By Lautaro Rivara, TeleSUR.net, January 24, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

There’s little doubt that Petro is the favorite. As the principal owner of the coalition, he kicked off his election campaign last January 14 in the locality of Bello, in Antioquia Department.

The Latin American and Caribbean electoral calendar promises not to be any less hectic than last year’s. Between the elections and a referendum of a different kind that are coming up—Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, Peru, maybe even Haiti—two contests are sparking the most attention because of the special geopolitical weight in their respective countries: the general elections in Brazil In October, and the parliamentary and presidential elections in Colombia. After 20 years of Uribist government, and with the eternal backdrop of the armed conflict, Colombia is not only playing its back-and-forth but also the future of its inclusive peace process.

What are the choices in Colombia and how are they chosen?

The electoral calendar begins with parliamentary elections on March 13, where the citizens must choose a total of 108 senators and 185 members of the Chamber of Representatives. In the Senate, 100 seats will be chosen by nationwide districts; two special seats for indigenous people; one seat assigned to the presidential candidate receiving the second-most votes—the so-called “opposition statute”—and five seats go automatically to the political representatives of the Commons Party, the Party of the former FARC, which came out of the demobilization of the guerrillas under the Peace Agreement made in Havana in 2016.

Regarding the Chamber, 161 seats will be chosen by territorial districts in the 32 departments in the country, and Bogotá, the capital district. Again, one will be designated for the presidential candidate receiving the second-most votes; two for the Afro-Colombian people; one for the Afro-Colombian community of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina; one for the Colombians who live in other countries, a special seat for a population estimated to be 4.7 million people, according to the Foreign Ministry itself; one for indigenous people, five for the Commons Party; and 16 for the special constituency for peace. Some 167 rural municipalities are seeking candidates to represent the nine million victims of the internal armed conflict who have been officially recognized by the government.

Besides that, coinciding with the parliamentary elections, the people will choose the presidential primary candidates from among the various party coalitions in a scheme that appears to blur more and more the traditional liberal-conservative two-party scheme that Colombia has had throughout history. The elections for president and vice-president, whose terms last from 2022 to 2026, will take place on May 29. If no pair obtains one-half plus one of all the votes required by the election law, there will be a second round on June 19 between the two nominees with the most votes.

The crisis of Uribism and the favoritism of the Historic Pact Party

In the Congress, the pro-government Democratic Center Party could lose its character as strongest minority party in the Senate with 19 seats, and second highest minority party in the Chamber with 32, according to the high levels of disapproval of President Iván Duque (72% according to Invamer) and of its mentor, the former President, Álvaro Uribe Vélez (68%). The latter is being accused of responsibility for a resounding case of witness tampering that has earned him two months of house arrest. And he has also been associated with the case of the so-called “Ñeñe Politica” in which a well-known drug trafficker, José Ñeñe Guillermo Hernández, had contributed drug trafficking money for the purchase of votes in the presidential election of 2018, as was revealed by the journalists Julián Martínez and Gonzalo Guillén of the New Press.

But the fact that better explains an electoral panorama that was unthinkable just a couple of years ago is the National Strike of 2021, accompanied by a series of multitudinous protests in rural areas and in some of the principal cities of the country like Bogotá and Cali, to reject a tax reform proposal offered by Iván Duque. The escalated repression by the Armed Forces, by ESMAD [1], and even the deployment of paramilitary groups in several departmental capitals vitalized the crisis and made it visible internationally. According to the NGO Temblores, there were 44 homicides, presumably at the hands of the Armed Forces; another 29 killings of indeterminate responsibility; there were 1,617 victims of physical violence; 82 victims whose eyes were attacked; 26 victims of sexual violence; and 2,005 arbitrary arrests. With differing statistics, Human Rights Watch, Indepaz, and Defenders of the People, among other agencies, also validated the numerous cases of human rights violations.

In the midst of the crisis, and after a long dance of seduction and refusal, with the right not being in the service of former President Uribe, the candidate anointed by the governing party, former Treasury Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga, agreed to compete as the only representative of the Democratic Center Party, something that he sees diminishing his electoral prospects.         

In addition to the governing party, there will be three main coalitions disputing the election. The Historic Pact Coalition is on the left to center left, which joins with the Humane Colombia Party, of the former Mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro; the I Am Because We Are Coalition of the Afro-Colombian social leader, Francia Márquez; there’s the Patriotic Union—the party that survived the “genocide for political reasons”—when more than five thousand of their militants and their leaders were murdered in the decade of the ‘80’s; the Communist Party of Colombia; the Democratic Alternative Pole; the indigenous party MAIS; the Congress of the People; and former Congress member Piedad Córdoba’s party, and others. The leaders of the Green Alliance Party have added their support, and have their own primary candidate, and the Liberals, with Luis Fernando Velasco, and there are even figures who knew how to rummage around in Uribism, like Roy Barreras and Armondo Benedetti.

