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Colombia and the possibility of modernising democracy

Presidential elections results imply that democracy in Colombia, which until now has been marred with violence, structural deficits and a lack of true alternation, will gradually become more normalised. Español

Two Colombians of different generations engage in a heated discussion en the Plaza Bolívar of Bogotá, 24 November 2016. AP Photo/Ivan Valencia. All Rights Reserved.

This article is part of the series "Ellections in Colombia 2018: depolarization and disinformation", developed in partnership with Nueva Sociedad Magazine and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

With 10,373,000 votes in his favour, the victory of Democratic Centre candidate Iván Duque means he will now become the youngest president of Colombia at 41 years of age, and continues the pattern of successive right wing governments in the country.

The next opposition leader will be Gustavo Petro, the most emblematic figure of the progressive movement, who obtained 8,034,000 million votes for the Colombia Humana party which sought to put in place, for the first time in Colombian history, a left-wing leader. 

The difference of 2,339,000 votes in favour of Duque makes him a leader with enough support to allow him a wide margin for leadership regarding the more complex and baroque issues plaguing internal politics, and for pressing international questions such as the drug trade and Venezuela.

But even with such an undisputable victory, the popular vote does not provide him with carte blanche given that Duque must govern not just on behalf of his own supporters but also on behalf of the 8 million who voted left, the 800,000 who voted blank, and for the 47% of the electorate who abstained. 

In any case, these have been monumental elections in the political trajectory of Colombia given that the traditional hegemonic parties have been the biggest losers of the presidential stand-offs.

The old party formations that previously dominated the Colombian political sphere for years have been knocked out of the game, and it remains to be seen if this change is perhaps even definite.

We have seen how political parties have gradually become more fragmented, and this is not necessarily negative.

These elections have had the highest participation rates in the history of Colombian presidential elections even though the turn out would appear low by western standards. 

In fact, this is proof of democratic progress, and of recognising the plurality of political parties and candidates that exist throughout the country, whilst demonstrating the maturity of an electorate capable of contemplating distinct political stances and positions.

Additionally, these elections have had the highest participation rates in the history of Colombian presidential elections even though the turn out would appear low by western standards. This indicates that politics, from this point forward, has changed forever in Colombia.

A young president with a renowned international background that appears to contrast his limited previous political experience arrives at the Casa de Nariño.

His candidacy has been particularly controversial regarding the peace agreements, and these are crucial for the future of the country. It remains unclear what will happen in the post-conflict stage, and whether the rumour that Duque will tear the peace agreement to shreds will actually become reality. 

Duque took it upon himself to refute such a rumour with the assistance of his vice president María Lucía Ramírez (the fact that for the first time in history a woman will take on this position is positive in itself), who considered a very unfortunate phrase of one of the leaders of the Democratic Centre party.

According to the vice president elect, that declares her position as independent within the winning candidacy, although in the orbit of the old Conservative Party, the reforms of the Duque/Ramirez administration intend to introduce regarding the peace agreements are very timely.

First, dealing with the issue of the drug trafficking and its connection with political crime, and the fact that coca cultivation and drug tradficking activity has in fact increased following the signing of the agreement. Point 3 of the peace agreement does not state any concrete agreement with the FARC regarding this issue which needs to be addressed.

Second, controlling the impact of drug trafficking and illegal mining funds on voting behaviour (especially in terms of buying votes). And third, (and this is the issue which has created the most controversy as it breaks one of the fundamental pacts of the agreement with the guerrillas), opposition to the fact that the FARC representatives in Congress, once demobilised and converted into a political party, are the same that led the confrontation and as a consequence are susceptible to accusations of crimes against humanity.

The recognition of the benefits of peace and the backing of the demobilisations that allow for disarmaments to take place, are indisputable points of the peace deal that will be respected by the new president.

But the recognition of the benefits of peace, among which is having celebrated the first elections without guerrilla interference, and the backing of the demobilisations that allow for disarmaments to take place, are indisputable points of the peace deal that will be respected by the new president.

It is certain that the peace agreements, which have dominated and polarised Colombian political arena over the years, were used treacherously throughout the political campaign.

Once said campaign had ended, Duque, conscious of the importance of putting an end to the violence, is capable of acting intelligently and taking the advice of various international actors. He could, for intance, take into account the following 4 points addressed by IFIT's Colombia Brain Trust to the winner of the presidential elections over the first 100 days, whoever it may be: 1) that the territories most affected by conflict are stabilised; 2) that social and economic development in rural areas is promoted; 3) that victims are guaranteed their rights; and 4) that the political system is consolidated.

With 54% of the votes, the next president has assured his governance of the country, but he must take into account the 42% that voted towards the left, an option that has emerged as a real political alternative in Colombia for the first time.

As leader of the opposition and senator, Gustavo Petro will be able to demand that the next administration deals with corruption head on, that they protect the environment, and that they progress with the building of a stable and lasting peace, even continuing with dialogue with the ELN.

Throughout this often tough and tense campaign, in which the centre was finally reduced to 800,000 blank votes, embodied in the 4.6 million votes that went to Sergio Fajardo in the first round but later felt obligated to vote in the second round for a more extreme option, Duque finally managed to bring together the traditionally conservative classes and leverage the political and economic elites even if it meant creating divisions and invoking fear that Colombia could become another Venezuela if it fell into the hands of the left.

