they remain a potent threat, without undermining the peace talks

In May 2013, agreement was reached on the first topic under discussion: rural development. The agreement talked of loans and technical help for small farmers, but nothing will be implemented until there is a final agreement on all matters. Other issues on the list are political participation (allowing the FARC to participate in the political process, while guaranteeing their safety, after drug lords and paramilitaries mowed down UP leaders and members in the 1980s), ending the conflict (the FARC surrendering their weapons and demobilizing), the issue of drugs and drug trafficking (Santos has come out in favour of considering the legalization of soft drugs) and finally victims (both of FARC and government atrocities).

In August, talks were hiccuped when the FARC felt that the government was rushing the talks forward in a (failed) attempt to reach a final deal before the March 2014 elections. But after a three-day walkout, the FARC returned to the table. In November, after reaching tentative agreement on political participation, the talks were rocked by revelations of a FARC plot to assassinate Uribe and other politicians (although it wasn’t clear if they were current plans). The issue of justice and the future of FARC leaders, who may face charges of crimes against humanity, will be very difficult.

Uribe has strongly opposed negotiations with the FARC, viewing it as akin to surrendering to terrorists. He used his Twitter account to publicize, on one occasion with a graphic picture, the FARC’s guerrilla attacks and their victims.

In February 2014, Semana, a popular magazine, reported that a military intelligence unit had been spying on the government’s negotiating team in the FARC peace talks for over a year. Uribe denied being on the receiving end of confidential information; his disclosure of confidential information (in August 2012, announcing the secret negotiations; in 2013, tweeting the coordinates of where an helicopter was picking up negotiators in a jungle clearing) in the past had raised questions. Two weeks after the revelations, Santos fired General Leonardo Barrero, the commander of the military; this time in links to Semana publicizing a transcript of a conversation the general had with a colonel facing charges for the extrajudicial killing of civilians.

Santos has been considerably less popular than his predecessor. There were student protests against a controversial education reform in 2011. In August 2013, large protests including miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers, public healthcare workers, students and others erupted in several departments. Both Uribe and the FARC, opportunistically, threw their support behind the protests. The protesters had different gripes: coffee growers demanding government assistance to counter dropping prices, truckers demanding investment in infrastructure to fix Colombia’s bad roads, others opposing the terms of the FTA with the US which was finally ratified in 2011. In the wake of the protests, Santos’ approval rating in September 2013 tumbled to the low 20s (from about 50%), with voters citing disapproval of the way Santos had handled the protests.

Political developments

Juan Manuel Santos’ government is backed by the National Unity (Unidad Nacional) coalition, which is made up of the PSUN (Party of the U), the Radical Change party and the Liberal Party. The Conservatives appear very divided between santistas, uribistas and independents; according to La Silla Vacia‘s electoral guide for the legislative elections, most Conservative senatorial candidates are pro-Santos but in February 2014, the Conservatives nominated the pro-Uribe Marta Lucía Ramírez as their presidential candidate.

Former President Álvaro Uribe created his own party in January 2013, the Centro Democrático (Democratic Centre, CD). Uribe is the party’s obvious leader and in many ways it is a personalist party based around him, notably taking up Uribe’s famous mano firme, corazón grande (firm hand, big heart) slogan. The ranks of the CD include uribistas from other parties, notably the PSUN, the Conservatives and even the PDA. Prominent members of the CD include Uribe’s Minister of Finance and Public Credit Óscar Iván Zuluaga (the CD’s 2014 presidential candidate), Uribe’s Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón and the former governor of Antioquia Luis Alfredo Ramos. All three men have been linked to the parapolitics scandal: Santos Calderón is under investigation for a meeting with AUC leaders in which he allegedly suggested that the AUC creates a front in Bogotá; in August 2013, Ramos was arrested on orders of the Attorney General for his presumed ties to paramilitaries; Zuluaga was investigated by the Attorney General in 2007 for a 2003 picture of him at an event for a former paramilitary running for mayor.

