Colombia Elections

After all the debates and arguments, the accusations and the recriminations, the election is over. At the beginning of this penultimate week of June 2010 we know that the uribista political project is still in power in Colombia, and will be for at least another four years. In fact, it was clear that this was going to be the case over three weeks ago, after the first round of voting. But only five weeks ago the political scenario had seemed very different. Indeed, as the weekend of the first vote approached one thing was clear: the 2010 presidential campaign in Colombia had been extraordinary. And it had been so in a number of ways. To begin with this had been an unusually short contest, at least in Colombian terms. As recently as January many analysts had expected the election to be contested and won by the incumbent president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, an authoritarian but extremely popular leader who many in Colombia regard as a kind of Messiah for banishing the guerrillas of the FARC to the periphery of the national territory, if not of political discourse. Yet in late February the Constitutional Court’s finding that the proposal to hold a referendum which might have allowed Uribe to run for a third term was procedurally flawed left him outside the fray, transforming the political landscape in spectacular fashion. The removal from the scene of the figure who has utterly dominated Colombian politics for the last eight years lent an air of uncertainty to the campaign, allowing previously marginalised political forces to flourish and opening the door to a vigorous and open debate about the country’s many problems. However, this unleashing of previously blocked political energies began to pose a threat to the powerful interests that have dictated policy throughout the Uribe years, provoking a reaction that proved beyond any doubt the solidity of the elite alliance which continues to dominate political life in Colombia. Indeed, after the exhilaration of the first stage of the election campaign the final result can only lead one to fear for the health of Colombia’s democracy in the near future.


That, at least, is how things seem today. In what follows, however, I want to go back to the start of the campaign and try to piece together the series of events that led to Juan Manuel Santos’ overwhelming victory last Sunday. As I do so I will consider some of the factors that contributed to a result that now seems so entirely predictable and attempt to assess the implications for Colombia of what will almost certainly be a continuation of the policies of the Uribe administration. In many respects this is not a pleasant story but it is certainly an instructive one. It reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of Colombia’s current institutional order and begins to shed light on the political imaginary shared by much of Colombia’s population. It is a story of hope but also of frustration and at times despair, at least for those of us on the left. However, if one agrees with Gramsci that “the challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned” it is important to try to understand what is essentially a victory for an authoritarian regime which has presided over increasing inequality and multiple human rights’ abuses. Indeed, the very fact that it is hard to see who has benefited from Colombia’s recent high rates of growth other than corporations and cabals makes it all the more pressing to identify the features which helped to make this result possible.


So let us go back to March, when the political class entered a period of feverish activity after it became clear that Uribe could not run again. The candidate favoured by the regime was Juan Manuel Santos, the leader of the Partido de la U (Social Party of National Unity) and previously Uribe’s Minister of Defence. Unsurprisingly, Santos promised to continue the previous administration’s emphasis on “democratic security”, which essentially means doing whatever it takes to defeat the guerrillas militarily and then claiming that such actions are justified by high levels of popular support. One of the most hotly debated questions, however, was whether Santos would inherit Uribe’s unprecedented popularity —over 65% of the electorate approved of the president’s performance after eight years in power, according to the pollsters— or whether his role as Minister of Defence during the falsos positivos scandal in which it became clear that army units were systematically murdering civilians and passing them off as guerrilla casualties would affect his standing in the polls. There was also the question of his part in the bombing of a FARC encampment in Ecuador in 2008 in which guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes was killed. This violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty ratcheted up the tension between the two countries and eventually led to an Ecuadorian court issuing a warrant for the ex-Defence Minister’s arrest.


And then there were the other scandals which were threatening to drag down the Uribe administration in its dying days. Foremost amongst these were the parapolítica cases which link dozens of Uribe supporters in congress to the death squads that have used exemplary violence to kill hundreds of peasants and drive millions from the land, thus denying support for the guerrillas and providing cheap land for large scale agribusiness and property speculators. Through these links dozens of politicians from the Partido de la U and other uribista parties were proved to have been involved in the greatest agrarian counter reform in Colombian history, carried out through threats, extortion and murder. There was also the scandal of the bugging of dozens of opponents of the regime by the DAS (Administrative Security Department) security police, combined with the investigation of their tax records and personal details. This incident, which in effect combined the Watergate scandal with the compilation of Nixon’s “enemies of the White House” list, led directly to the Palacio de Nariño, though the president’s personal involvement could not be proved. Similarly, the case of Yidis Medina, the congresswoman who claimed to have been bribed by government officials into supporting the referendum that had paved the way for Uribe’s re-election in 2006, also led to the presidential palace without directly implicating the president.