The other great winner could be considered as ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the mentor and most solid backer of Duque, who with his enormous social capital mobilised millions of votes in his favour, demonstrating the political weight the hard right retains in the Colombian political system.

Duque will now have sufficient legitimacy to distance himself from the extreme right, to get rid of his Uribista associations and to carry out his more centrist vision.

However, although the backing of Uribe continues to be a determining factor for the future of the country, Duque will now have sufficient legitimacy to distance himself from the extreme right, to get rid of his Uribista associations and to carry out his more centrist vision, if he is to follow, as he says, the liberal leaders which he most admires, such as Justin Trudeau (46 years of age), Emmanuel Macron (40 years of age) or Spanish Albert Ribera (38 years of age), born in the 70s, just like Duque.

If Duque manages to separate himself from the long shadow of vengeful Uribe ideology and disprove the accusations that he is a mere puppet of the ex-president, it is possible he could lead the country towards a very necessary process of political normalisation that is more urgent than ever.

The people of Colombia have decided that the nation is not yet ready to join the list of Latin American countries that have been governed by the left, but they have given their seal of approval to this progressive alternative, from which if Gustavo Petro manages to create an efficient and constructive opposition, could triumph in the next presidential race in 2022.

Regarding the economy, it seems as though with Duque, experienced civil servant of the Inter-American Development Bank, uncertainty about the economic future of the country diminishes. His presidency will see the continuation of the majority of the economic policies of president Santos.

The challenge is accelerating economic growth that can enable consolidation, ensuring that high earners pay taxes and consolidating the widening of the middle classes in Colombia that will contribute to the reduction of immense inequalities and injustices that plague the country.

Whilst investors embrace the decision of the new president maintaining an orthodox hold over the economy with fiscal responsibility and a possible reduction on public spending, there are environmental sectors that are particularly worried regarding the exploitation of hydrocarbons and the appearance of fracking as a supposed means to guarantee economic development.

The challenge is accelerating economic growth that can enable consolidation, ensuring that high earners pay taxes and consolidating the widening of the middle classes in Colombia that will contribute to the reduction of immense inequalities and injustices that plague the country, which for decades has been unable to create any kind of a welfare state that matches up to its human and natural resources.

In this election, and in spite of the polarisation and division that we have witnessed throughout the uproar of the campaign, Colombia may have taken a step towards normalising a democracy historically marked by inequality and violence, and the young generations can look towards the future with more hope and less fear of returning to the country’s bloody past.

After all, it will be those who manage to occupy the space of political centre that will most likely manage to gain and remain in power.

In any case, it does not seem like the new administration will undertake the structural reforms that Colombia has been in dire need of for decades, which would need to start with serious agrarian reforms and a plan for infrastructure that would reconnect a deeply fragmented country where the state remains absent in many territories.

But if Duque takes the extreme right of Uribe into account, or if Petro bows to the temptation of an extemporaneous and antiquated expression of the left, the country will have lost out on a historic opportunity for achieving modernity that would distance the state from the setbacks where violence tends to thrive.

4 years of great challenges lie ahead. Colombia, despite having recently become member of the club of developed nations that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it continues being one of the most unequal countries in the world, and it continues to produce some of the highest incidences of violence (24.4 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants), including acts by criminal gangs and the murders of significant numbers of social leaders, to a backdrop of post-conflict policies which remain fragile in nature.

If Duque takes the extreme right of Uribe into account, or if Petro bows to the temptation of an extemporaneous and antiquated expression of the left, the country will have lost out on a historic opportunity for achieving modernity.

However, this traditional hegemonic power of the establishment, that defends the interests of the political and economic elites, has been seen for the first time to be questioned by the left, who call for social change and a government for all Colombians and not for only the winners up-against the losers. Duque will only succeed if he listens to not just the “winners”, but the entire nation.

Finally, we can assume that if Duque and Petro play their cards right in the legislature, the definitive consolidation of peace after 50 years of armed conflict, and the establishment of a left-right axis in Colombia could result in the consolidation of a fully functioning liberal democracy, whose strength lies within the real possibility of alternation between parties in power and not in mere replacement.

Fortunately, today there are many Colombians that know that after these heated elections, the country will never be the same again. 

About the authors

Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Founder, Director and Lead Editor of democraciaAbierta. Francesc is an international affairs expert, author and political analyst. His most recent book, "Order and disorder in the 21st century. Gobal governance in a world of anxieties", was published in 2016. He Tweets @fbadiad 

Francesc Badia i Dalmases es Fundador, Director y Editor de democraciaAbierta. Ensayista y analista político, es experto en asuntos internacionales.  Su libro más reciente, "Orden y desorden en el siglo XXI. Gobernanza global en un mundo de ansiedades", fue publicado en 2016. Twitter @fbadiad

Jonatan Rodríguez es sociólogo colombiano responsable de Change.org Colombia y editor para redes sociales de democraciaAbierta para América Latina. Twitter: @jonatanchange 

Jonatan Rodríguez is Social Networks Editor for Latin America at democraciaAbierta. He is a Colombian sociologist and campaigner in Change.org. Twilter: @jonatanchange 


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