Colombia’s testing times

Ana Carrigan
28 March 2006

And the winner is … Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is seeking a second four-year term in Colombia's presidential contest on 28 May. In the 12 March congressional elections, Uribe's supporters won two-thirds of the seats in the senate and a clear majority in the lower house, the chamber of deputies. As in 2002 – and in almost identical numbers (5.5 million votes) – those who went to the polls voted to support Uribe and his tough, rightwing policies. With the president controlling more than 70% of congress, these elections indicate that he should win a decisive victory in the first round of the presidential stakes.

Ana Carrigan is author of The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy (Four Walls Eight Windows). She is writing a book about Colombian memoirs.

Also by Ana Carrigan in openDemocracy:

"Colombia’s elections: the regional exception" (March 2006)

And yet, this may not be the whole story. There were some curious anomalies.

First, abstention broke all records. More than 60% of the electorate stayed away. It's hard to gauge the cause at a distance. Intimidation? Apathy? Either way, when the number-crunchers had done their job, it turned out that Uribe's 70% of the legislature corresponded to the votes of 24% of the electorate. If only one in four Colombians voted for Uribe (many via the plethora of competing parties scrambling for favours from his gravy-train), where was everyone else? An email from a friend, living in one of Colombia's conflict-torn regions, provides some insight. This is what he said:

"The Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), are the determining factor in the vote. 97% of the people of this country are in despair with the guerrillas. No one wants anything to do with them. While the kidnapping and the extortion and the military confrontations continue (as the chosen method to confront this tremendous structural social injustice of ours), the people of Colombia will continue voting for the extreme right. They vote for Uribe because they feel he is the only one who stands up to the Farc. But the majority abstains. Because they don't want the war, they won't vote for the extreme right. They don't vote for the Liberals because they don't think they have the guts to mobilise this country against 'terrorism'. And they won't vote for the left because, after seeing 20,000 leftwing leaders die in the last thirty years, they feel the left is too unprotected, or because they feel that this left of ours is not capable of convincing the guerrillas to stop the war and take up the cause of a people who want profound structural changes, but without any more killing. And the rest of us? Those of us who believe we are democrats, those of us who walk the mountains of this country proposing a different solution, none of us have been able to convince the guerrillas that there is another way; that it is hard and demanding and risky but that it exists. And until we manage to open a serious peace process this situation will continue. And there will be no space for a left of creative and audacious and new men and women."

In the months before the vote, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) went on the rampage. Farc killed soldiers and police, and massacred civilians; it stopped all traffic on the main roads in eleven regions for weeks, rubbishing Uribe's flagship policy (so-called "democratic security"), and made bits of official claims that the army had it on the run; it drove enraged and sickened Colombians to vote for Uribe, to vote again for war.

There was also an unprecedented one million spoiled ballots, and almost 300,000 blank or protest votes. Confused voters confronting a complicated voting system? Or voter rage and rejection? There were reports of hundreds of ballot-papers scrawled with insults: corruptos, asesinos, paracos (slang for paramilitaries), ladrones (thieves). A million-plus potential voters who, if they participate in the next round, will not be casting ballots for Uribe.

Paramilitaries and politics

Three days after the vote, Karen Hughes, the United States under-secretary of state for diplomacy and public affairs, arrived in Bogotá to congratulate Uribe. Hughes declared that the United States was proud "to be a partner" of Uribe, and characterised the elections as "tremendously successful, lawful and transparent". For the administration of George W Bush, it is understandably important to bolster the image of its only friend in a continent it no longer dominates.

That said, analysts now calculate that in the 12 March legislative vote a high percentage of people, either directly allied with mafias and paramilitaries, or who sympathise with them, won congressional seats in both houses. An advisor on Liberal candidate Horatio Serpa Uribe's team warned that until the new congcess begins to debate the revocation of Colombia's extradition treaty with the United States, all figures should be regarded as speculative.

"We don't know", Serpa's adviser said. "It could be twenty, it could be forty, but when the debate on extradition starts, then we shall find out quite quickly". One thing is certain: the revocation of the extradition treaty, as well as amnesty laws to facilitate laundering the mafia's fortunes and legitimising their massive land-grabs, will be front-and-centre on the agenda of the new congress. The Bush administration may yet rue their enthusiasm for Uribe's congressional victory. The barbarians, with their limitless capacity for coercion, are no longer at the gate. They have come inside – and through the main door.

