Elections in Colombia: Prospects for Change and Absence of Guarantees

Lautaro Rivara

Few doubts remain about Gustavo Petro’s favoritism for the Colombian presidential elections in May. However, the outlook is becoming more uncertain due to the continuity of the armed conflict, structural violence and doubts about electoral guarantees.

The Latin American and Caribbean electoral calendar for 2022 promises to be no less hectic than that of the previous year. Among the upcoming elections and referendums of different signs -Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, Peru, perhaps Haiti- two contests will attract the most attention due to the specific geopolitical weight of their respective countries: the general elections in Brazil in October and the Colombian parliamentary and presidential elections. After 20 years of pro-Uribe governments, and with the eternal backdrop of the armed conflict, Colombia is not only playing its alternation but also the future of the unfinished peace process.

What and how is the election in Colombia?

The electoral agenda will begin with the parliamentary election on March 13, in which citizens will have to elect a total of 108 senators and 188 members of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, 100 seats will be chosen by national constituency; two by the special constituency for indigenous peoples; one will go to the second most voted presidential candidate – the so-called “opposition statute”; and five will automatically correspond to the political representation of Comunes, the former FARC party, emerged from the demobilization of the eponymous guerrilla after the 2016 peace agreements.

As for the Chamber, 161 seats will be elected by territorial constituency in the 32 departments of the country and in Bogota, the capital district. One will again go to the second most voted presidential candidate; two for Afro-Colombian peoples; one for the Raizal community of the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina; one for Colombians abroad -a discrete quota for a population estimated at 4. 7 million people according to the Chancellery itself; one for indigenous peoples; five for Comunes; and 16 for the special constituency for peace, by which 167 rural municipalities will seek who will represent the 9 million victims of the internal armed conflict officially recognized by the State.

In addition, coinciding with the parliamentary election, the population will elect the presidential candidates in the internal consultations of the coalitions that will go to the polls, in a scheme that seems to blur more and more the traditional liberal-conservative bipartisan scheme of all Colombian history. Elections for president and vice-president, whose term of office will run until 2026, will take place on May 29. If no ticket wins half plus one of the votes, there will be a second round on June 19.

The crisis of Uribism and the favoritism of the Historical Pact

In Parliament, the ruling Democratic Center could lose its first minority in the Senate, with 19 seats, and second minority in the House, with 32, due to the high disapproval indexes of President Iván Duque (72% according to Invamer) and of his mentor and former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (68%). The latter is accused of being responsible for a notorious case of witness tampering that earned him two months of house arrest. And he has also been associated to the scandal of the so-called “ñeñepolítica”, by which the renowned drug trafficker José “Ñeñe” Guillermo Hernández would have contributed with drug money for the purchase of votes in the 2018 presidential election, as was revealed by journalists Julián Martínez and Gonzalo Guillén of La Nueva Prensa.

But the fact that best explains an electoral panorama that was unthinkable just a couple of years ago is the National Strike of 2021, accompanied by a series of massive protests in rural areas and in some of the main cities of the country, such as Bogotá and Cali, in rejection of the tax reform bill presented by Iván Duque. The escalation of repression by the Armed Forces, the ESMAD and even the deployment of paramilitary groups in several departmental capitals contributed to the crisis and made it visible at international level. According to the NGO Temblores, there were 44 homicides allegedly at the hands of the security forces; another 29 undetermined; there were 1,617 victims of physical violence; 82 victims of ocular aggressions; 28 victims of sexual violence and 2,005 arbitrary detentions. With different figures, Human Rights Watch, Indepaz and the Ombudsman’s Office, among other organizations, also validated the numerous cases of human rights violations.

In the midst of this crisis, and after a long dance of seduction and rejection with the right wing not attached to former President Uribe, the candidate anointed by the ruling party, former Minister of Finance Óscar Iván Zuluaga, stated that he will compete alone on behalf of the Democratic Center, a space that sees its electoral prospects diminished.

