At stake: Congress, President of Colombia
Before 1964, two parties literally fought to the death for power in Colombia, starting what is now an embedded culture of violence in the South American country. The Conservative Party (PC) and the Liberal Party (PL) were the only true political forces in the nation.
In 1964, the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) created an armed faction called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC separated almost immediately from the PCC, and is now the largest, wealthiest and strongest military guerrilla in Colombia.
The FARC currently dominate about 40 per cent of Colombia’s territory, most of which is jungle. From its beginnings as a “people’s army” preoccupied with social injustice and the increasing influence of the United States in domestic politics, the FARC have evolved into an affluent organization financed by drug production and trafficking, and kidnappings.
Another leftist guerrilla group also appeared in 1964, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ELN and the FARC occasionally fight each other over key drug routes. Representatives from the government and the ELN are currently engaged in talks to dismantle the insurgent group.
These armed groups have lost the backing of most Colombians. People resent their many terrorist attacks against civilians, their massacres in rural areas against alleged “enemies” and other violent acts they have openly committed. Over three million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence committed by these and other groups.
Before drug trafficking became a means to finance these armies, the guerrillas used to blackmail landlords and steal their cattle and agricultural products. They also relied on kidnapping and death threats as extortion, aided by a weak governmental military presence in many areas.
In the early 1980s, landlords and the first breed of Colombian drug dealers began to fight the guerrillas on their own. This was the origin of numerous paramilitary groups that rapidly spread around the country.
The paramilitary groups responded to the guerrillas with brutal massacres of “leftists” in which entire towns where invaded and obliterated overnight. The armies took over regions where they instated their own rule of law, based on extreme right-wing and “social cleansing” premises. These paramilitary groups also began to fight the guerrillas, especially the FARC, over the control of strategic drug production and trafficking passages. In many occasions, they were seen acting along with the government’s armed forces against the guerrillas.
During the 1980s, it became evident that drug trafficking had permeated Colombian politics. In August 1989, PL presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento—who was leading in the polls—was murdered. Galán had repeatedly denounced the influence of drug dealers, especially Pablo Escobar—the notorious head of the Medellín Cartel—in national politics.
In 1997, most paramilitary groups gathered under the umbrella of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), as their increasing strength became evident.
In 1998, PC member Andrés Pastrana won the presidential election. Under his rule, a vast area south from the capital city of Bogotá was demilitarized in order to hold peace dialogues with the FARC. After three years of talks, the negotiations were deemed a failure.
In 2002, Álvaro Uribe Vélez was elected president as the candidate of the Colombia First (PC) banner with 53.1 per cent of the vote. Uribe, whose own father was killed by FARC guerrillas in a botched kidnapping, promised to end the guerrillas by strengthening the armed forces.
In July 2003, Uribe and the AUC leaders signed an agreement in which the latter committed to gradually demobilize its factions and cease to exist as an armed group by December 2005. The deadline was later extended to Feb. 15, 2006, under pressure from AUC negotiators.
Despite over four decades of violence, Colombia enjoys the reputation of being one of the most stable democracies in the region. It is one of few Latin American countries with no record of a brutal dictatorship or military rule during the 20th Century.
The 2006 presidential and legislative election marked a first in Colombia’s democratic history, as President Uribe managed to change the constitution to allow him to run for a second term in office.
After a practically mute campaign, Uribe won the election with 62.2 per cent of the vote. Carlos Gaviria of the Democratic Independent Pole (PDI) came a distant second with 22 per cent of all cast ballots.
Political parties akin to the president won majorities in both houses of Congress. Uribe was sworn in for a new term on Aug. 7.
In early 2007, a scandalous tie between Colombia’s national intelligence service—the Department of Administrative Security (DAS)—and paramilitary death squads was revealed by the media. Former DAS chief Jorge Noguera, who had been appointed by Uribe, was arrested was arrested for allegedly providing the death squads with sensitive information that led to killings.