A pole of hope

Uribe's successful bid in October 2005 to change the constitution to permit him to run for re-election has radically altered the playing-field. At one end of that field is Uribe, his campaign headquarters inextricably entwined within the presidential palace, with access to the resources and institutions of the state and a president's ability to influence the headlines. The establishment news media, especially television, are owned by his supporters, and he has the backing of the recently demobilised narco-paramilitaries, who need him in the palace to consolidate their own power and ensure that Uribe makes good on his promises of political status and protection from extradition.

On the far side of the field is the opposition: two parties of the left – one ancient and moderate, the social-democratic Partido Liberal Colombiano (the Colombian Liberal Party); and one very young and radical, the Polo Democratico Alternativo (El Polo), plus a few quixotic independents. All the opposition forces are strapped for cash, and the Liberals and the Polo are confronting highly complicated, life-and-death security issues as the dirty war advances, menacing their staff and their supporters.

There was no international presence on election-day, but had there been, the citizens in Bogotá's southern barrios – a traditional stronghold of the left – might have told their stories about masked men battering on their doors after dark, threatening to kill them if they voted for El Polo. Or stories of masked men on powerful motorbikes arriving in the barrio after dark and circling the block for hours. Election monitors might have seen paramilitary graffiti messages: "Señor, head of the family: put your sons to bed early. If not, we will do so for you." Or graffiti likening Polo candidates to the guerrillas. "We are all so scared. These things never happened here … but today we're even afraid to be seen talking to the police", a community leader told El Tiempo, Colombia's largest newspaper, in the days before the elections.

Yet the big surprise of the elections was the success of the radical Polo. Formed three years ago from a coalition of small leftwing movements, the Polo increased its representation in both houses, consolidating its position as the most coherent opposition force in congress. Three of the Polo's eleven senators were among the top ten vote-getters in the country, and the leader of the party's senate list, Gustavo Petro, registered the second-highest individual vote of the elections. This suggests that the support reflected in the high poll numbers for President Uribe throughout the last four years may not have been as unanimous as it appeared.

Sixteen years after the extermination of the previous leftwing democratic party, the Polo has struck a chord with the electorate, and its unlikely presidential candidate, Senator Carlos Gaviria Díaz, a 68-year-old former magistrate and president of the constitutional court, is rated the best candidate the Colombian left has ever had.

Also on Colombian politics on openDemocracy:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe’s gift: Colombia’s mafia goes legit" (October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia’s other war" (November 2005)

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Gaviria is the polar opposite of everything that has turned Colombians against politics. He is a serious intellectual, sincere, straightforward and honest, and the evidence in recent opinion polls suggest he is gaining people's trust. Recently, in the blogs of a major newspaper, this message appeared:

"I voted and I will vote for Carlos Gaviria, because he is the only candidate who doesn't have blood on his hands. I will vote for him because I detest the CHEs and the PINOCHETs. I will vote for him because I admire the GANDHIs and the NELSON MANDELAs, I will vote for him because he is the only one who can return peace and freedom to Colombia."

Enrique Parejo González, is another highly respected man of the law, a former justice minister, now running for the presidency on behalf of the small Reconstruccion Democratica Nacional movement because he is convinced the survival of Colombia's democracy is at stake. For Parejo, Uribe's re-election bid is "convulsing the little institutional stability we had left", and must be stopped. If it is not, he believes that Uribe will consolidate the power of the paramilitaries and change the constitution again to prolong his power beyond 2010, "imitating other extreme rightwing regimes, for example [Augusto] Pinochet in Chile, or (Francisco) Franco in Spain."

Other opposition figures and analysts express similar fears, though in more local, Colombian terms. The advisor to Serpa, the Liberal candidate, recognises it will be extremely difficult to defeat Uribe, but says it is not impossible if the combined opposition forces can prevent him from a first-round victory in on 28 May. "But if we fail", the adviser says, "then what is coming is the consolidation of an extreme-rightwing regime – only it won't be the traditional right". This new, Colombian extreme right, he says, "will be something else. Something ugly. Contaminated with this criminal mafia."

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