By Diana Carolina Alfonso and Lautaro Rivara, 3/15/22
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The Left is celebrating its best showing in all of Colombia’s history, even though, up to now, conservative forces will maintain the parliamentary majority and their capacity to veto the initiatives of an eventual, historic, and never before seen progressive administration.
Last Sunday March 13, elections with two different signals took place in Colombia, even though they were simultaneous. On one hand was the election of representatives in the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, in a complicated electoral system that, because of the pioneering Constitution of 1991, and after the Peace Agreements in Havana in 2016, recognizes different electoral districts: national and regional (equivalent to federal and provincial/state in other countries), but also some “special districts” for indigenous people, for Afro-Colombian people, for the Raizal people, for Colombians not residing in Colombia, for the victims of the conflict, and for the Commons Party (formerly the FARC), after the demobilization of the guerrillas with the same name. All in all: 108 Senators and 188 Members of the Chamber of Representatives were chosen by the 39 percent of the registered voters who voted, out of a total of 38 million registered voters.
But besides that, in a recent mechanism that is now more and more established in this country, there were the partisan consultations (internal) in the principal electoral coalitions; for the left, the progressives of the Historic Pact, the Hopeful Center Coalition for the center, and for the right, the Colombia’s Team Coalition, all of whom will be taking part in the presidential election on May 29.
The Left: a historic victory, but insufficient
The former guerrilla and former Mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, led the way in the Historic Pact consultation without any trouble, with an overwhelming 80.51%, as predicted in all the polls. However, there was a notable performance by Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian leader and environmental defender from Cauca, one of the critical areas in the internal armed conflict. Without a party machine, she received 14% of the preferences and nearly 800,000 votes, beating even a leading figure in traditional politics like the winner of the center Coalition, the former Mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo.
The debate now is whether Petro would consent to having Márquez accompany him on the ticket for President and Vice President. They would be two figures that have been distinctly complementary in the public debates, and they might be able to reconcile the difficult representative democracy of a country that is like a broken mosaic, between the activists and the ordinary citizens, between the big cities and the rural areas, between the central regions and the areas that have been ignored and battered by the violence. Or if, on the other hand, Petro seeks to sit back and rest on an agreement with the liberal sectors that could broaden his margin in the Congress. That’s what appears from his first statements about the need to build “a coalition of progressive majorities”.
However, the scenario doesn’t look as promising as he hoped at the congressional level, worse still considering the proximity of the presidential election: Historic Pact only won 16 of the 22 seats expected in the Senate, in spite of having had a front line of heavyweight candidates. The landslide in favor of the progressive sectors like the Citizen Force movement and the feminist organization We’re Ready was particularly significant. Their 600,000 votes, put together, could have assured 3 extra seats in the Senate. The feminist tide voted for Márquez in the intraparty consultation, but they were all alone in the legislative elections, just at the moment when the Congress will have to regulate the implementation of the voluntary maternity leave that was recently approved.
In any event, in historical terms, the left is celebrating its best election in the history of Colombia, even though it’s a history cut short by the violence and policies of extermination of the opposition, such as the murder of three presidential candidates and 5,430 militants of the Patriotic Union in the decade of the ‘80’s. In 2002, presidential candidate Luis Eduardo Garzón was able to harvest a little more than 600,000 votes in the primary election. Twenty years later, Historic Pact is now consolidated as the top national power, by exceeding five million votes.
The right is cushioning the hit it took. The center is collapsing.
As is its custom, the Colombian right offered an infinity of faces and profiles in the legislative races, to broaden its base toward the center, capitalize some of the discontent with Duque—who suffered a fatal wound after the jolt of the National Strike—and later striving to join with the right in the presidential primary (and still more in a probable runoff against Petro). In the face of the make-up of his own Congress, giving up that strategy is notable: even if the Historic Pact was the coalition that received the most votes, and would have one of the highest minorities with 15 seats, as another needle on the scale, you have to consider some 70 seats, counting the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party (not counting alliances with Petro), the Democratic Center, the U Party, and MIRA. The results are not insignificant, considering that the right has had one of the worst-managed administrations in all history.
