Amid Tensions and Surprises Colombia Prepares to Elect a New President

by Moira Birss
-USA/Colombia-
Colombia prides itself on being Latin America’s oldest democracy. Unlike its neighbors, Colombia has not suffered brutal military coups and dictatorships and, with one brief exception, has held regular presidential elections since the mid 19th century. Nonetheless, in a country mired in internal conflict in which armed actors attempt to influence outcomes through violence, vote buying is not an uncommon practice and dozens of senators have recently been convicted of collaboration with paramilitaries. Election season in the country highlights the danger and complexity in which the country continues to live. And, as Colombians prepare to elect the successor of Álvaro Uribe, tensions are high and some surprises are surfacing.


An Earth Day campaign celebration for candidate Antanas Mockus in Medellin, Colombia. Photograph by Flickr user Sergio Fajardo Valderrama

While Uribe – who changed the country’s constitution in order to run for a second term – remains popular and is hailed by many for improving security, recent scandals tainting his presidency may be affecting the two candidates seen as his heirs, his former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Conservative Party candidate Noemí Sanín. Those scandals include both wire-tapping Supreme Court justices, journalists, and opposition politicians and extrajudicial executions – a practice in which poor young men are kidnapped from cities, taken to the countryside and shot, then dressed up in guerrilla uniforms and claimed as combat kills.
Riding on the wave of discontent over such policies, Antanas Mockus, a quirky former mayor of Bogota running with the Green Party (a new center-left party not allied with the U.S. Green Party), has taken the lead in polls. Mockus’ success has been credited in part to his image of candor and freshness. Publicly acknowledging his battle with Parkinson’s disease has demonstrated his humanity. He is known for his off-the-wall techniques while Bogota’s mayor, like dispatching mimes to principal intersections in an attempt to goad Bogotanos into respecting traffic laws. “I support Mockus because I believe he is honest, diplomatic and prudent,” explains a mid-20s resident of Cali.
Santos, however, remains a formidable contender. This political-establishment stalwart, whose family owns one of Colombia’s principal media conglomerates, symbolizes the tough security policies of the Uribe government. Such policies have been credited with reducing violence in Colombia’s once-volatile cities and directing high-profile events like the rescue of FARC captives Ingrid Betancourt and the three U.S. military contractors. So, although Santos was Defense Minister when the majority of extrajudicial executions were committed and much of the country’s violence had been pushed to rural areas rather than eliminated, Santos continues to poll well. If elected, he would likely continue Uribe’s trajectory and remain closely aligned with the former president.
It is important to keep in mind that polls in Colombia must be taken with several handfuls of salt. Pollsters tend to only reach residents of middle and upper class residents of Colombia’s cities. Poor and rural Colombians, who tend not to have access to landlines or other standard survey methods, are rarely surveyed. A peasant woman in the country’s northwest mountainous jungle region of Urabá once said to me, “I have never been polled, and neither has anyone I know. They’ve never sent anyone to the countryside to survey us; how can they really know what so much of the country thinks?”
While polls show Mockus gaining hugely in recent weeks—according to one polling agency, he went from just 9% compared to Santos’ 36% in March to being tied with Santos at the end of April —analysts question how much election day results will actually match polling numbers. Though Mockus’ unprecedented-in-Colombia use of social media like Facebook and Twitter has generated much support among youth and sparked comparisons to Obama, such methods have little to no play with Colombia’s poor and rural populations.
Though Santos and Mockus lead in polls, other contenders are still playing an important role in the election process. Noemí Sanín, the Conservative party candidate, regularly polls in third place. She has never held office but has had several ministry positions and served as ambassador to the U.K. and Spain. This election marks Sanín’s third attempt at the presidency. Notably, in the Conservative Party’s primary elections she beat Andrés Felipe Arias, known as “Uribito” for striving to be Uribe’s protégée in politics and in appearance.
Gustavo Petro has been an important element in televised debates. He is an outspoken opposition senator who, prior to his political career, spent two years in jail for having fought with the now-defunct guerrilla movement the M-19. His experience participating in the group’s negotiated settlement with the government, in which fighters laid down their arms and many became politicians, could serve useful for possible negotiations with the FARC (the current principal guerrilla movement).
Though unlikely to win the presidential race, Petro has refused to form a coalition with Mockus. He criticizes the former mayor for being too closely aligned to Uribe’s heavy-handed security policies and for his economic policies like the privatization of public utilities that led to untenable rates for the Bogota’s shanty-town dwellers. Jorge Enrique Robledo, a prominent Senator from Petro’s party, has criticized Mockus, despite his rhetoric of the importance of education, as “a man of the establishment.”
With all the surprise over Mockus’ gains and a focus on the desires of urban voters, the rapid uptick in violence in rural regions has not made many headlines this election season. A human rights worker in the banana-growing region of Urabá explains, “Violence in the form of threats, attacks and combat has escalated.” He and his colleagues attribute this to a power play between the government and the FARC. “The state appears to be hiding their casualties and not reporting all the incidents, as part of Uribe’s goal to show that he has gotten rid of the FARC, while the FARC wants to definitely show that they are still around. It’s not the best situation to be in…” says my human rights worker friend. He supports his argument by citing a just-published report from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that warns of the resurgence of the FARC. When the report was released, ICRC Colombia director explained that their experience shows that the FARC has a “new capacity…to continue being an important actor in the armed conflict” and that the group has recovered strength since early 2008.
Such violence serves, unfortunately, as a reminder that Colombia’s conflict continues. The next president, whether he or she is elected outright on May 30 or the vote goes to a runoff on June 20th, will have to confront that reality and Uribe’s controversial legacy.


About the Author
Moira Birss recently returned to the U.S. after two years in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira's articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at www.1peaceatatime.blogspot.com. You can follow Moira on Twitter @moira_kb.

Posted in Special Election Coverage

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