Several lawmakers, most of them Uribe allies—including his cousin, Mario Uribe—also became involved in the paramilitary-links scandal, which became known as the “para-politics” affair. At this point, over 70 lawmakers are being investigated or have been convicted already. The accusations range from receiving the backing of war lords for electoral benefits, to directly participating in select killings and massacres for political or economic purposes.
In September 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Colombia faced a new wave of massive internal displacement related to the country’s armed conflict. According to the ICRC, the number of new refugees in Colombia increased by 45,000 in 2005 and by 67,000 in 2006.
In March 2008, Uribe and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez engaged in one of many spats, as the Colombian government said it had proof that Chávez had given close to $300 million U.S. to the FARC.
More than 700 people—and by some accounts more than 3,000—are currently being held in captivity by the FARC. Almost 50 of them are politicians, police and army officers that the FARC intends to use for the purposes of negotiating the release of its incarcerated members. Others are kidnapped for ransom.
On Mar. 1,2008, the Colombian armed forces attacked a FARC camp almost two kilometres into the border with Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, also known as the “chancellor of the FARC” due to his role as the group’s international spokesperson. Reyes was one of seven top FARC commanders. The Colombian army had never killed or captured a FARC commander before.
The operation was followed by fierce condemnation from Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa and his political ally Chávez. The major crisis between the three nations ended at an international summit just days after the incident, when Uribe publicly shook hands with both Chávez and Correa.
In April 2008, Colombia’s chief federal prosecutor Mario Iguarán opened an investigation into allegations that Uribe offered an illegal bribe to congresswoman Yidis Medina in 2006 in exchange for her vote in favour of allowing his re-election.
On Jul. 2, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three American citizens, and 11 Colombian army soldiers who had been kidnapped by the FARC were rescued by the Colombian army. The operation was deemed “unprecedented” in the South American country’s history because it was based on intelligence and infiltration methods, and no weapons were used.
In March 2009, Colombia’s Semana magazine reported that the DAS was illegally intercepting communications from opposition politicians, judges, journalists and even government staff. According to the investigation, a group of people within the intelligence agency were gathering the communications in exchange for cash.
In November 2009, the government was involved in a major scandal over the allocation of agricultural subsidies. News reports emerged that former agriculture minister and close Uribe ally Andrés Felipe Arias gave funds destined to peasants and small farmers to powerful landowners instead—many of whom have contributed to Uribe’s campaigns and some of whom have proven ties to paramilitary death squads.
2010 Presidential and Congressional Election
Colombians are called to the ballot box to renew both houses of Congress on Mar. 14, and to elect a new president on May 30.
Even though incumbent president Álvaro Uribe has not yet stated that he wants to run for a third consecutive term, he has actively pushed allied lawmakers and his own cabinet ministers to press forward with proposals to change the constitutional term limits that bar him from doing so.
Since 2007, Luis Guillermo Giraldo—leader of the pro-Uribe Party of the U—announced he would create the “promoters’ committee”, a group charged with gathering signatures to call a referendum on whether Uribe should be allowed to run for a third term in office.
On Jul. 8, 2009, Cardinal Pedro Rubiano Sainz, the Catholic Church’s highest authority in Colombia, said that he holds Uribe “in much esteem,” adding, “Two [presidential] terms is a lot. (…) It would be better for him if after finishing his second term he left office and later on ran again.”
In August, former Colombian president and then Liberal Party (PL) leader César Gaviria expressed dismay at the possibility of a new term for Uribe, saying, “The country does not need strongmen who foster the escapist view that only one man can be the source for the solution of every single problem.”
In September 2009, Congress approved the referendum bill in a late-night vote boycotted by members of the opposition. The Constitutional Court is currently studying the validity of the referendum.
Other candidates include former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo of Citizen Commitment for Colombia (CCC), current senator Gustavo Petro of the opposition Democratic Pole (PD), Rafael Pardo of the opposition Liberal Party (PL) and Germán Vargas Lleras of the pro-government Radical Change (CR).