On the left, the PDA has run into a series of crises. The PDA mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno, elected in 2007 with 43.7%, got mixed up in a large corruption scandal involving corruption contractors, who claimed that the mayor had demanded kickbacks for him and his brother (a PDA senator). In May 2011, the Inspector General (a body overseeing the conduct of those in public office, with the power to dismiss them from office) suspended him from his job as mayor for three months. In September, he was expelled from the PDA and the Attorney General ordered his detention. The PDA’s steadfast defense of the corrupt mayor until the last minute divided and weakened the party; Gustavo Petro, the PDA’s 2010 presidential candidate, left the party in 2010 and became a vocal critic of Moreno’s administration. In October 2011, Petro, running for his new social democratic Movimiento Progresistas, was elected mayor with 32.2% against 25% for former mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2000), a uribista Green who was strongly supported by Uribe.

Petro’s administration was very controversial. Although he was able to reduce the city’s murder rate by 24%, various management problems and controversial decisions hurt his standing in public opinion. Especially contentious was his ill-advised 2012 decision to not renew private contracts for trash collection, placing responsibility for waste management in the municipal government’s hands. For three days, trash piled up on Bogotá’s streets, forcing Petro to allow private contractors to temporarily collect trash. The local government is accused of wasting millions of pesos and doubling the costs for trash collection as a result of its policy. On April 6, 2014, Petro will face a recall referendum.

In early December 2013, the Inspector General’s office removed him from office and banned him from holding public office for a period of 15 years. The decision, which has since been temporarily suspended by a court awaiting judgement from a higher court, reeked of political persecution (as Petro claims): the decision was unexpectedly severe (especially the long ban from holding office; Moreno faced only a year-long ban from office), the Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez, is a conservative supporter of Uribe and opponent of the peace talks.

The specific posts on the congressional elections (in March) and the presidential elections (in May) will include details on the parties, candidates, dynamics and – naturally – results themselves.

Colombia 2010 (runoff)

The runoff ballot in the Colombian presidential election was held on Sunday, June 20. The first round, held on May 29, placed former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos far ahead of former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus. The first round had come as a shocker to many observers and pollsters who had all placed their bets on Mockus, who had enjoyed a upsurge in polls during the campaign and was even the favourite to win the presidency. Santos, the candidate of retiring President Álvaro Uribe, and the candidate most likely to continue Uribe’s very popular policy (both at home and in Washington) of ‘democratic security’, placed first with a surprisingly strong 46.6% while Mockus badly trailed with a mere 21.5%, much lower than the 35% results polls had predicted for him just days before the May 29 ballot. A lot of theories have been advanced to explain Mockus’ counter-performance on May 29, but the most likely one seems to be a series of dangerous gaffes made by Mockus including his avowed “admiration” for Chavez or his statement that he would consider extraditing Santos to face trial in Ecuador in the Ecuadorian case against Colombia’s military attacks on a FARC base in Ecuador which killed high-ranking FARC leader Raul Reyes. Mockus’ flamboyant and clownish personality could also have rebutted late deciders and even likely voters might have backed off from placing the X next to the Green Party’s candidate in the secrecy of the voting booth.

Quite obviously, as I said in my post covering the first round, Mockus was dead on arrival. Any quixotic hope that he might have rallied considerably amount of voters and made the race close were quashed by Mockus’ refusal to enter into any political deals with Colombia’s traditional parties, most notably the opposition Liberal Party (of which Uribe and Santos are former members of) or the left-wing PDA, which Mockus said was too close to the FARC for comfort. The Liberals, one of Colombia’s oldest parties (with the pro-Uribe Conservatives) and a patronage machine more than a party, quickly dropped their opposition banner and rallied Santos. Their candidate’s poor showing (4.38%) in the first round likely made the Liberals prone to ally with the likely winner, though Santos’ former affiliation with the party and Mockus’ anti-politician rhetoric didn’t make them fond of his style. Two other uribista candidates, Germán Vargas Lleras of the Radical Change party and Conservative Noemí Sanín also quickly endorsed Santos. Lleras had won a surprising 10.1% while Sanín did very badly, winning only 6.1%. Here are the results (blank, null and unmarked votes are counted in the official tally):