In addition to the governing party, there will be three other coalitions in dispute. From the left to the center-left is the Historical Pact, which gathers the Colombia Humana of the former mayor of Bogota Gustavo Petro; Soy Porque Somos of the Afro-Colombian social leader Francia Márquez; the Patriotic Union -a party that survived the “genocide for political reasons” of more than 5 thousand of its militants and leaders in the 80’s-; the Colombian Communist Party; the Alternative Democratic Pole; the indigenous party MAIS; the Congress of the Peoples; and the party of former congresswoman Piedad Córdoba, among others. Leaders of the Alianza Verde party, which has its own pre-candidate, the liberals of Luis Fernando Velasco and even figures who used to be part of the Uribe party, such as Roy Barreras and Armando Bendetti, also added their support.

Few doubts remain about the favoritism of Petro, the coalition’s main armorer, who started his electoral campaign on January 14 in the locality of Bello, in the department of Antioquia -historic bastion of Uribism- under the slogan “if Antioquia changes, Colombia changes”. Petro, former militant of the urban guerrilla of the April 19th Movement in the 70’s and 80’s, built his political capital as senator elected in 2006 and as a denouncer of the so-called “parapolitics”, as it is known to the collusion of politicians and paramilitaries during the demobilization process of the Autodefensas Unidad de Colombia (AUC), during Uribe’s first presidency. Petro revalidated his capital later, in his tenure as mayor of Bogotá, until his removal by Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez in 2013, in one of the region’s first lawfare cases. As presidential candidate, Invamer polls give him 48.4% of voting intention, very close to victory in the first round, and a comfortable 68.3% in the second round.

In second place is the Hope Center Coalition, with the participation of the Dignity party, the MOIR, the New Liberalism, Colombia has a Future and Citizen Commitment, the party of the best positioned candidate of the coalition, the former mayor of Medellin and former governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo. To breathe new life into a front that has suffered the schism of numerous parties and leaders, the candidacy of Ingrid Betancourt was recently added – announced from her residence in France – whose name gained global notoriety after her kidnapping by FARC guerrillas in the former San Vicente del Caguán peace zone, and her subsequent release in 2008.

Lastly, and to the right of the political spectrum, is the Coalición Equipo por Colombia, a league of former mayors and governors of conservative orientation. The space is formed by Creemos Colombia, of the former mayor of Medellín Federico Gutiérrez; País de Oportunidades, of the powerful Syrian-Lebanese businessman of the Caribbean Coast, represented by the former governor of Atlántico and former mayor of Barranquilla Alejandro Char; the Partido de la U, who declined the candidacy of its president Dilian Francisca Toro and will support the former mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa; and finally, with less competitive candidacies, the traditional Conservative Party and the MIRA party.

The armed conflict and the absence of political and electoral guarantees

Due to the multicultural approach of the pioneering 1991 Constitution, Colombian electoral law provides for special ethnic representations, as they are locally considered. In addition to the political and economic exclusion of indigenous, black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquero communities, and to the postponement of entire regions such as the Pacific, the Orinoco and the Colombian Amazon, there is the urgent need for representation of victims and former combatants of a conflict that has not ceased to worsen despite the partial and formal achievement of peace five years ago.

Its most evident symptoms are the more than 1,200 former combatants and social leaders assassinated since the Havana agreements; the 6,402 so-called “false positives”. 402 so-called “false positives” recognized by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a State crime that involved the murder of civilians presented as guerrillas killed in combat; the continued armed activity of FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and, above all, of numerous paramilitary formations such as the Gulf Clan; the 102 massacres committed in 2021 and so far this year according to the Indepaz foundation; and, finally, the overheating of the Colombian-Venezuelan border, particularly in the Colombian departments of Norte de Santander and Arauca. In the latter, the Ombudsman’s Office established that 33 people were killed and 170 families were displaced by the actions of irregular groups.

The continuity of the conflict, and the fact that the so-called “anti-subversive” policy has historically been the main battle horse of Uribism, explain some of the uncertainty of the Colombian political and electoral panorama. The same happens in relation to electoral guarantees, after the allegations of fraud and vote buying in 2018. And even in relation to the personal security of the candidates, considering the death threats that the paramilitaries of the Águilas Negras-Bloque Capital made to Petro on December 4, 2021, or to the contemporary history of a country in which, in the last century alone, seven assassinations were committed.

The arguable “oldest democracy in Latin America” will see in the times to come if it manages to consolidate the most precarious and recent peace in the continent.

Translation by Internationalist 360°