But this was not all. There was also the scandal surrounding Agro Ingreso Seguro, a programme designed to support small rural entrepreneurs which handed out paltry sums (often as little as fifty pence) to peasants while providing millions for large scale agribusiness. This was the responsibility of Uribe’s Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias, a conservative politician known as Uribito (little Uribe) for his aping of the president’s style and idiosyncratic delivery. And beyond the question of the corruption or at best ineptitude of this sinister Mini-Me —who many think will one day be president— there were the allegations that Uribe’s sons had benefited from insider information in order to make millions out of land investment in a newly designated free trade zone. Defending the government’s record in circumstances such as these was not going to be an easy job for Santos, especially given his leading role within the outgoing administration.


There was also the question of personal style. Santos is a very different proposition from Uribe, the paisa patriarch (paisa is the name given to the inhabitants of the departments of Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda and Quindío) who has hypnotized public opinion in Colombia for over eight years. In contrast to the irascible president, with his folksy manner and brilliant communicational skills, Santos is a member of an elite Bogotano family who lacks Uribe’s ability to capture the electorate’s imagination with popular sayings and quirky catchphrases. Though by no means working class, Uribe plays the role of the paisa landowner, which cashes in on the popular idea of paisas as stern, thrifty, pragmatic and hardworking people who know what it means to get his hands dirty. In contrast, as Polo Democrático candidate Gustavo Petro acidly remarked, “All Santos knows about the land are golf courses and the only working class person he’s ever met is his maid.” Whereas Uribe has been able to present himself as a maverick politician who owes no favours to the establishment, Santos is a descendant of Eduardo Santos, Liberal president in the late thirties and early forties, and a member of the family which for generations owned the great liberal newspaper El Tiempo and continues to have a crucial influence over its editorial policy. Born into a life of power and privilege, some analysts saw him as a candidate who would be unable to connect with the people and both interpret and influence the popular mood in the way that Uribe undoubtedly has.


Furthermore, Santos’ personal image was already less than positive. Santos was a hate figure for the left which had long before taken to calling him Chucky, partly because of his role as Minister of Defence during this murderous period and partly because he bears a passing resemblance to the evil doll of the Child’s Play horror films. (As he was chased out of Sergio Arboleda University in Cali by protesting students he even referred to the use of this juvenile nickname himself, noting that as far he was concerned it could only be associated with supporters of the FARC, a strategy that has long been used by Uribe, who brands the regime’s opponents as terrorist sympathisers or traitors to the nation.) But he was also seen as shrewd but unreliable by other members of the political class and had a reputation as a politician quite capable of switching sides to further his own career (it was said that Santos would even extradite Uribe if he thought it would serve his interests). Originally a Liberal, he was accused of plotting a coup against President Ernesto Samper in the mid 90s, a charge he has consistently and vigorously denied. He did not support Uribe’s first candidacy because it was outside the official Liberal party process but three years later he joined the uribista movement, creating the Partido de la U in an attempt to bring together all of the diverse forces that supported the president.


Whether as a result of the falsos positivos and other scandals or because of his personal and political image, as the pollsters began to practice their dark arts it did seem that Santos could not automatically be regarded as Uribe’s anointed successor, in spite of the inclusion of a voice over that sounded remarkably like the president’s in a campaign broadcast. (Colombian law prohibits any show of favouritism by the president during the election campaign and later on Santos would describe this cashing in on the presidential image as a picardía, a crafty trick.)A complicating factor was that in spite of wanting to be able to take advantage of the president’s undoubted popularity, Santos’ advisors initially thought that the relationship with the previous administration might prove to be a problem, especially as the scandals received increasing coverage in the media. They therefore made an effort to distance their candidate from the more controversial aspects of Uribe’s eight years in power and to give him an identity of his own. However, this strategy was clearly not paying off, as the would-be successor seemed to be becalmed at around 35% of the vote.