There is little doubt that Petro is the favorite. He is the principal owner of the Coalition. He kicked off his campaign on January 14 in the locality of Bello in Antioquia Department—the historic bastion of Uribism—using the slogan “if Antioquia changes, Colombia changes”. Petro, a former militant in the urban guerrillas of the April 19 Movement in the decades of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, built his political capital as a Senator elected in 2006 and as one who complained about the so-called “para-politica”, as the collusion between politicians and paramilitaries was called during the demobilization process of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC In Spanish) during Uribe’s first term as President. Petro renewed his capital later with his management as Mayor of Bogotá, until he was pushed out by Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez in 2013, in one of the first cases of lawfare[2] in the region. As a presidential candidate, surveys by Invamer show him as the leader with the Historic Pact Party, favored by 48.4% of those intending to vote in May. That would take him close to winning in the first round, and winning comfortably with 68.3% in the second.

The Center of Hope Coalition is in second place, which includes the participation of the Dignity Party, the MOIR, the New Liberalism, Colombia Has a Future, and Citizen Commitment, the party whose candidate is the one with the best position, the former Mayor of Medellin and  former Governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo. To breathe some life into a front that has suffered from the discord of numerous parties and leaders, recently was added the candidacy of Ingrid Betancourt–announced from her residence in France—whose name achieved global notoriety after her kidnapping by the FARC guerrillas in the old demilitarized zone of San Vicente de Caguán and her subsequent liberation in 2008.

Finally, and to the right of the political spectrum, we see the Team for Colombia Coalition, a league of former mayors and governors with a conservative orientation. The group is made up of Let’s Create Colombia, with former Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez; Nation of Opportunity, with powerful Syrio-Lebanese businessman from the Caribbean coast, represented by the former governor of Atlantico Department and former mayor of Barranquilla, Alejandro Char; the “U” Party, which rejected the candidacy of its president, Dilian Francesca Toro, and will support the former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñaloza; and finally, the least competitive candidacies, the traditional Conservative Party and the MIRA Party.

The armed conflict and the absence of political and electoral guarantees

With the multicultural focus of the pioneering Constitution of 1991, the Colombian election law foresaw special representatives of ethnic character, just the way they are being considered locally. To the political and economic exclusion of the indigenous, black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquera of the San Andrés Archipelago, and the neglect of whole regions like the Pacific, the Orinoco, and the Colombian Amazon, we have to add the necessity of representation of the victims and former combatants in a conflict that hasn’t stopped surging in spite of the formal and partial peace achieved six years ago.

Its most evident symptoms are the more than 1,200 leaders and former combatants murdered since the Havana Agreements, the 6,402 so-called “false positives” recognized by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. That crime committed by the government involved the murder of civilians to be presented as guerrillas killed in combat; the continuation of armed activity by the FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army, and most of all by the numerous paramilitary formations like the Clan del Golfo; the 102 massacres committed in 2021 and so far this year, according to the foundation Indepaz; and, finally, the heating up of the Colombia-Venezuela border, especially in the Colombian departments of Norte de Santander and Arauca. In the latter, the Public Defender has established that 33 people have been killed and 170 families displaced, because of the actions of the irregular groups. 

The continuation of the conflict, and the fact that the so-called “anti-subversive” policy has historically been the principal warhorse of Uribism, explains something about the uncertainty of Colombia’s political and electoral panorama. The same thing is happening in relation to electoral guarantees, after the complaints of fraud and buying votes in 2018. And even in relation to the personal safety of the candidates, considering the death threats that the paramilitaries of the Black Eagles-Capital Bloc made to Petro on December 4, 2021, or the contemporary history of a country where, just in the past century, there have been seven assassinations of high officials.

The debatable “oldest democracy in Latin America” will be seeing in the times to come if it can consolidate the most recent and most  precarious peace on the continent.

[1] ESMAD is Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron.

[2] In a paper “Conceptualizing Lawfare: A Typology and Theoretical Framework”, by Siri Gloppen, published by the Centre on Law and Social Transformation, the author defines “lawfare” as …legalized contestations over political and social change where ideologically opposed groups use rights, law and courts as tools and sites of battle, and posits that Inspector General Ordoñez’ destitution of Petro from his position as Mayor of Bogotá was an example of lawfare.

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