By Wil Huertas, CAMBIO, March 20, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Since 1970, when Misael Pastrana was elected President after a questionable canvass of the vote count, there has not been so much tension over election results. Civil Registry head Alexander Vega achieved the impossible: that the right, from the Democratic Center Party, declared themselves to be victims of voter fraud, while the left called for attention to institutionalism, in spite of the fact that the preliminary results took away more than a half million votes from them.
This is the first election in the history of Colombia in which a party of the left got more votes in the coalition consultations and in the Senate, and it will also be remembered as the most controversial in the last 50 years. The head of the Registry, Alexander Vega, became the target of criticism by the press and practically all the political parties because of these elections. The preliminary results of the vote, where Colombia has always been an example of speed and relative precision, were transformed this time into the first station of the cross, when Historic Pact went from a good result to an excellent result, and Democratic Center went from a very bad result to one that was even worse.
Many voices from different sides called Register Vega the politician responsible for the situation. And many have asked for his head; it doesn’t appear that he will lose his job, and that’s even less likely when it’s so close to the first stage of the election of the President.
This mess had some background prior to the election. Gustavo Petro, the favorite in the surveys, had started saying, louder and louder, that he didn’t have confidence in the transparency of the election system and that he was afraid the election might be stolen. He even insinuated that he might refuse to accept a result that contradicted the surveys. The administration responded energetically to Petro’s declaration at the time the polls were closed. Iván Duque declared: “The people that talked about fraud were defeated by the strength of our institutions, and by their great capacity to furnish information to our country.” Who could imagine that that phrase would not be contradicting Petro, but rather his own chief and mentor, Álvaro Uribe?
The normal thing in Colombia has been for the right to defend the transparency of the election system and for the left to express reservations. What was really incredible is that this week, dramatically, and almost comically, the governing party, Democratic Center, called the results “suspicious”, while Historic Pact was speaking prudently on election night about excusable errors, in spite of the fact that those errors had taken away more than 500,000 votes, and at least three seats in the Senate.
The crisis that began on Sunday night erupted six days later. That weekend, Álvaro Uribe started out with a belligerent tweet, calling for the election results to be disregarded. The former President and head of the governing party mixed truths with skewed interpretations and the occasional falsehood. It’s undeniable that the election results, and especially the gradual way that they were released, generated mistrust. It’s true that there are multiple E-14 forms with crossing out, but that doesn’t seem to be a sign of fraud, but more likely of poor training of the poll workers. What was false was the suggestion that Petro’s advantage came from the voters in areas that were influenced by the drug traffic. The truth is that Historic Pact did well in places like Bogotá, where he got twice as many votes as the Democratic Center, and it’s practically impossible to say that that was because of the influence of the drug traffic. Instead, in the Department of Caquetá, where the influence of the drug traffic is easily identified, Historic Pact came out in fifth place. The worst part of the Twitter message in the pugnacious account by Álvaro Uribe was the final phrase: “These results cannot be accepted.”
Álvaro Uribe Vélez
These elections are extremely suspicious.
E-14 full of crossing out, erasures, signatures that don’t match.
Add those inconsistencies to the overwhelming Petrism vote in areas of drug trafficking.
These results can’t be accepted.
7:51 a.m., March 19, 2022
That a former President of the Republic would invite disregard of an election result is something unheard of in Colombia. Nevertheless, this Saturday, it wasn’t only the former President who made such an incendiary call. Andrés Pastrana also took it up. For many observers, it seemed remarkable coming from the son of Misael Pastrana, whose election came under question in 1970, and occasioned the birth of the M-19 guerrillas, a group that included Gustavo Petro. Now he talks about fraud in the election won by the left coalition. The rest of his party, the Conservatives, obtained a second round, thanks to the big bureaucratic benefits they received during the administration of Iván Duque.
Andrés Pastrana A
The Registry’s official figures point to fraud in favor of Historic Pact.
The government needs, in order to be fair to the actors in the election, to hire two independent international firms for forensic analysis of the Registry’s procedures last Sunday.
3:18 p.m., March 18, 2022
Gustavo Petro’s reaction didn’t take long. In contrast to the former President from the right, Petro wrote a thoughtful tweet, asking for national unity, and calling for the commencement of “peaceful change”.
I invite all of the political parties to reject the invitation to a coup d’etat that Uribe has made along with his candidate. It’s time for all of us to defend democracy.