Instead, the headline-grabbing phenomenon of the moment was Antanas Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and the most eccentric and flamboyant mayor in Bogotá’s history. Mockus had joined forces with two other previous mayors of the capital, Enrique Peñalosa and Lucho Garzón, and the ex-mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo in an alliance hosted by the Partido Verde (Opción Centro), a party that pre-existed the arrival of the “three tenors”, as Mockus, Garzón and Peñalosa were dubbed in the press, though it was totally transformed by them. At first, however, it seemed as if this political option, which has little in common with Green parties elsewhere, was unlikely to make much headway in the electoral campaign. A fundamental problem was that while there were those who could stomach an alliance between moderate conservative Mockus and the liberal technocrat Peñalosa, or between Mockus and renegade left-winger Garzón, it seemed unlikely for there to be many who could accept a combination of all three. Indeed, the union of these very different public figures led to confusion about what their programme actually was, a problem compounded by the return to the fold of Sergio Fajardo as vice presidential candidate after an initial split with the other three leaders. Yet although the verdes were stuck on around 9% for the first few weeks of the campaign, a sudden change in its fortunes seemed to be taking place as the pollsters began to put them on over 30%, with Mockus virtually tied with Santos. This sparked off the so-called Ola Verde, the Green Wave, which quickly began to make an impact in Colombia’s cities, as many people, especially young activists, took to the streets to show their support for change. Seventh Avenue in Bogotá was on more than one occasion flooded with the green shirts and sunflowers that symbolised Mockus’ campaign.


Mockus’ message was similar to the one that had made him famous in his days as mayor of Bogotá, stressing the need for austerity and honesty in public office combined with a change of attitude on the part of the citizenry. This emphasis on “citizen culture”, on the need to develop trust and a sense of community, had some success in changing the chaotic reality of Bogotá in the late 90s and won Mockus many admirers. The surprising surge in his popularity during this campaign seemed to have something to do with this reserve of political capital but it also owed much to the fact that his campaign was quickly identified as the best hope of defeating Santos. It therefore began to attract both the so-called “opinion vote” (voto de opinión) of those who genuinely supported his proposals and the “tocosan” —todos contra Santos (everyone against Santos)— voters who could contemplate anything but a continuation of the policies of the Uribe regime.


One of the most striking aspects of what was initially a slow burning campaign was the media presentation of the debates between the six candidates with most support in the opinion polls (there were nine in total). Apart from Santos these were Germán Vargas Lleras, leader of Cambio Radical, a prickly and combative ex-Liberal who had originally supported the uribista project but distanced himself from the president after the first term, Rafael Pardo, the leader of the Liberal Party, a thoughtful intellectual who has published an important study of paramilitarism, the Conservative candidate Noemí Sanín, who had been Colombian ambassador in London, and Gustavo Petro of the Polo Democrático, the party of the democratic left, which in the previous presidential elections had been the main opposition with over 20% of the vote. The polls, however, suggested that Petro was not doing anything like as well as Carlos Gaviria had in 2006 and gave him around 5% of the voting preference. Vargas Lleras’ support was of the same order, with Sanín slightly ahead. In fact, both Sanín and Pardo seemed to be teetering on the brink of electoral disaster as their parties, which had once utterly dominated Colombian politics, were riven by internal divisions, most of which stemmed from their members’ desire to support the uribista candidate and thus secure their share of the bureaucratic spoils.


Even though the polls suggested that the polarization of opinion between Santos and Mockus was quickly squeezing out the other candidates, the debates were eagerly awaited and certainly lived up to expectations. Compared to the predictable exchanges that characterize American presidential debates, with their dreary repetition of sound bites, or the depressing spectacle of the party leaders in the British general election agreeing about the benefits of a bankrupt economic model, these debates provided what was in many respects a stunning exercise in democracy. Hosted by a number of private media companies, including Caracol, RCN and La W radio, as well as the private Bogotá TV station CityTV, the precise format of the discussion varied, but never failed to produce a fascinating confrontation between a distinct range of political opinions. Furthermore, the eight debates not only allowed the candidates sufficient time to explain the details of their political programmes but also to challenge each other with unexpected questions which elicited unrehearsed responses. Perhaps most striking of all, however, was the fact that all this took place in an atmosphere marked by a serious attempt to debate the issues which was far removed from the antics of British or American politicians with their tedious repetition of pre-packaged slogans, regardless of the questions they are asked.