Juan Manuel Santos (Party of the U) 69.05%
Antanas Mockus (Green) 27.52%
Blank votes 3.41%
Null votes 1.49%
Unmarked votes 0.74%

turnout 44.48%

The runoff was indeed just a formality for Santos. Mockus rallied barely any additional voters, and they likely came mostly from Gustavo Petro’s voters, but then again, he was far from getting all of Petro’s 9%. His reluctance to accept the PDA as an ally further hurt his chances of even breaking the 30% line. Santos, on the other hand, rallied the vast majority of the remaining uribista voters – despite the lukewarm relations between Santos’ party and Noemí Sanín’s maverick status. Santos also benefited from a series of radio messages by President Uribe, who, officially barred from endorsing a candidate, gave his unofficial backing to Santos. Uribe retains a high approval rating in Colombia as he leaves office. Turnout fell a bit, from around 49% in the first round, likely a result of the FIFA World Cup taking up a lot of popular attention in South America, even though Colombia is not qualified.

Santos’ strongest showings came in areas with strong FARC activity, especially in the regions to the southeast and northeast of Bogota. Only the department of Putumayo, a rather isolated department out in the Amazonian rainforest, did not vote for Santos in either the first round or the runoff. I don’t know what makes Putumayo so special – it did vote for Uribe by small margins in both 2002 and 2006 after all, but if I remember correctly these areas, rather on the outskirts of FARC activity, saw negotiations between the FARC and the government prior to Uribe’s election in 2002.

Álvaro Uribe’s retirement from the Presidency is a major hallmark in this election which did not see the change many had hoped for, but Uribe has marked Colombian and South American politics since 2002 in a way similar to Chavez or Lula, the latter of which is also a goner in October. Yet, Uribe’s ‘democratic security’ policy will continue almost unchanged under Santos, the man who as defense minister between 2006 and 2009 coordinated major actions such as the killing of Raul Reyes or the liberation of high-profile FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt (but also a paramilitary scandal and other defense scandals). Santos’ victory is also a victory for Washington’s Latin American policy, while a President Mockus might have proved a thorn in Washington’s side. Santos, who comes from a wealthy family of newspaper magnates and whose great-uncle was President between 1938 and 1942, is not as much of a hard-liner as he is made out to me. He is in fact rather pragmatic, having supported negotiations with the FARCs until 2002 (though he staunchly opposes such talks nowadays) and having been in the cabinets of both liberal and conservative administrations.

In a grateful and unifying victory speech, Santos, hammered that it was the hour of national unity and national dialogue between Colombians. He also thanked Mockus and said that he too would fight for transparency and legality. Santos has a crushing mandate from voters and a strong majority in Congress, while Mockus and the Green Party could emerge as the opposition as he attempts to regain some of the momentum and enthusiasm he had generated early in the campaign.

Colombia 2010

Colombia went to the polls to elect its new President on May 29 (first round) in a major election and turning point for the country’s political history. Indeed, after eight years in office, incumbent President Álvaro Uribe is ineligible to run for a third term, even though he did try (and was rebuffed by the courts). Even after eight years in office, the pro-American “democratic security” policy of Uribe vis-a-vis the FARC rebels and the drug war has earned him continuously high marks from the public, with his approvals still over 60%. Uribe’s tough policies against the FARC but also his belligerent attitude with Colombia’s neighbor, Chavist Venezuela, is very popular in Colombia. However, his wide coalition unraveled ahead of the elections. Overall, the Uribist coalition split three ways ahead of the presidential ballot.

