Colombian Elections Show Little Change Other Than Names

Party of National Integration still not as popular as the null vote.

By Ken Kelley

Candidates from three right-wing parties allied with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe won a clear majority in both the Senate and lower house in elections held on March 14.  The results are considered to be a sign of how Colombians will vote on May 30 when they choose a successor to Uribe, who was recently barred from seeking a third term.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the emergence of the rightist Party of National Integration (PIN), which won 8 out of the 102 Senate seats, displacing the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole as the country’s fourth largest political party.  The victorious PIN candidates were mostly relatives of ex-lawmakers now in jail or under investigation for ties to right-wing paramilitary groups.  In a scandal that tarnished the previous Congress, 12 pro-Uribe legislators were jailed while another 80 are still under investigation.

The only good news for the political left was the unprecedented electoral showing of the Green Party, which got 5% of the vote and acquired 4 Senate seats.  The party also choose the quirky former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, as its presidential candidate.

Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva Lujan praised the elections as being the most peaceful held in the country in the past 30 years, claiming there were only scattered reports of violence and attempts at electoral disruption by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombian (FARC).  President Uribe, heartened by his allies’ victories, echoed those comments, saying he had “enormous respect for the voters,” whose participation in the democratic process had shown they were “against the violence and corruption” of the past.

However, opposition parties and observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) described widespread irregularities and fraud in the voting process.   In fact, these elections resulted in the highest number of null or spoiled votes in the country’s history.  As the newspaper El Tiempo pointed out, null votes constituted 10% of the total, surpassing PIN´s showing and effectively making “voto nulo” the fourth largest “party” in the country. 

Besides long lines and confusion at the polls, opponents cited cases of vote-buying and tampering with ballot boxes, allegations supported by newspaper photographs of broken ballot seals.  There were also charges of voter intimidation by paramilitary groups, particularly in the southern departments (states) of Valle del Cauca and Nariño.  Liberal Party leader Rafael Pardo asked for a manual recount in Valle del Cauca, saying: “We can not permit the region to be identified as the department of PIN.”

PIN’s strong showing demonstrates the entrenchment of Colombian paramilitary groups in the nation’s political system.  The paramilitaries, who attained immense power in the 1980s as a counter-guerrilla force in the service of elite interests, have maintained policies of drug trafficking, political assassinations, displacement of the rural population—whose land is then turned over to wealthy landowners—and rampant killing of civilians. Although a 2005 law supposedly demobilized the “paras” and some leaders went to jail (most received amnesty), many have regrouped under new names and resumed their signature activities.

As the aforementioned Congressional scandal shows, paramilitary influence has spread to the highest levels of government.  Some lawmakers have been charged with receiving funds from the groups in exchange for political favors, while others have been directly linked to massacres carried out by the paras. Ex-Senator Alvaro “El Gordo” García, for example, is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for his involvement in a massacre in the town of Macayepo; his sister, Teresita García Romero, was one of PIN’s victorious candidates in the March 14 elections, replacing him in the Senate.  Other winning PIN Senate candidates (as well as some from the Conservative Party) were wives, brothers, sons, or cousins of ex-legislators tied to the paras.

Opinon polls for the May presidential elections show Juan Manuel Santos of Uribe´s National Unity Party (Partido de la U) to be the front runner.  Santos was Uribe´s Defense Minister during the 2008 rescue from FARC guerilla captivity of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 3 U.S. contractors.  The candidate for the second-largest party, the Conservatives, is Noemí Sanín, who previously served as Uribe’s Foreign Minister.  If no presidential candidate receives a majority in the first round of voting, there will be a runoff between the top two to pick a winner.  

In Taganga, a small, sleepy fishing village on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, election day seemed like any other, aside from posters and tables set up by several parties along the waterfront and offering literature about the candidates and hats. In the afternoon, as fishermen unloaded their catch on the beach, I asked one if he thought the elections would bring any change to the country.  “Not much,” he said simply, and went back to the more pressing business of haggling with fish buyers.

The fisherman’s unoptimistic view was compounded the following day by the discovery in a rural area of a van containing bags of election ballots from Taganga and other northern coastal towns. The Congressional candidate for the splinter right party Radical Change (Cambio Radical), not aligned with Uribe, requested a total annulment of all votes in the district.

Although the recent Colombian elections may have been more peaceful than in the past, they indicate that, while the names of the politicians may change (in some cases only first names, of course), the hardline rightist policies of President Uribe will continue even after his successor assumes power. Uribe’s projects to date have included an agreement signed with U.S. President Barack Obama in October 2009 to allow U.S. troops access to seven military bases in the country, which are now being expanded via hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars.

The Colombian military itself has been cited for numerous human rights abuses, including the present “false positives” scandal, in which—in possibly thousands of instances—troops executed young men and boys, dressed them as guerillas, and then collected pay bonuses and vacation days according to the number of “guerillas” they had killed.

Meanwhile, after days of allegations of electoral manipulation, fraud, and voter intimidation, Uribe has asked the Attorney General to open an investigation into reports that in some towns there were violations of the law banning the sale of alcohol on election day.

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