High Emotions, Little Content

Colombia's Presidential Election

By Brian Crisp and Felipe Botero   

Colombian presidential elections are scheduled for may, but with only ten weeks to election day, the field of presidential candidates remains very crowded. Congressional elections, held two months prior to presidential elections, have frequently served to indicate which pre-candidates were most viable. Lists of congressional candidates associated with presidential hopefuls did battle with one another and helped gauge public sentiment as well as determine which presidential candidate was most likely to be able to form a legislative majority. Given that congressional races allowed multiple lists from the same party to compete against one another, they not only sorted out among parties but even among contenders in the same party.

This forecasting tool has been made more murky by an ongoing trend and by recent institutional innovations. First, there is a trend toward independent presidential candidacies. Not only are political newcomers and outsiders launching independent candidacies, but even long-time members of traditional parties have eschewed the opportunity to fight for their parties’ nominations, preferring instead to launch personal electoral vehicles. Thus some independent candidates do not expect congressional elections to motivate their bases of support. What is more, partisan candidates who might have been eliminated from the presidential race in a party primary (after congressional elections gave the momentum to an intra-party rival), have increasingly been willing to forego a primary they were likely to lose in order to run independently, just as incumbent President Álvaro Uribe did in 2002, when his chances of winning the Liberal primary were slim. In terms of institutional innovations, legislative elections are now held using open list proportional representation rules with only one list per party, rather than multiple sub-party lists. It is still unclear what impact this innovation will have on the connection between legislative and presidential races, but in the short run it promises to introduce at least some noise in the signal.

In early March the field of candidates included President Álvaro Uribe, a former Liberal using his own electoral vehicle; four candidates for the Liberal Party banner, with perpetual candidate Horacio Serpa likely to win a party primary; two candidates for the Democratic Pole/Alternative Democracy banner with Antonio Navarro the likely winner of a party primary; and three additional independents with the former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, the only one registering even single-digit levels of support in public opinion polls. The Conservative Party, for a second election in a row, abstained from having a presidential candidate of its own. For the upcoming election, the decision was the result of a public consultation—held in November 2005—in which 64 percent of a surprising 1 million voters endorsed the idea that the party back President Uribe’s reelection candidacy.

While these developments would seem to increase the level of uncertainty in Colombian presidential politics—and may very well do so in the future—in the current race they are overshadowed by a second institutional innovation. In October 2005 Congress approved a constitutional amendment allowing for immediate reelection of presidential candidates (with a two-term limit). Both the amendment itself and the accompanying law regulating how a sitting president could fairly run for reelection (without using official resources to his or her benefit) survived numerous challenges before the Constitutional Court. This is the first presidential election to feature an incumbent candidate.

Sitting President Uribe is very popular. In three public opinion polls conducted throughout 2005 and into 2006, 56 to 57 percent of respondents steadily attested that they would cast their vote in the first round for Uribe (www.votebien.com). No other candidate or party obtained a level of support above 15 percent. In fact, polls of likely primary voters showed Liberal frontrunner Serpa and Pole frontrunner Navarro losing support within their parties to the undecided category.

Other candidates and their supporters have complained that the president is unfairly using the advantages of his office during the campaign. These charges have not resonated with the public generally nor been formalized in the judicial arena, and President Uribe looks set to win reelection in the first round with more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

Aside from the issue of the reelection itself, the campaign has been characterized by a dearth of issues. The most contentious topics revolve around policies implemented under Uribe’s first administration, especially his Democratic Security policy, intended to deal with Colombia’s longstanding civil war, and the now finalized negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. President Uribe has been conspicuously frugal in his pronouncements and has avoided explicit statements about what his goals are for a second term, other than the vague claim that his reelection will ensure continuity for his programs to handle the armed conflict and the economy. Most of his challengers have limited their proposals to react to Uribe’s policies, adding little new to the debate. The presidential campaign has therefore been an exercise in which emotions occasionally run high but where substantive political content—from either the incumbent or the challengers—is quite modest.