It’s time for peaceful change.
6:19 p.m., March 19, 2022
While the country’s politics and the social networks increased in pugnacity, the tension was increasing in the President’s Palace. They very quickly began talking about the possibility that President Iván Duque would make a statement on television. As independence has not characterized the President, many began to imagine that it would be an address to support the posture of his chief and mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe. The telephones in the President’s Palace didn’t stop ringing with calls from journalists checking on the time of the President’s speech, which, finally, did not take place. At the same time, sources close to the Palace said that high dignitaries had hurried the process of consultation with constitutional experts close to the administration. Many speculated that they were studying a declaration of domestic disturbance because of the canvassing results that gave 19 Senate seats to Petro.
There is enormous tension in the country, and the talk about fraud is alternating between the politicians of the current governing party and those who support the left, which is going to have the majority in the Senate. It’s not a good precedent because, in a democracy, the credibility of elections does not rest with the winners, but with the prompt and clear acceptance by the losers.
Around noon, the political leaders of several groups received calls from Interior Minister Daniel Palacio. He invited them to a meeting of the Election Monitoring Commission, scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday. The Minister told all of them that the session is considered urgent. However, a multi-party meeting that includes Historic Pact is one thing; and a call to disregard the election results is something else. This sensible path, after so much speculation, brought a breath of fresh air to the Presidential Palace, and in the afternoon, we learned unofficially that President Iván Duque was busy with the celebration of his daughter’s birthday. The firestorm was not shut off, but at least the Head of State had not poured gasoline on it. It’s possible that the subject may be rekindled on the first business day of this week, but the pause for the festival weekend undoubtedly helped heads to cool off.
The debacle started with a relatively minor issue. Every four years there is a lottery to select the order in which the parties appear on the ballot. That order also applies to the E-14 forms that are used to report voting results. This year, Historic Pact, which already was looking like the favorite in the surveys, won the last position on the ballot. It would be 16th with its closed list, preceded by the “U” Party, number 15, with an open list. The difference is important because, while the open lists have to carry 100 numbers from which the voter chooses the candidate, the closed lists only contain the party logo, and that’s the only thing the voter has to indicate.
The absurd design that resulted from the legal interpretation by a layout designer resulted in a ballot in which 90% of the sheet was occupied by the “U” Party, and for Historic Pact there was only a little footnote on the page, which could easily be overlooked. A lot of people thought this was just an unfortunate event that set off the problem, and others thought it was a deliberate act, intended to affect Petro’s vote.
Examining this topic with some serenity, the confusion seems to be more the result of stupidity than of maliciousness. Anyway, the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) stated that it had warned about the potential for confusion. Registry Director Alexander Vega, in a conversation with CAMBIO, insisted that when the MOE warned about the ballots and the E-14 forms, they were already printed, and it was impossible to make new ones.
The Registry’s dumb decision had enormous consequences to the procedures for reporting voting results. When the polls close, the poll workers count the votes and hastily fill out the E-14 forms they turn over to the people in charge of transmitting the numbers by telephone to the National Registry. In Bogotá, they add them up and that produces the bulletins that contain the preliminary results, which is the first information the country receives immediately after the polls close. Whether or not it was anybody’s fault, the fact is that with that rapid transmission of data, a half million votes for Historic Pact were misplaced.
That discrepancy was pointed out by Attorney Álvaro Echeverry, a legal expert and an engineer of vote-counting procedures, who was commanding the veritable army of experts in election law and witnesses in the service of Historic Pact. Echeverry was the first to sound the alert about the unusual existence of 29,000 tables without a single vote for the party leading in the surveys. Now everybody is wondering what would have happened if Petro’s supporters had not had that enormous apparatus of verifiers. A significant part of Historic Pact campaign funds were used for this operation, at the suggestion of Senator Roy Barreras, who spent at least three months preparing it, along with Attorney Echeverry. Before he worked with Historic Pact he had performed the same work, except on a smaller scale, for the “U” Party when Barreras was supporting that group.
What would have happened if Petro’s campaign had not had that enormous verification apparatus?
Roy Barreras’ brainstorm allowed the recovery, in the final canvass, of three Senate seats, and incidentally caused a small earthquake in the other parties. It started with Democratic Center, already engulfed in tragedy, because they went from having their current 19 Senators to be left with only 14, and then they lost one more. Their caucus, which had been the biggest caucus in the Senate, was reduced to the modest fifth place in the ranking of the parties.