Two close Uribe allies are seeking the nomination of the pro-government Conservative Party (PC): former Colombian ambassador to Britain Noemí Sanín, and former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias. Arias has said he will not run against Uribe should he decide to seek a third term. Álvaro Leyva Durán, a Uribe opponent, also wants to secure the PC nomination.
Former defence minister and close Uribe ally Juan Manuel Santos could represent the Party of the U—which he leads—if the president decides not to run.
The possibility of a third term for Uribe has sparked criticism from the highest ranks in the international community. Editorials from the Washington Post, the New York Times and The Economist have urged Uribe to refrain from running again.
On Sept. 21, Spanish politician Javier Solana—who serves as the foreign representative for the European Union (EU)—discussed the situation in Colombia, saying, “Constitutional reforms should be made to change the structure of a country, but should not give the impression they are made to favour one person, however important and however well he has performed his role.”
On Sept. 25, when questioned by a group of American students at Harvard University about his potential bid for a third term in office, Uribe replied: “My own destiny does not depend on me.”
On Oct. 2, the Green Party was officially created. The party will nominate one person to be its presidential candidate on a primary ballot that will take place on Mar. 14, the same day as the legislative election. The contenders are three former Bogotá mayors: Enrique Peñalosa, Antanas Mockus, and Luis Eduardo Garzón. The Greens—who will also run candidates for both chambers of Congress—seek to be a moderate force in what they called “a polarized” political situation, calling themselves “Post-Uribists.”
On Oct. 13, Petro—the opposition candidate—said that Colombia sits at a “moment of definition between dictatorship and democracy.” Petro is also calling for a grand anti-Uribe alliance with a unity candidate to face an eventual bid by the incumbent.
On Oct. 29, PC presidential hopeful Leyva Durán complained that Arias and Uribe both have an unfair advantage over other candidates, declaring that the incumbent “is a de facto candidate who has at his disposal a number of means that the others don’t have,” and adding, “This is a breach of the rules of democracy.”
On Jan. 15, 2010, Green presidential hopeful Garzón criticized Sanín, saying that she came up with the idea of the first Uribe re-election along with the president’s close advisor Fabio Echeverry, and “now she is realizing what a third one would mean.”
In late January, Jaime Dussan—a member of the opposition Democratic Pole (PD)—called for all parties interested in stopping the president from running again in this year’s ballot to sign a joint letter requesting the Constitutional Court to prevent it. Dussan declared: “Let’s make a public pronouncement, signing a statement and asking all the political and social chiefs that we send it to the court and we tell the country that we are opposed to that re-election.”
On Feb. 26, the Constitutional Court voted 7-2 against a proposal to hold a referendum on whether Uribe should be able to run for a third term in office. Lead justice Mauricio González said a referendum would entail “substantial violations to the democratic principle.”
Immediately after the ruling, former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that he would become a presidential candidate. Uribe said he “accepted” and “respected” the court’s decision.
Voting for the legislative election took place on Mar. 14. Preliminary results showed the Party of the U (PSUN) ahead, followed the by the pro-government Conservative Party (PC).
There were no reports of violence, but some allegations of vote-buying and other irregularities did emerge.
Late on Mar. 14, and with less than half the votes accounted for, Mockus was declared the winner of the Green Party primary. Mockus accepted his nomination, and thanked his two opponents and supporters, declaring, “I am where I am because I am surrounded by giants.” Both Peñalosa and Garzón immediately vowed to support Mockus’s bid for the presidency.
Arias and Sanín, the two main contenders in the race for the Conservative Party (PC) nomination, both raised concerns about the vote. With less than half of the primary ballots accounted for, the two candidates appeared to be on a technical tie.
On Mar. 25, Carlos Rodado, Santos’s chief of debate and a member of the PC, rejected a threat by the party’s authorities to expel him from their ranks for working with a candidate other than Sanín, saying, “I have been and always will be a conservative of principle, not of convenience. I have not joined the U Party, but the multi-party campaign of Juan Manuel Santos.”