For its part, the coalition of the center had a disappointing result. Barely two million votes for people that were trying for a politics that was “beyond polarization”. It had no unified program of any kind; no economic plan, with a scandalous implosion of candidacies like that of Ingrid Betancourt, with no common answers on topics as critical as the war, the peace, agrarian policy, and the illegal crops. Sergio Fajardo ended up putting himself forward with less leeway than those who will be his opponents in the presidential election, and he will have much more difficulty than they will to put together the votes of a coalition that, lacking leadership, could easily pulverize itself between the pull of the right and of the left.
For its part, the pro-administration Democratic Center, the party of ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and of the current President, Ivan Duque, suffered a very evident punishment in the vote. That drove Iván Zuluaga to run all alone, outside of the rightist coalition. He went from being the power that got the most votes in the Senate in 2018 to occupying fourth place currently. However, after a meeting quickly put together by Uribe himself, Zuluaga announced that he was stepping down from his candidacy to support Federico Gutiérrez, winner of the internal consultation by Colombia’s Team, with 54.18% of the preferences, which confirms that, with Uribism, “Fico” has always been his own chip on the board.
As usually happens, Antioquia once again was the antithesis of Bogotá. In regional terms, the coffee-growing region was positioned once again with the far right on the legislative scene. This is one of the most important regions in the country, not just because the business owners of Medellín control a gravitating economic hub, but rather because of the assortment of paramilitary organizations. Antioquia Department has generated important categories of the government’s narco-paramilitary scheme, from Pablo Escobar to Uribe himself. Neither is the scenario a simple one in El Caribe, where Petrism was expecting higher levels of approval, at least in the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, where the family clans of the right retook the majority of votes.
As a result, the classic right continues to govern the regional panorama tightly. It’s evident that Uribism has been able to reinvent the interior of the Conservative Party, as well as the major territorial influence maintained by the Liberal Party. After 20 years of Uribism, the regional hegemony is back in its traditional structures, in a shift that is not without its atavisms, only understandable by the fealties of a country marked by the fire of bipartisan violence.
Elections at war, or a democracy that’s for peace
For natives and for strangers, the balancing of the parliamentary results is inseparable from the forecast for coming presidential elections. Up to now, the conservative forces had maintained their majority in the Congress, and their ability to veto the initiatives of a historic, eventual, and progressive administration, never before experienced in Colombia, if Gustavo Petro wins the Presidency next May 29. Nevertheless, every precaution is too small in a country with an elite that murders candidates, and an enormous tradition of political violence and election fraud.
Last Sunday’s elections, from the viewpoint of progressives and of the left, look very good for winning the Presidency (even in the first round), and very complicated for governing (without even counting the factors of extrademocratic forces, such as the quasi-official, paramilitaries, and the criminal organizations). The measure of the Colombian challenges—which are impossible to compare to those of the other emerging progressives of the region—could be illustrated by what happened with the Special Transitory Circumscriptions for Peace, for which the 16 victims of the social and armed conflict are supposed to gain a seat guaranteed by Congress. On the contrary, in the Guajira region, the social leaders couldn’t carry out their candidacies because of the intimidation by paramilitary gangs. Finally, the seat went to Jorge Tovar, the son of the narco-paramilitary known as “Jorge 40”, the perpetrator of innumerable massacres, and now incarcerated, but active in his son’s campaign. Also in other regions like Arauca, Catatumbo, and Caquetá, the victimizers were able to take the seats reserved for the victims who were caught up in the high conflict scenarios.
That means that the backdrop of the electoral challenges is still the war, that same war that long ago has ceased to move the outside world. But there is also the possibility of peace, of accomplishment and revitalization of the Havana Agreements, of beginning a negotiation that could lead to the demobilization of the ELN guerrillas, of discussing the status of Colombia as an extraterritorial member of NATO, of stimulating a land policy that would evacuate the now-flourishing paramilitary organizations that have thousands of troops, infinite resources, and broad political protection.
What will happen in the coming months will not be far from a new regional and global political situation, nor far from the need of the U.S. to ease up on the Latin America front, making sure of its control of raw materials, and adding allies to its policy of sanctioning Russia. It will not be unlike the emergence of governments with well-publicized affinities with Petro, like that of Gabriel Boric in Chile, or from a tenuous second progressive wave that, even though it does not yet have big driving forces, at least will be able to provide some accompaniment to a country that will be the vortex of the regional hurricane in the coming months.