And for the crowning touch of bitterness, the most recent one to lose was the young architect, María Angélica Guerra López, who for many reasons is close to the heart of the founder of the Democratic Center. María Angélica is the daughter of one of Álvaro Uribe’s best friends, former Senator Joselito Guerra de la Espriella, niece of the current Senator María del Rosario Guerra, and the granddaughter of José María López Gómez. He is known as El Mono López, the man who sold Uribe the first property that would be part of Ubérrimo, which today measures some 1,500 hectares.
The Conservative Party also lost a seat. The initial canvass showed the loss of the Senator from Huila, Esperanza Andrade. The Liberal Party at first had saved its 15 seats in the preliminary results, but the Christian, Sara Jimena Castellanos, is in a tight spot. She appeared to be winning, but she is in a very close race. The Green Alliance /Center of Hope Coalition also took a hit, as it is going to lose the one who received the fewest votes, Leon Fredy Muñoz, close to Historic Pact, and hemmed in by three dangers. First, because the survival of his seat depends on his beating Sara Castellanos of the Liberal Party. Second, because internally he might end up behind Iván Name. And third, because he’s been charged with drug trafficking by the Supreme Court of Justice.
Even though the confusion brought by the discrepancy between the preliminary results and the canvass has been what has been noticed the most, it’s not the only thing that has put the head of the Registry in the hot seat. Alexander Vega is under the microscope right now since he has been goofing around with an ambitious reform of the electoral code, demonstrating more talent for being a freeloader than for being an impartial official. He created more than 1,000 new positions in his agency, and they ended up going to politicians. He also had problems with the inscription on the voters’ identity documents, discrepancies with DANE having to do with the election census, questions about the software he bought for the canvassing (The web page was down on Election Day.); he invented a cyber attack that the Attorney General’s Office refuted, and it’s evident that many of the poll workers were not adequately trained, among other irregularities. When he was questioned by people who had no confidence in his impartiality, Vega merely said, “Anybody that doesn’t feel it’s safe should just stay out of it.”
If those problems were not enough, Uribism sees Alexander Vega as a Santista because, being a judge at the National Electoral Council (CNE), he headed an investigation of the Juan Manuel Santos campaign regarding its receipt of one million dollars from Odebrecht. That investigation ended up with nothing. The investigation of Óscar Iván Zuluaga for payments by a corrupt Brazilian multinational to his campaign was no different. In Zuluaga’s case, the investigation was headed by Carlos Camargo Assis. The only happenstance worth noticing in either of those two investigations was that it was a great thing for the investigators: Vega now is the Director of the Registry and Camargo is the Public Defender.
In a conversation with CAMBIO, the head of the Registry, Alexander Vega, said that the agency had made a great effort to conduct the election efficiently, and to provide assurance to everyone. He didn’t admit any responsibility for the chaos. However, the results don’t confirm that. Many people from different sides are pointing to him as the politician responsible for the situation. Although many have called for Vega’s head, it doesn’t look as if he will be leaving his position, especially when the first round of the presidential election is so close.
Many people from different sides are pointing to him as the politician responsible for the situation.
Alejandra Barrios, Director of the Election Observation Mission, said that everything that has happened is the consequence of not having included the political organizations in the preparation of the procedures. According to MOE, that can be corrected by using technical tables that include international observers to guarantee not just the credibility of the elections, but also the governance by the election authorities.
This comedy of errors has an incredible culmination. The National Electoral Council, which is the highest authority over elections, is divided about the presidential election. At the end of the week, while the country was talking about the canvassing, the corporation divided into four equal votes between Pedro Felipe Gutiérrez, the candidate preferred by the administration and by Democratic Center on the one hand, and Jaime Luis Lacouture, the Conservative Party candidate. The vote that could decide it is the vote of Judge Luis Guillermo Pérez, a human rights lawyer and the only member of the CNE that favors the left.
It’s evident that there is enormous tension in this country, and that the talk about fraud is alternating between politicians from the current governing party and those who support the left, which will now have the majority in the Senate. That’s not a good precedent, because in a democracy the credibility of the elections does not rest with the winners, but rather on the prompt and clear acceptance by the losers. A fundamental of republican government that has always been accomplished in Colombia, but it’s hard to see that it will be present in the coming presidential election.
 DANE: National Administrative Department of Statistics