Presidential elections in Colombia: polarisation or deterioration of the political conversation?

Political polarisation consists of the amplification of divergence and consequently displacement towards extreme ideological positions. When this intensifies, the centre becomes more narrow, but this is not happening in Colombia. Español

Sandra Borda
21 May 2018

Colombian Flag. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 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.

Political polarisation is a phenomenon that implies the amplification of divergent political attitudes and the consequent displacement of these attitudes towards the ideological extremes.

In a scenario of this nature, the voices of the centre or those with moderated views lose their visibility, power and influence.

Occasionally, and when the political parties are strong, this division can manifest itself as a reinforcement of the extremist sectors within political parties and/or as an increase in the ideological distance that exists between them.

This is evident in the case of the US where the so called “middle Republicans” and the “middle Democrats” have been distancing themselves at great speed during the past decade. 

Many suggest that Colombian politics had never been so hostile in its use of political discourse.

Colombia will choose a new president this year and the electoral process has put the discussion over polarisation on the table.

Many suggest that Colombian politics had never been so hostile in its use of political discourse and that political platforms and ideological positions had never been so distanced. “We are a country that is profoundly polarised” is a phrase that has been uttered many times throughout political discussions.

But is Colombia really politically polarised? How much of this supposed “new” polarisation is not what it appears to be? How much of what is perceived as pure “social media scandal” and full-on discourse is true polarisation? Is a lot of what is happening during the current elections more a process of diversification and pluralisation of voices rather than polarisation?

First, it must be said that it is impossible to respond to these questions with conclusiveness because in Colombia there are no strict variable measurements that come close to the phenomenon of polarisation as it has been defined in this text.

There are surveys, such as the Barometer of the Americas, that measures political attitudes of the Colombian population and even though they may reach some conclusions regarding polarisation, they are not designed to measure this concept.

Additionally, in the case of the barometer, there are only results available until 2016 and it would be impossible to make a generalisation regarding the state of polarisation today with this data.

Finally, yet another factor that complicates the measuring of polarisation is the profound political party crisis in Colombia, which makes it hard to view polarisation as a product of party activity (contrary to what is happening in the US for example). 

In fact, at the beginning of the electoral race, 11 candidates put themselves forward with the backing of signatures [1] and only two did so with the backing of their political parties, implying that if there is polarisation, it is possible that this is down to political and ideological division that does not necessarily overlap with political party divisions. This further complicates the task of identifying and measuring the phenomenon. 

The result of this lack of diagnosis is the feeling that intuition can dictate to us if there is a degree of polarisation, but we do not know how much nor how new it really is, nor across what boundaries it operates: are we dealing with a polarisation between liberals and conservatives? Or a classic division between left and right? Or is it a combination of both? 

16.5% of the Colombian population define themselves as left-leaning, but are against marriage between couples of the same sex.

In the case of the left-right division, the panorama is slightly clearer thanks to one of the questions of the Barometer of the Americas that consulted Colombians over where they sit on a scale of 1 (extreme left) and 10 (extreme right). Historic evolution provides the following results: 

Those who identify as left-leaning have increased in numbers, and those who identify as right-leaning have decreased. Additionally, those who identify with the centre have increased although this has been small.

The definition of polarisation proposed at the beginning of this text suggests that when polarisation intensifies, the centre becomes reduced and this has not happened in Colombia, at least up until 2016. Only from this data can it be suggested that polarisation is not quite what it seems.

Another interesting observation from the Barometer is that the left-right spectrum does not appear to correspond to social issues or issues of principle that go beyond purely political matters. For example, 16.5% of the Colombian population define themselves as left-leaning, but are against marriage between couples of the same sex.

Something similar occurs with issues such as euthanasia, drug consumption and divorce. Thus, the amount of Colombians who identify with the left may have increased, however that does not imply a greater level of polarisation inasmuch as political differences are still concentrated in concrete issues and do not overlap with social issues as such.

