In Congress We Trust: What We Don’t Know about Colombia’s Elections
Por Pedro Oswaldo Hernández y Viviana Ureña.
At the beginning of March 2014, Colombian citizens came together to elect a new Parliament for the coming legislative term. These elections were of an entirely different character than in the past, however, given the current state of peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The new Congress will be responsible for healing the nation after a long and bloody armed conflict and for implementing whatever post-conflict reforms the government and the FARC end up agreeing on.
Prior to the opening of the polls, expectations ran high for the new candidates, parties and ideologies that were about to enter Congress. But by the end of election day most citizens were disappointed with the results.
In January 2013, former president Alvaro Uribe announced the creation of a new right-wing political party, The Democratic Centre, which would compete in the forthcoming elections under his leadership. Although the party is very young it won 31 total seats in Colombia’s legislature, becoming the 2nd largest party in the Senate (19 seats) and the 5th largest in the House of Representatives (12 seats). Uribe not only returned to politics but was able to secure an important and powerful position in the new Congress.
When Mr. Uribe was president, many members of his cabinet and even himself were investigated several times for illegal actions—corruption, nexus with illegal armed groups and espionage are just a few. Furthermore, several of Uribe’s close personal contacts have connections with regional drugs cartels and even with the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar Gaviria. And finally Uribe has been a major obstacle in the peace negotiations that have been taking place in Cuba. His presence poses a major threat to stability in Colombia moving forward.
And the corruption issues do not stop with Uribe.
According to the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, 70 of the newly elected candidates may have criminal ties.The election results provide yet another example of the persistent influence that armed and criminal groups have on Colombian politics. It may end up being the case that in two years time, 25 percent of the Parliament will find themselves behind the bars.
Hope in Parliament?
The political scene in Colombia may seem hopeless, but there are also several politicians that are recognized for their fight against corruption and crime. Congresswoman Claudia Lopez has previously denounced “Colombia’s Parapolitics” and Viviane Morales was the former General Attorney in charge of fighting against the white-collar and blue-collar corruption. These women and others like them will be powerful counterweights against Uribe’s Democratic Centre Force and the endemic corruption of the legislators more generally.
Another major issue on election day was low voter turnout amongst the citizenry. Out of the 33 million people who were able to vote, only 42 percent, or roughly 14 million people actually went to the polls on election day. Voter turnout in Colombia has historically been quite low and the fear is that some politicians might think that there is no point of having a democracy if people are not interested in exercising their right to vote.
The media and even the OAS have talked about the lack of incentives for people to vote, but does a country need to provide money or other types of goods in order to “force” people to exercise their citizenship? We believe that the major incentive of voting has to be intrinsic, stemming entirely from our responsibility to the community at large. This apathy is harmful for the development of Colombia’s democracy and these dismal participation rates should provide a wake-up call for todays and future politicians.
The Blank Vote
Another problem arose when people decided to protest by simply leaving the ballot box blank. The “no confidence vote” or blank vote was important on the electoral results, not because of his aggregate numbers but rather for the symbolic significance. Although, it represented only 6-7 percent of total votes for upper and lower chambers, the blank vote turned out to be more popular this year than in 2010.
Given these downsides to what might have otherwise been a successful electoral cycle, this Congress will have its work cut out for it. If this Congress does not find a different way to truly be the representative branch of public power and to successfully confront the big problems of Colombia, it will be nothing more than a small blip on Colombia’s political radar.
At the end of the day this Congress has been elected by the people and now we can only wait and see if it will bring about the changes the electorate has hoped for. The next electoral battle will be the Presidential election in May and by next July, there will be no political uncertainties. The hopes and dreams of 47 million Colombians who desire a peaceful and prosperous country will be all that remains.
Artículo publicado en Brown Human Rights Report.