By Catalina Oquendo, EL PAISAmerica, May 24, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The Director of the Election Observation Mission, Alejandra Barrios, talks about the tension and the scenarios for next Sunday.
Alejandra Barrios (Cali, 1969) is the Director of the Election Observation Mission of Colombia (MOE) and she doesn’t hide her uncertainty about next Sunday when the first round of the Presidential election will take place in Colombia. This isn’t an uncertainty like the uncertainty that has always existed in an election contest. Millions of Colombians have seen elections that have been characterized by complaints of possible fraud, narratives of coup d’etat, and conspiracies, but also enormous breakdowns of the Registry. Elections in which, she says while she wipes her face, for the first time in Colombia, “election results have been questioned.”
Seated in her office at the MOE in Bogotá, she reviews the data in Let’s Go With The Vote, the web site the Mission uses to receive complaints of vote buying, something historic in this country. However, vote buying has always been one of the most visible problems during elections, now that’s just one problem. This time there has been a strong participation of business owners pressuring their employees to vote for their selected candidates, hassles about the software used to get into the inspectors’ office, and “an awful lot of participation in politics from the President and all the way down.”
Question. Why do you think there’s so much noise around these elections?
Answer. It’s inherent that in an election process there will be a fired-up environment and you will see tensions; that doesn’t happen only in Colombia, but we haven’t had questioning of the election results or of the conduct of the elections. That is new.
Q. To what do you attribute that?
A. There could be several explanations. One has to do with the certainty of the election results, because of the problems that were found in the congressional elections. Also, since last year we were hearing a narrative about possible election fraud, which is something that comes from the 2018 elections. However, those fears would have been unfounded if there had not been errors at the Registry.
Q. Do you think what happened on March 13 (when at first they failed to count 600,000 votes) is the basis for the current lack of confidence?
A. The election authorities didn’t provide timely explanations about the difference between the data that was transmitted and the preliminary results. When that happens, the lack of information is filled with what people have at hand, with rumors, interpretations, and uncertainty. Later, when they began to explain it, it was very late. For some sectors, it was left to their imagination, some had tried to commit fraud and were caught at it. Meanwhile, on the other hand, they believed the fraud had taken place and was consolidated because “there are votes that disappeared and then appeared.” Explaining that that was not what happened, but rather there is a canvassing process, is difficult. That’s where we are right now, right before the first round, full of uncertainty and distrust.
Q. Does this atmosphere also have to do with the possibility that the left might take the Presidency?
A. One factor is what happened in the congressional elections, but the other is that there is a nervousness in the atmosphere because it’s the first time in this century that, looking at past results, there exists a possibility of a 180 degree change in political brand, and that the government might be headed by a candidate that doesn’t belong to the establishment. In Colombia, there hasn’t been alternation in the power of a political brand; here there has been alteration of the party in power, but always from the establishment. And what we are experiencing is an earthquake, the effects of a possible modification of tectonic plates of power in this country, where the beginning was seen in the recomposition of the Congress. That change in power has also been accompanied by a new agenda. It’s always been security and the illegal armed groups; now it’s different, they are talking about economic matters, poverty, unemployment. There have always been negotiations about peace or no peace, but now they’re talking about pensions, health care systems.
Q. Confidence in the election system is fractured. What has been the role of the Director of the Registry?
A. Unlike other election processes, we don’t have the capital that’s called confidence, but rather we are in the process of recovering it. I don’t think we will achieve that here on May 29. The only way to go back to cementing it is for everything to work like a Swiss watch this Sunday. The web site can’t go down, information on Infovotantes has to be clear, the election census has to be transparent, and transmission of results impeccable. If anything fails, any of those other narratives and reasonable fears could be serious.
Q. Do you think there are real possibilities of fraud on Sunday?
A. There has always been fraud in Colombian elections, with vote buying, with offers of government property and services in return for favoring a candidate, along with public officials taking part in politics. All of that is fraud because it changes the will of the citizens. But a massive fraud that could modify the results is something else.
Q. And how could that happen?
A. That’s a different kind of business, a different dimension. It means that you would have to have the capability of changing the results in a volume important enough, even with election witnesses watching over the voting, and with vote information from table to table that would go up on the same day on the Registry web site, and all while the parties and national and international election observers watched the whole thing.
Q. So the possibility of massive fraud does exist?
A. We aren’t seeing it, but when there is the intervention of technology and human beings, anything could happen. I don’t want to be voting for distrust, but I do point out that the Registry does not have the seal of 100% confidence.
Q. In relation to the election software, is there any kind of concern?
A. That’s one of the areas where I hope to see much greater caution by the Registry, because unfortunately, there wasn’t any kind of independent audit of any of the software. The audit that the National Electoral Council requested was international, but in reality what they ordered was an independent. They wanted to have their own elements of choice. And to do that, in this context with so much distrust and the pressures of Senators and former Presidents, it was completely responsible to have a CNE hearing in case of any doubt about the results.
Q. And we don’t know anything about the Registry’s audit either.
A. Because of that, what the CNE wanted was the value of providing tranquility and guarantees to the political parties. I hope we have some results that are accepted by the different political organizations, because if we start again with distrust of the results, there won’t be anybody to say, look here, we also have an audit, and we can have confidence that this is OK and that the working of this software is what has really counted the Colombians’ votes.
Q. Is it important that the results not be very close?
A. Right, that’s everybody’s nightmare.
Q. What’s the worst scenario?
A. The worst scenario is that something breaks down at the Registry. Nothing can go wrong. The floor that’s supported by the columns of confidence is built by the Registry on that day. If something goes wrong on that day, all of the work you did doesn’t matter, what they see is what went wrong. And the second scenario is with results that are close, with a difference of two points. That will also depend on the confidence by the candidates to concede victory and defeat.
Q. Are you afraid that some of them won’t accept it?
A. If that happens, there will have to be a very clear message from the National Election Council to the boards of canvassers at the local and area level, so that they re-count the votes, but at this level, there is no recount of the national vote. That would have to be fast, because in three weeks you have the next elections, the runoff.
Q. What could happen in Colombia if something goes wrong?
A. We are all very worried. We have just come from a social explosion that surprised everybody and which has had no adequate resolution. That could be explosive. The greatest fear is that there could be public order issues, and I’m not referring to whether one candidate or another won. It doesn’t matter which side it comes from, because the rage that exists doesn’t come from only one political current. People can go out in the street to express frustration about the system, not necessarily to support their candidate. There is a contained discontent, and that is sometimes expressed at the polls and other times in the street.
Q. What’s the most serious thing you have found in this election process?
A. A lot of serious things have happened. The work on political participation has been completely unacceptable and the solution that has been offered is wrong. That’s not entirely the fault of the Registry; here everybody seems to be playing a role that would make it turn out badly. I’m referring to the Inspector General’s office and its interventions in the national administration. What’s more important, generating confidence, or climbing into the election debate ring? There is a responsibility on the part of every public official from the President on down, and that’s to have a higher level of tolerance.
Q. Do you blame the President for that?
A. In an election campaign, obviously the administration’s management of that is on the table, because it’s about continuity or breakdown. The President ought to understand how election processes work, and because of that, he has a greater responsibility, and he ought to keep silent.
Q. Some unexpected practices in this election?
A. We were very surprised about the business owners telling their employees how they ought to vote. That is something unusual, or at least we had never seen it before. It’s like the period of slavery. Likewise, the hateful speeches and above all the racism, sexism, and classism.