In terms of the armed conflict, Uribe’s current policies will leave critical challenges for whoever assumes the presidency on August 7, 2006. First, the demobilization of the paramilitary armies has run past a previously negotiated due date, and there are numerous vigilantes that have yet to surrender their weapons and reincorporate into civilian life. Moreover, the ratio of men to weapons turned in is about 2:1, which implies that either there are (previously unarmed) people who are taking advantage of the terms of the demobilization agreement or that arms caches are being built up – for a future remobilization of the paramilitaries or for sale on the black market. Both alternatives are serious and need to be resolved by the next administration. The silence of the major candidates on this issue is notorious. For instance, Liberal contender Rafael Pardo and Polo Democrático’s Antonio Navarro only mention in their platforms that if elected president they will ensure that the paramilitary armies are entirely dismantled.

On a far more complex matter, upon demobilization the paramilitaries agreed to confess their crimes and to return all goods unlawfully acquired in exchange for lenient sentences, including reduced prison time. However, their crimes have involved massacres of civilians, kidnapping, rape, torture, extortion, plundering, cattle rustling, and drug trafficking, to name but a few. The Justice and Peace Law—which regulates the conditions for demobilization—limits the ability of this negotiation process to bring closure to victims in the form of justice and reparation because of several deficiencies in its conception. The law does not revoke the benefits of demobilized vigilantes who conceal facts in their depositions, even if it is later proved that they did so in bad faith. Perpetrators only face the risk of a slight increase in their penalties for crimes not disclosed in their declaraciones libres (free statements). The investigation periods established in the law are extremely short, especially for inquiries about heinous crimes such as massacres. The law protects the property of paramilitaries when its illegal origins cannot be determined, limiting possible reparations to the victims. This is particularly troublesome when it has been documented that paramilitaries assassinated landowners and, smoking guns in hand, forced widows to sign documents to transfer the property to their names. Most candidates avoid statements about the negotiation with right-wing paramilitaries. As an exception, Navarro suggests that he would issue a decree regulating the Justice and Peace Law to guarantee reparations for victims.

A second contentious subject related to the conflict is the question of humanitarian exchanges and the general issue of peace talks with leftist rebels, particularly the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The Uribe administration has, reasonably, opposed the exchange of kidnap victims for incarcerated guerrillas. However, the next administration will have to take a more proactive stance in order to bring an end to the predicament of more than 400 abducted individuals—including military, politicians, civilians and even some American citizens, some of whom have been held for over 8 years. Most of the candidates have indicated their willingness to carry out humanitarian exchanges with the FARC, including Serpa, Navarro, and Pardo.

In terms of economic policy, the presidential campaign has also been characterized by a lack of new and concrete proposals and instead by denunciations of Uribe’s programs. The current state of the economy is neither critical nor ideal. After almost two years, Uribe was able to close negotiations with the United States for a Free Trade Agreement that will progressively eliminate tariffs between the two countries in the near future. This agreement should generate incentives for Colombian businesses to export their products to the world’s largest economy, while exposing Colombian businesses to competition from their American counterparts. Though the benefits are clear in certain sectors, there will be negative effects in others, mainly in agriculture. Colombian grain producers simply cannot compete with (often subsidized) American agribusinesses. As a result, the government has already announced a program to help those sectors that would be more heavily hit. The plan includes some $500,000 million pesos (some $220 million U.S.) in annual subsidies for targeted industries. It is not clear where the funds will come from, even though Uribe’s government has announced that it would not raise existing taxes or create new ones. The next president will have to deal with the negative impact of the Free Trade Agreement on a significant sector of Colombia’s economy and with the more difficult task of raising funds in a fiscally responsible way to dole out help, particularly given the reduced revenues due to the elimination of tariffs.

In sum, the outcome of the election has seemed a foregone conclusion for quite some time. Barring some very dramatic events, Álvaro Uribe appears destined to win a second term—handily. An open question is whether the lack of substance to the campaign is a function of Uribe’s popularity or if Uribe’s popularity is (at least in part) a function of the lack of substance to the campaign (and party programs more generally).

Brian Crisp is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Washington University in St Louis.

Felipe Botero is an Assistant Professor at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

See also: Colombia, Elections