On Mar. 31, Santos admitted that him and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez are “like water and oil,” but promised to “do everything possible to maintain the best relations” with Venezuela if elected.
On Apr. 5, Fajardo—who was praised for a good administration as mayor of Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city—officially accepted an offer by Mockus to become his running-mate. Mockus is also renowned for two successful terms as mayor of Bogotá.
Fajardo described his decision to join Mockus as “not an addition, but a multiplication,” stating that the formula is “the best proposal in history.” Mockus and Fajardo are both mathematicians with a career in academia.
On Apr. 15, Uribe appeared to criticize Mockus, declaring, “It seems very grave to me that when some people in this country allowed paramilitarism to grow and failed to combat it, now present themselves as honest and enemies of politicking.”
Mockus dismissed the president’s assertions, saying, “Uribe is not paying attention to his own statements, because he lauded my work on security [in Bogota] where we worked in conjunction for more than 11 months. (…) They are seeing the possibility that we will defeat them in the election and this is why they are reacting in such an emotional way.”
President: Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Vice-president: Francisco Santos Calderón
The president is elected to a four-year term by popular vote.
Legislative Branch: The Congreso (Congress) has two chambers. The Cámara de Representantes (Chamber of Representatives) has 167 members, elected to four-year terms by proportional representation. The Senado de la República (Senate of the Republic) has 102 members, elected to four-year terms by proportional representation.
Results of Last Election:
President – May 28, 2006
|Álvaro Uribe –
Colombia First (PC)
|Carlos Gaviria –
Democratic Independent Pole (PDI)
|Horacio Serpa –
Liberal Party (PL)
|Antanas Mockus –
Visionary Party (PV)
|Enrique Parejo –
Democratic Revival (RD)
|Álvaro Leyva –
National Conciliation Movement (MNR)
|Carlos Rincón – Colombian Community
and Communal Political Movement (MPCCC)
Chamber of Representatives – Mar. 12, 2006
|Colombian Liberal Party (PL)||19.0%||36|
|Party of the U (PSUN)||16.7%||29|
|Conservative Party (PC)||15.8%||30|
|Radical Change (CR)||10.7%||20|
|Democratic Independent Pole (PDI)||8.2%||9|
|Citizens’ Convergence (CC)||4.6%||8|
|Wings – Team Colombia Movement (MAEC)||4.3%||7|
|Mira Movement (MM)||2.7%||1|
|Democratic Colombia Party (PCD)||2.5%||2|
|Liberal Opening (AL)||2.3%||5|
|National Movement (MN)||2.0%||2|
|United People’s Movement (MPU)||1.5%||2|
|For the Country of our Dreams (PPS)||1.1%||1|
|Regional Integration Movement (MIR)||1.1%||4|
|Huila New and Liberalism (HNL)||0.9%||2|
|Social Action Party (PAS)||0.6%||1|
|Renovation Movement Labour Action (MRAL)||0.4%||1|
|National Salvation Movement (MSNl)||0.3%||1|
|People’s Participation Movement (MPP)||0.2%||1|
|Progressive National Movement (MNP)||0.1%||1|
Senate – Mar. 12, 2006
|Party of the U (PSUN)||17.49%||20|
|Conservative Party (PC)||16.13%||18|
|Colombian Liberal Party (PL)||15.52%||17|
|Radical Change (CR)||13.36%||15|
|Democratic Independent Pole (PDI)||9.74%||11|
|Citizens’ Convergence (CC)||6.25%||7|
|Wings – Team Colombia Movement (MAEC)||4.68%||5|
|Democratic Colombia Party (PCD)||2.85%||3|
|Mira Movement (Movimiento Mira)||2.35%||2|
|Living Colombia Movement (MCV)||2.46%||2|
|Indigenous Social Alliance (ASI)||—||2|