That said, it is possible to speculate that this phenomenon owes itself to the arrival of political figures from the Democratic Centre’s campaign (right-wing political party led by ex-president Álvaro Uribe and whose candidate for the presidential race is Iván Duque) with a strong religious stance like Viviane Morales (representative of the Evangelical church) and ex-prosecutor Alejandro Ordoñez (subscriber to one of the most conservative branches of Catholicism).

But, it is still early to know whether this increased religious component among the right will produce increased levels of polarisation. 

However, we know very little about any other kind of division out with what is considered as polarisation. It is difficult to know if we are dealing with a disagreement between liberals and conservatives in a broad sense.

In Colombia, the traditional parties were the Liberals and the Conservatives and this can generate confusion and noise when those who conduct surveys opt for asking people whether they consider themselves as politically “liberal” or “conservative”, as this has little to do with these parties today. Thus, it is not often you will find surveys that investigate this type of affiliation.

Another indicator which could give an indication regarding the intensification of polarisation in Colombia is the growth in antipathy towards the contenders, or in other words, the measure in which unfavourable opinions have grown towards others from the other side of the political spectrum.

Although I am unaware of any attempt to measure this indicator through surveys, I believe the dynamics of the Colombian political conversation would suggest that it is in this arena in which political polarisation is most evident. 

Dangerously enough, mentions of the political contenders also refer to the dynamics of the armed conflict of Colombia: on one hand, the right is classified as the “paramilitaries” and on the other, the left is classified as the “guerrilla”. For the right, the centre is tepid and indecisive, and for the left, it is seen as a closeted right-wing movement. 

The right is classified as the “paramilitaries” and the left is classified as the “guerrilla”. For the right, the centre is tepid and indecisive, and for the left, it is seen as a closeted right-wing movement. 

In such a political context, it is hardly difficult to explain the problems the centre candidates (Sergio Fajardo and Humberto de la Calle) have been having in constructing and spreading a concrete and consistent message, and in consolidating themselves as the favourites in the current electoral race.

While there is another part of this conversation that is far from the previously described extreme postures, the impression I have is that this tends to become suffocated among the shouts and the accusations from one side and another.

In other words, the debate that takes place between politicians, analysts and even citizens active on social networks tends to oscillate easily between the extremes. For these very reasons, the spectrum of discussion of the political centre is probably where political polarisation is most felt.

We must also ask ourselves if it is the individuals (politicians and their supporters) of the extremes that make a bigger effort for their voices to be heard. In the same vein, we must also ask ourselves if the centre is not smaller or less powerful, but simply less vocal.

Once again, there is little information regarding this issue but a quick look at behaviour on social networking platforms in Colombia would corroborate this thesis that the sensation of a polarised discussion has increased, even though the final electoral results may indicate something entirely different.

It would also be interesting to observe in what measure these so called “ideological silos” have grown and become generalised. In other words, in what measure de facto segregation is occurring, that then leads Colombians to isolate themselves in particular spaces where only the same political opinions are shared.

This indicator attempts to measure partially that we are tolerant to the opinions of others depending on the level with which we chose to surround ourselves with those who think the differently.

Inasmuch as there are not yet clusters of coherent and broad issues beyond the two ends of the political spectrum, it is possible that these ideological silos have not yet been consolidated in Colombia with the same strength that they have been in the US. 

It is possible that these ideological silos have not yet been consolidated in Colombia with the same strength that they have been in the US.


Possible explanations

Thus, if we suppose that in spite of the shortage of data regarding political attitudes we can trust intuition that results from following political debate and affirms we find ourselves before an atypical and polarised campaign, the obvious question would be: What has provoked this change? Why do find ourselves in such a scenario today? 

I will take the risk of elaborating various hypotheses for such discussion, two of which are intimately connected to the recent peace process that culminated in the end of the armed conflict between the FARC and the Colombian state.

The first argument is that the peace process produced a counterintuitive effect: instead of uniting Colombian society around a common objective, it served only to profoundly divide in an almost irreconcilable way.

