By Juan Sebastián Lombo and Natalia Tamayo Gaviria,

EL ESPECTADOR, March 22, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN volunteer translator)

The discrepancies between the preliminary results and the canvass, the accusations from different sectors of possible fraud, and the Registry Director’s sudden shift have planted some questions that could lead to a determination of the legitimacy of the election procedures.

The petition by Registry Director Alexánder Vega for a general recount of votes by Colombians for members of the Senate this past March 13 didn’t last 24 hours. On the Monday holiday he had said he would apply to the National Electoral Council (CNE) to “make the election process transparent.” And yesterday, one day later, he pulled back, with the argument that he had only been trying to reach consensus, because he “believes in the canvassing results with juridical conviction.” This new chapter of swerving by Vega is only going to sow more doubts about a process that is now being questioned about its transparency and the competence of those that are carrying it out.

The doubts even started about six months before the call to the polls. Since 2021 some of the things going in in the Registry, like contracting and bidding, were being criticized. Vega’s answer just exacerbated the concerns: “If you don’t care about the guarantees, or you think there’s going to be fraud, you shouldn’t be running,” he said. The questions increased even more in the first months of the year with the registration process, and they materialized in the week after members of Congress were elected and they had the presidential consultations. First, there were the claims of fraud by Historic Pact, with the absence of votes in their favor in more than 25% of the tables in the country, and the hundreds of E-14 forms that appeared to have problems in their processing. Then came the complaint by Democratic Center, after losing a seat that was added to the leftist coalition; then in the first phase of the canvass, the left gained three seats.

Beyond the political debate, the accusations from every trench, and the inability of the Registry to guarantee the election process, have undermined the legitimacy of its work, especially because of the way it conducted the voting on March 13. This without even considering the effects this might have with the first presidential round on May 29, if they don’t correct the mistakes, take responsibility, and deal with the disagreements and the complaints. For now, they are talking more about distrust than about confidence in the electoral authorities and how, as a society, to re-establish and build a strong and genuine democracy. That depends on all of the actors: the administration, the Registry, CNE, even the political leaders, who must place principle above their own electoral interests. The question is whether they can reach that height at the moment the country demands it.

It’s not a small matter. Just as the Kofi Annan Foundation has said, “integrity of elections is a political problem that depends on the public’s confidence in political and electoral procedures. It’s not enough to reform institutions; you have to convince the citizens.” It won’t help to have a modern and precise electoral system for expressing voting results when they don’t believe in it. The situation is worse when the election agency is not at the top of its game and doesn’t understand the circumstances. In the case of Colombia, the disrepute of the democratic system has been growing, and what happened in the last few days could be a detonator leading to future measurements that could reflect an even more complicated situation.

In the last Latinobarómetro[1], using 2020 data, notes that Colombia has been losing confidence in its democratic system. In only two years there was a decrease from 54% to 43% of support for democracy, one of the biggest drops in the history of the survey of this country. Clearly what happened with the results on March 13 won’t help to slow that tendency. According to the academic Margarita María Orozco the mistrust that the election process has sown could set off  support for less democratic procedures in the future. In the short term, it could even implicate a lessening of turnout in the presidential rounds, because “they don’t feel like wasting time in voting.” That could spark expressions of political violence, and the lack of confidence would relapse into the fraud narrative that has been established.

The measurements by Latinobarómetro don’t agree with the numbers from the Observatory of Democracy in the University of the Andes, but there is the same tendency. “Our data for 2021 indicate that credibility in the Colombian system is the lowest in the region. Two out of every ten Colombians have confidence in the elections; that’s 22%, more or less. And that has been growing with the passing of the years. It also has to be said that, according to our studies, 31% of the people believe that votes are not counted correctly. That means, yes, there is some lack of confidence in the election organization,” admitted Miguel García, co-director of the Observatory. He insisted that we shouldn’t be talking about a blow to confidence in the election system because of the reality of what happened in the recent voting.

 In García’s opinion, we can’t talk about fraud like it was in 1970 with the election of Misael Pastrana, or in the ‘50’s, when Laureano Gómez delegitimized the registration of the liberals. “The elections in Colombia have not been without situations of trickery,” he reiterated. Santiago Silva, Professor in the Department of Government and Political Science at Eafit[2] agrees: “Colombians have a complex relationship with elections. Measurements such as the World Values Survey or Latinobarómetro have shown that. So many voters here have a perception of vote-buying and favoritism, factors that lead to distrust of the results, but that was not seen in this national election process, which was considered to be relatively transparent.”

Both professors agree that in the actions of the Registry Director, as well as in the organization of the election process, with or without fraud, it does feed the citizens’ sensation of distrust, which was already established in their consciousness at some level. And how to re-establish trust in time for the next elections? As far as the Registry goes, Silva believes that we have to re-understand the concepts of transparency and responsibility. “Transparency has become a well-worn word, because they think that transparency mean counting things or making information public. Transparency is based, above all, on the act of listening to people, and making decisions openly; that’s the responsibility.” He didn’t dare talk about Vega resigning, while Miguel García did invite some reflection about the political responsibility to avoid wasting any more of the legitimacy of the agency. However, with only two months until the first presidential round, it would be delicate to think about changing the head of the agency. “The cure might be worse than the disease, but eventually, we do expect a decision for him to step aside, so as not to sacrifice the Registry,” he said.

Another factor in favor is the diminishing of the complexity of the logistics of the first round of the presidential election, but they will have to add some other activities, such as the selection of the poll workers, their training, their working conditions, their accompaniment by the various agencies, and the practicality and legibility of the forms they have to fill out on election day, to cite some examples. This work does not belong just to the agency, but also to the political actors, especially those that are still in contention until May. “The political leaders that are injecting social distrust are also partly responsible, and this is destructive and could work against them in the future in case they become the governing party. We have to keep in mind that they are trying to achieve leadership roles, and they are finding that on Twitter, and the various claims aren’t going to be resolved there,” Silva concluded.

How much confidence do people have in our institutions?

The dean of the College of Humanities at Eafit University, Adolfo Eslava, describes confidence as “the decision to leave a part of our own well-being in the hands of others. Because of that, it’s a coin with two faces: vulnerability and responsibility. In general, governance is responsible for managing vulnerabilities.” And what is the vulnerability of the citizens when they place their confidence in those who govern? The permanence of the democracy that responds to its private and collective interests. When there are people in a position to deal with the vulnerabilities, and don’t have experience or are “erratic in their actions” is when confidence is impaired, “and that is difficult to repair,” emphasizes Eslava.

The subject of confidence is exactly the one that worries the Inter-American Development Bank (BID), which dedicated a report on that principle as “the key to social cohesion and growth in Latin America and the Caribbean”, since the region and its institutions are characterized as the worst in the world.

One of BID’s recommendations for increasing confidence is to “eliminate the asymmetries of information that undermine confidence,  require public sector agencies to communicate decisions they make with care, and that they take responsibility for those decisions and their consequences (. . .) There is no collective objective more fundamental to a society than that it have confidence and civic consciousness.”

[1] Latinobarómetro is a private nonprofit corporation based in Chile. It conducts annual surveys that observe the development of democracies, economies, and societies.

[2] Eafit is the College of Administration, Finance, and Technological Institute, a private university in Medellín.

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