Uribe’s personal party, the so-called Party of the U (no prize for guessing what the U really stands for), nominated Uribe’s well-known former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos for President. Santos comes from an old wealthy family of the Bogotan elite which notably owned the newspaper El Tiempo and whose ancestors held high political office in the country in the past. Santos, who as foreign trade minister in the late 90s was responsible for a number of free-trade deals, won most fame as defense minister (2006-2009) for presiding over a military raid inside Ecuador to kill FARC leader Raul Reyes, the liberation of FARC hostages most notably former presidential contender Ingrid Betancourt and a number of scandals in the Colombian military. He is seen to be Uribe’s closest ally, and Chavez notably intervened in the campaign to describe him as a quasi-gangster and a threat to peace in the region. The Conservative Party, one of Colombia’s old parties, nominated former ambassador and 1998-2002 presidential contender Noemí Sanín in a primary over a closer Uribe ally, former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias. The Uribist Radical Change Party, rumoured to be a front for the right-wing paramilitaries, nominated Germán Vargas Lleras.

The main opposition to Uribe’s re-election in 2006 (he won 62.4% in the first round) came from the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), a socialist party which is widely thought of as Chavez’ party in the country. It nominated Gustavo Petro. The Liberals, which were, with the Conservatives, the other major party for most of the twentieth century, and now oppose Uribe, nominated Rafael Pardo, an Uribist-turned-anti-Uribist.

Standing outside the old Uribist and anti-Uribist dichotomy was Antanas Mockus, the candidate of the new Green Party. Mockus, a former two-stint mayor of Bogota and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, was well known for his clownish personality as mayor (dressing up as a superhero, hanging a carrot around his neck) but his policies were very successful in cracking down on crime and poverty in the capital. Mockus, who is far from a conventional Greenie (his political idol is Angela Merkel), says that his party’s main goal is the fight against corruption (to be fair, anti-corruption has been a major guiding point for Colombian Greens, most notably Betancourt in 2002). He is not anti-Uribe per se and does not support any deal or prisoner exchanges with the FARC, though he did condemn the 2008 military raid to kill Raul Reyes. Chavez said that he did not know much about Mockus. Mockus’ candidacy quickly gained ground in the polls and was narrowly ahead in either the runoff or both rounds thanks to his success in the debates, his flashy personality and his centrist middle-ground views. What happened next wasn’t as great.

Juan Manuel Santos (Party of the U) 46.56%
Antanas Mockus (Green) 21.49%
Germán Vargas Lleras (Radical Change) 10.13%
Gustavo Petro (PDA) 9.15%
Noemí Sanín (Conservative) 6.14%
Rafael Pardo (Liberal) 4.38%
Jairo Calderón (Liberal Aperture) 0.23%
Róbinson Devia (Voice of the Conscience Movement) 0.22%
Jaime Araújo (Afro-Colombian Social Alliance) 0.1%
blank votes 1.55%

turnout 49.24%

2010 was not a good year for Colombian pollsters, who messed up on practically every aspect of this race. Something went quite wrong for Mockus, who was polling 32-38% right before the vote. His GOTV effort was likely weaker than Santos’ effort, who commands the Uribist machine. Furthermore, there might have been a swing at the last minute by voters close to Mockus who thought that his clown-like attitude might not have been fitting for the President of Colombia. In addition, he should have been tougher against Chavez’ intervention in the election to come out to the Uribist base as clearly anti-FARC and anti-Chavez. Chavez obviously doesn’t command much approval in Colombia.

Mockus is likely dead on arrival for the runoff, which is turning out to be a formality for Santos, likely Colombia’s next President. Seeing the wind change in Santos’ favour, the nominally anti-Uribist Liberals switched their support to Santos. The Conservatives and Radical Change are also strongly behind Santos. Some had hoped that a Mockus victory could have ended the stranglehold of personalist politics, of which Uribe is a leading member of, in Colombia. However, the victory of the Uribe name with Santos with his renewed alliance with the patronage machine (Liberals and Conservatives) has made that a lost cause. Not much will change with Santos in power, and Chavez’ attitude towards him isn’t exactly a good sign.