The result of all this was that in the final debate on the Friday before the first round of voting Juan Manuel Santos was definitely on the ropes. And this was not the result of a tocosan conspiracy but of the candidates’ willingness to discuss the real problems that confront Colombia today. The connivance of many of Uribe’s supporters in the crimes of the paramilitaries, the abuse of state power, the flaws in the Law of Justice and Peace, the realities of forced displacement, the structural problems of the rural economy, the failure of Colombia’s high growth rate to produce jobs, the critical state of the health service, the erosion of workers’ rights under Uribe’s labour reforms, the illegal nature of the incursion into Ecuador, the disastrous economic effects of the continual spats with Venezuela, the attempts by the executive to undermine the independence of the judiciary, the regional consequences of allowing the US to use seven military bases on Colombian soil, the problems surrounding the third TV channel, all of these and more were discussed and analysed. Rather than avoiding difficult questions most of the candidates engaged with them, debating the issues vigorously but politely. And as a barrage of criticisms threatened to brush aside his demurrals even Santos had to accept some of the regime’s failings. For a glorious moment, uribismo seemed to be a spent force, ready to be swept away on a rising tide of dissent.


The president himself was perfectly well aware of the ways thing were going in these debates. Infuriated by the revival of claims that his brother Santiago had been involved with a paramilitary group known as the Doce Apóstoles (the Twelve Apostles) and visibly shaken at some of the candidates’ forthright criticisms, Uribe was in combative and intransigent mood when he appeared in an interview with RCN journalist Claudia Gurisatti the night before the final debate. Florid of face and occasionally shaking his fist in anger, he defended both his brother’s innocence and the honesty of his regime, emphasising the need for the next president to protect the tres huevitos (“three little eggs”) of democratic security, investor confidence and social cohesion. Yet in spite of Gurisatti’s fawning approach, which allowed the president to appear statesmanlike even as he appeared to endorse one of the candidates, it seemed as if the snake charmer-in-chief’s intervention would not be enough to turn the tide, as the regime’s failings were increasingly exposed to public scrutiny.


Against this uncertain background the election was expected to be one of the most exciting and hard fought in Colombian history. After weeks of heavy rain election day in Bogotá dawned fine and an unusually large number of electors seemed to be flocking to the polling stations across the city. In Suba, one of the largest and poorest of Bogotá’s twenty localities, occasional comments on the way to the polls allowed glimpses into the way people were thinking, though in general the atmosphere was one of tense calm, as if the voters were pretending that they were not actually involved in an election at all. “They may be corrupt but this has been a good government” (“Pueden ser corruptos pero ha sido un buen gobierno”), muttered a woman to another, much to the disgust of the Polo supporter who accompanied me to the polls. “Santos”, muttered another, as he brushed past on his way into the long queues that snaked towards the open-air voting area in Suba’s central plaza. The surrounding streets were crowded, and some people seemed confused about which was their voting station but the management of the voting booths seemed orderly and transparent apart from occasional complaints about people wearing party colours near the voting stations. (Colombian law forbids all campaigning on election day.) And all over the city, particularly in the huge voting station at Corferias, where over 900,000 people were to cast their votes, the turnout was approaching 60%, well above that of previous elections in the Uribe era.


The polls closed at four p.m. and as the results began to be announced a striking change in fortunes seemed to have taken place. Although the first results were based on tiny outputs from single voting stations the consolidated national returns showed that Santos was doing far better than he might have feared while Mockus was doing a lot worse than expected. The Registraduría, which had been subject to severe criticisms after the congressional elections in March, in which thousands of votes were proved to be fraudulent and the dead voted, showed extraordinary —some said suspicious— efficiency in getting well over 90% of the results out within three hours of the polls closing. And the results were startling. At just over 46% of the vote, Santos was tantalisingly close to the 50% plus one that he required to be declared president without need of a second round. In contrast, the much-vaunted green wave had rolled back to the low 20s, a crushing disappointment for the Mockus campaign. Vargas Lleras, however, had received over 10% of the vote, while Petro had managed just over 9%. Sanín had tanked badly at 6% and the official Liberal party candidate Pardo had been almost wiped out, gaining only 600,000 out of the nearly fifteen million votes cast nationwide. (Contrary to expectations, the turnout was not particularly high, with an abstention rate of just over 50%, with the exception of Bogotá where 60% of the electorate went to the polls.)


More importantly, Santos had won every department except Putumayo, the southern region where the government’s handling of the collapsed DMG pyramid scheme had infuriated local voters, many of whom were victims of what was one of the most notorious financial scams in Colombian history, and subsequently showed their displeasure by voting for Mockus and Petro. Overall, however, this was an even better result for Santos than that achieved by Uribe in 2006, when both Nariño and the Guajira had been won by the Polo Democrático. The Polo had fared badly in Bogotá where it is still th

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