How polarized is Colombia?

Presidential candidate Humberto de la Calle, a key figure in reaching the peace agreement with the FARC, on the challenges Colombia faces if it is to preserve democracy. InterviewEspañol

Humberto de la Calle democracia Abierta
23 May 2018

Humberto de La Calle, presidential candidate to 2018 ellections in Colombia, photographed in July 2017. (Photo by Daniel Garzon Herazo/NurPhoto/Sipa USA). PA Images, All rights reserved..

This interview is part of the series Colombia elections 2018: de-polarization and disinformation  produced in partnership with Nueva Sociedad and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

DemocraciaAbierta: What is your perception of the use currently being made of issues such as the peace agreement for the sake of creating populist agendas which polarize Colombian society?

Humberto de la Calle: As I have said in the past few days, I believe that the peace agreement is at risk. This is due, on the one hand, to an opportunist and populist approach on the part of some political actors and, on the other hand, to the slow pace of its implementation and the scandals surrounding it.

It is hard to understand how you can polarize peace. But ever since the plebiscite campaign in October 2016, we have witnessed an opportunistic use of the peace agreement. It is very worrying that peace has become a tool which some use at their convenience, according to electoral calculations.

The campaigners for the NO vote pettily played on fear and alleged gender ideology to obstruct the peace agreement. Now, in the current election campaign, some have moderated their discourse and say that they no longer intend to tear it to pieces but only wish to suggest some changes, while others have gone from stating that they were always against it to supporting it overnight. Opportunism in relation to peace is all-pervading, and several candidates have been changing their minds about the peace agreement depending on which way the wind blows, like wind vanes.

DA: What effect does polarization before the May 27 elections have on the traditional political parties? Does it strengthen them, or weaken them?

HC: Political parties in Colombia are currently facing major challenges. The main challenge is the fact that citizens have lost confidence in democratic institutions. Just look at the sheer number of candidates seeking endorsements for these elections. Polarization is definitely one of the factors contributing to the weakening of traditional parties, to which I would add exacerbated personalism and the widespread tendency to spread fake news, memes and deceptive headlines which ignite like gunpowder and are taken for certain by large numbers of people – which, in turn, increases polarization and hostility towards anything that smells of traditional politics. We are faced with a real paradox.

This does not detract from the importance of an undeniable fact: parties have failed citizens. Corrupt practices (or, at best, patronage) and the pressure that congressmen and other politicians put on the government to get budget allocations in exchange for their support to legislative initiatives, have greatly harmed the perception that ordinary citizens have of politics.

I myself do recognize that the Liberal Party faces important challenges and I have said it on many occasions: we must renew the party so as to make sure we prevent those who have indulged in corruption from staining the liberal flag and undermining the confidence of citizens any longer. The situation, however, is actually more encouraging than it might seem at first sight: the Liberal Party is united around my candidacy and draws support from people throughout the country. At the March 11 congressional elections, we were the second electoral force in Colombia.

DA: Do these elections entail a collapse of the middle ground in Colombian politics?

HC: There is, indeed, an exacerbation of the right and left extremes at these elections, fueled by discourses appealing to fear, hatred and populism. This is not an exclusively Colombian phenomenon, it is a rising tide all over the world.

Despite increasing polarization, I do not believe that the middle ground is collapsing. On the contrary, it is precisely there where the alternatives to overcome radicalization and polarization are to be found. My political project revolves around consolidating a political proposal at the center, far from the extremes, allowing us to overcome the dilemma of choosing between two extremes and to actually build collaborative solutions to the great challenges of the country.

DA: How does your campaign manage to promote agendas which do not polarize and misinform society?

HC: In the proposals I make, in the debates, the interviews and the campaign events I attend, I always try to transmit rationality, truth and experience. I have never resorted to fear or false information. I have even put forward issues for discussion which are not very popular in a campaign, such as the need for tax reform.

My campaign stands out for being the cleanest, the one that does not play foul or claims to have false followers in social media. Throughout my life - in the Constituent Assembly, in the Organization of American States, in the negotiations in Havana - I have helped to solve differences that seemed irreconcilable and I have tried to come up with solutions to big problems. This is the spirit of my campaign. I can say that I have done the opposite of polarizing - that is, reconciling.

Now, it is important to emphasize that seeking an alternative far from the extremes does not mean not taking stances. Quite the contrary: being at the center and, in my case, the liberal center, means assuming with all due vehemence the banners of non-discrimination, away from fanaticism and hatred. The center I am promoting puts the dignity of the person at the core of the discussion and considers that economic and political freedom must be a reality.

I believe in capitalism with a conscience, with social responsibility, because Colombia cannot continue to fight for a place at the podium of the most inequitable countries on earth. I believe in striving for a society that recognizes itself as multiple, diverse and pluralistic, but above all inclusive. In other words, I believe in leveling the ground for everyone.

DA: What is the most important challenge that these elections pose for preserving democracy in Colombia?

HC: In my opinion, the great challenge for Colombian democracy comes from the extremes. The antidemocratic mood of some of my adversaries, a certain caudillista touch and some of the proposals we hear being made at debates and interviews, are very worrying and, quite frankly, inconceivable in a country with as solid a democratic tradition as Colombia.

It should be noted that some candidates are making proposals which threaten head-on the constitutional order in this country – proposals aimed at centralizing power with, for example, mechanisms such as a newly-created "super-court of justice", reducing the number of seats in Congress and ignoring decisions taken by legitimately elected governors.

What is paradoxical is that these are the candidates that are doing well in the opinion polls. I confess that I find it hard to understand how this is possible, but in the same way as I have never underestimated the ability of Colombians to overcome adversity, I do not underestimate their wisdom when going to the polls. Some analyses indicate that the election results are decided in the last two weeks and I firmly believe that there could be a big surprise on May 27.


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