Colombia 2010

Colombia held elections to both houses of Congress on March 14, electing 102 Senators in a single nationwide constituency and 166 deputies elected in 33 regional constituencies. These elections precede the May 30 presidential elections, elections marked by the retirement (rather forced) of incumbent President Álvaro Uribe, in office since 2002. Uribe’s attempt to stand for a third term were turned down by the Constitutional Court in late February 2010 by a 7-2 margin.

Colombian politics, like politics in most South American countries, used to be dominated by two parties: the Liberals, who favoured free trade, a federal state and separation of church and state; and the Conservatives, led by landowners and the clergy who supported a centralized state with close links to the Catholic Church and an economic policy based around protectionism. In early Colombian history, both parties peacefully and rather ‘democratically’ alternated in power until armed revolt first emerged in 1899 with the Thousands Day War, which lasted until 1902 and led to the loss of Panama in 1903. Another armed conflict emerged in 1948 between Conservatives and Liberals after the assassination of popular Liberal populist presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. This era, which ended in around 1958, became known as La Violencia and led to the rise of a bi-partisan National Front in 1957 which overthrew a military government and which ruled Colombia until 1974. Under the National Front, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in powers for four presidential terms (a Liberal government was followed by a Conservative and then a Liberal government returned, and so on). Despite quelling a lot of the violence, and instituting some social reforms, the National Front failed to solve a number of social and economic problems which led to the emergence of now-infamous left-leaning guerrilla movements, such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, founded in 1964 as the military wing of the Communist Party but the links are long gone and the FARC is now a large, wealthy and strong group financed by drug cartels and kidnappings). The National Front ended in 1974, but the Liberals and Conservatives, whose ideological differences were by now quasi-inexistent, continued to dominate a two-party system dominated more and more by powerful drug lords, drug cartels and right-wing paramilitaries. Attempted negotiations between the FARC and Colombia’s Conservative President Andres Pastrana between 1999 and 2002 failed and led to the final collapse of the two-party system amidst popular disillusionment with Conservatives and Liberals.

A former Liberal, Álvaro Uribe was elected President in 2002 on a platform criticizing Pastrana’s peace process and promising to crack down on the FARC and paramilitaries. Elected by a large margin, he was re-elected in 2006. Due to his relative success in dealing with the FARC and despite the parapolitics scandal in which a number of politicians were accused of links with paramilitaries, Uribe has maintained a high approval rating throughout his term. His presidency has also led to the emergence of new political forces, the two largest of which are the Social National Unity Party (the Partido de la U), the primary Uribist party; and the anti-Uribe left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole which supports negotiations with the FARC. The Liberal Party is largely in opposition to Uribe, while the Conservatives, Radical Change (a 1998 splinter of the Liberals) and the new Party of National Integration are members of Uribe’s majority. A Green Party has also recently emerged, and its ranks include three former Bogota mayors including Luis Eduardo Garzón and Antanas Mockus.

Here are the Senate results with 93.8% of votes counted, using results from CaracolTV and Spanish Wikipedia:

Party of the U 26.32% winning 27 seats (+7)
Conservative 21.57% winning 21 seats (+3)
Liberal 16.56% winning 18 seats (nc)
Party of National Integration 8.71% winning 8 seats (+8)
Radical Change 8.34% winning 8 seats (-2)
Alternative Democratic Pole 8.1% winning 8 seats (-2)
Green Party 4.99% winning 4 seats (+4)
MIRA 2.8% winning 2 seats (nc)

The pro-Uribe parties weigh 64 seats, against 26 for the opposition and 6 others (4 Greens, 2 MIRA) which are tricky to classify.

These elections are good indicators for the May presidential ballot. In a primary held the same day, former ambassador Noemí Sanín narrowly won the Conservative nomination against  former Agriculture Minister Andrés Arias. Both are close Uribe allies. Antanas Mockus won the Green nomination. The major candidates also in the field include Defense Minister and close Uribe ally Juan Manuel Santos, Rafael Pardo of the Liberal Party, Gustavo Petro on the left for the PDA and Germán Vargas Lleras, another close Uribe ally for Radical Change. A runoff is likely, but Juan Manuel Santos seems to be the early frontrunner.