The most eloquent manifestation of this division is the result of the 2017 referendum that asked Colombians after the Havana negotiations had ended if they supported the final agreement to terminate the conflict and construct a firm and lasting peace. The turnout was 37.43%, and 49.78% voted yes while 50.21% voted no.

In effect, since 2012 (year in which the negotiations began) and until today, the political discussion has been monopolised by this topic and by the divisions that it generates. Even the candidates for the current presidential elections can be differentiated mostly by their level of support or their questioning of the peace agreements.

Since 2012 and until today, the political discussion has been monopolised by the peace process and by the divisions that it generates. 

My second argument suggests that we may be confusing polarisation with a phenomenon that appears similar but is also very different. I suggest that the end of the war with the FARC, a revolutionary Marxist guerrilla, opened up the political space for the left that had been politically locked away in the past and has now increased the political ideological spectrum within which Colombian electoral politics functions.

One of the strategies of the traditional political classes to marginalise and crush social movements and the left was to systematically suggest that they had links to the armed guerrilla movements.

This did not just put the left at constant risk whilst forcing them to quietly militate, but it also delegitimised it before the Colombian public. This facilitated Colombian electoral politics as a centre and right-wing domain, in which electoral competency was restricted and deep-rooted differences were seldom exposed.

The current electoral race broke up the centre-right consensus that dominated the country with one swift blow and has ranked left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro as the second favourite in most surveys up until this point. The left, in a short space of time, went from the minority to the mainstream.  

This has implied a transformation of the political debate and has forced the traditional political classes to deal with new issues with substantial dissent. To put it in other words, the discourse nowadays is more diverse, the ideological continuum has been increased and it has incorporated positions that had been less visible in past electoral campaigns.

The reaction of the traditional politicians before such a change, whilst they adapt, may be more visceral and less proactive (after all, they do not underestimate the “threat” that the left can win) and this could be the cause of a more belligerent and at times violent political discussion.

Political positions therefore appear more distanced from one another but that may be a result of the diversification and pluralisation of the Colombian political system. If this is the case, this can only be good news and what Colombians today understand as polarisation could be a mere mirage. 

It is more like we are before a process of consolidation and strengthening of our democracy, a perfectly predictable effect upon ending an armed conflict. 

To finish, two additional factors must be considered: to start with, in Colombia, the social agenda is increasingly merging with the political agenda. Issues such as LGBTI rights, women’s rights (such as abortion), drug consumption etc., tend to be discussed more.

When faced with such a scenario, the conservative consensus that surrounds these issues has begun to break down. It is possible in this context that these issues are settling in clusters alongside political issues, thus feeding into future polarisation.

Here, intermediate or moderated political perspectives are difficult to design, going against the centre and reducing its strength. 

Secondly, social networks are not the cause of political polarisation, but they certainly facilitate it. And in Colombia, this condition is accentuated because media outlets that seek to balance social networks and contribute to civilised and fair political debate are scarce.

On occasions, the low level of credibility of national media outlets has led them to reproduce the battles fought on social networks to increase their ratings. 

If we add to all this the fact that extreme political discourse is easier to present than that of the centre, and that it provokes emotions that electorally influence people, we have been led into a context in which political conversation fails to abide by the basic rules of courtesy.

The big question is whether the undesirable conditions of the Colombian electoral discussion equate to an unusual strengthening of polarisation and of how substantive differences that are drowning out moderate and pragmatic voices are managed.

The question remains unanswered to this day because the clues as to why are only as numerous as the incomplete information at our disposal.



[1] According to Law 130 of 1994, groups of citizens can apply to run in the presidential elections if they can receive signatures equivalent to at least 20% of the result of dividing the electoral potential by the number of seats of the respective constituency. In no case will more than 50,000 signatures be demanded. In 2005, this threshold was modified in the light of the presidential elections and a minimum number of signatures equivalent to 3% of the total of all valid votes cast from the previous election was put in place. 

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