Huffpost WorldPost
Laura Carlsen Headshot

Colombia's Elections: Under the Gun

Posted: Updated:

Colombia’s congressional elections on March 14 were hailed by the United Nations as the most peaceful in years. The victory of the coalition led by President Alvaro Uribe suggests an easy win for his party in the presidential elections scheduled for May 30.

But celebrating the absence of bombings at polling centers or assassinations of candidates — both common in the past — implies that in a situation of conflict the bar for democracy is lowered to near-ground level. Nothing could be more dangerous — for Colombia or for democracy itself.

The results of Colombia’s elections raise serious doubts about the quality of that country’s democracy, especially in the light of past and present violence. The Electoral Observation Mission reported that 35 candidates elected to the 102-seat senate are direct heir-apparents to congress-members identified by the courts as linked to paramilitary groups.

Widespread dirty tricks reported during the pre-electoral period include vote-buying, voter intimidation, disenfranchisement of vulnerable populations such as the displaced, threats to opposition candidates, and illicit funding of campaigns.

Although the bulk of media attention has focused on snafus in the counting and reporting process (official results are still not available), the real crisis of legitimacy lies in the broken chain between a voter’s free choice of representation and the real ways that candidates come to power.

Backdrop to Voter Fraud

In February, I visited Colombia as part of an international team of pre-electoral observers. In visits to the departments of Antioquia, Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Cordoba, we found remarkably similar cases of fraud, vote-buying, and coercion of voters.

The subsequent election bore out these findings. The 70-member election observation team of the Organization of American States (OAS) reported vote-buying in at least six of Colombia’s 32 departments. The Colombian Electoral Observation Mission, a civil society effort that has developed advanced methodologies for predicting and tracking electoral crimes, found the same. Our Pre-Electoral Observations Mission found vote-buying in all four departments we visited. Vote buyers offer everything from food and building materials to cash and scholarships and promises of employment. Because of extreme poverty throughout the nation, a vote can be purchased for a free lunch or a bag of cement.

Accusations of illicit financing also cloud the elections. Our delegation and others found evidence that the government used social programs like Accion Social, which provides subsidies to poor families, to coerce beneficiaries into supporting its candidates. Moreover, illegal drug money remains the invisible Achilles’ heel of the democratic process in Colombia. In pre-electoral observation we found it nearly impossible to track the use of narco-funds in elections and yet heard many accounts that it is widespread. The exorbitantly well-funded campaigns of candidates with suspected paramilitary links incite the most suspicions in this regard. Such campaigns that visibly exceeded legal spending limits were notable, particularly in the Valle del Cauca department, considered to form a geographic segment of a major drug-running corridor.

Under the Gun

In many ways, the prevalence of violent threats was even more worrisome than electoral crimes. These elections gave lie to the myth that Colombia is a post-conflict society.  A Human Rights Watch report calculates the strength of neo- paramilitary groups at above 4,000 members.

Neo-paramilitary groups are made up of demobilized paramilitary members who have confessed to their crimes and agreed to re-enter society, as well as groups that never demobilized. These groups tend to be far less focused on counterinsurgency efforts, closely linked to drug-trafficking, and reportedly begun legal economic activities. They continue a reign of terror against certain sectors of the population, especially where and when their economic activities are at stake. They assert an evolving form of violent social control amid the on-going violence between guerrilla forces and the state.

The issue exploded with the “parapolitics” scandal in Colombia that forms the backdrop to this round of elections. A court investigation spurred by confessions of former paramilitary members revealed extensive ties and formal pacts between paramilitary groups and politicians in Colombia's congress and in other public offices. At least 133 members of congress have been investigated for these links over the past years and many of those formally prosecuted. Most of these politicians were part of Uribe's ruling coalition.

Researcher Claudia Lopez of the Electoral Observation Mission explained the relationship between drug-trafficking groups and elections in an interview with independent journalist Hollman Morris. “The narco-trafficking structures need to have political representation and that’s why they seek it so avidly. Because through political representation they get impunity, legitimacy, and a capacity for negotiation with government authorities.”

The consolidation of narco-paramilitary groups follows a pattern. First they establish territorial control in areas where they have interests in illegal drug production or trafficking. Then they take control of local, state and federal government representation. In Colombia, the process has been dubbed “capture of the state.”

Astoundingly, in the March 14 elections, parties tainted by the para-politics scandal were not punished for crimes as serious as aligning with illegal armed groups and being implicated in massacres of civilian populations. Worse, they were returned to office. Colombian civil society groups identified 80 candidates directly connected to imprisoned or sanctioned politicians with paramilitary ties. Although official results are not in to do an exact count, many of these family members and close associates gained office.

One new party, the Party of National Integration (PIN), literally rose from the ashes of political parties forced to disband due to paramilitary ties. The Washington Post reported the PIN won eight of 102 Senate seats so far and is expected to take many seats in the lower house as well. When we asked a PIN leader about the fact that the parties’ founders are currently imprisoned for those ties, he brushed away the accusation as an unfair allegation of “guilt by association.”

The association of these forces is precisely the problem. With this composition, the new Colombian congress will once again have a tough job disassociating itself from the interests of illegal armed groups. 

Quality of Democracy

Much of what happened in the March 14 elections lies beneath the surface, in an underworld of illegal activities and military threats that undermine any serious attempts at democracy. When the UN praised the Colombian elections for the reduction in direct acts of violence on election day, calling them “the most peaceful in many years,” it recognized important progress but ignored the underlying circumstances.

The UN declaration is a good example of the blind-spots in electoral observation and reporting. The UN noted that of only 35 of 218 formal complaints of electoral crimes were related to violence. Our pre-electoral mission consistently found that Colombian citizens do not file formal reports against electoral practices, especially in cases involving neo-paramilitary-linked candidates.

The reason is fear. Citizens fear reprisals if they file formal reports, especially when filing against candidates suspected of having paramilitary links. Their fear is justified by past experience. Moreover, unlike the direct attacks on polls or populations characteristic of the left-wing guerrilla, the voter intimidation tactics of the neo-paramilitary groups tend to be suffered in silence. The inability to fully document the pervasiveness and impact of these tactics does not by any means indicate they do not exist.

When former Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos, presidential candidate for the ruling coalition since Uribe was barred from running for a third term, declared, “The Colombian people have spoken clearly and they want those policies [of Uribe] to continue,” he conveniently set aside the disturbing signs that the language of the citizen vote is, in far too many cases, a forced translation of its will.

Colombia, an ideological and physical battleground for so many years, is now a battleground for democracy. The government has carried out important reforms in recent years to improve electoral processes, and civil society organizations have been working valiantly to guarantee the “quality of the vote.” But worthy efforts to place formal guarantees on the act of voting may be missing the full picture. There is a certain fetishism of the ballot box when it comes to defining democracy. In Colombia, huge numbers of citizens don’t vote because the candidates provoke nausea or indifference, can’t vote because either the government erased their names from the roster or paramilitary forces have ordered them to stay home, or only vote as a matter of survival or intimidation.

At stake in Colombia is the quality of democracy — the freedom to make decisions about your own life in a society. And the quality of democracy is inextricably linked to the full exercise of basic human rights — an area where Colombia holds one of the worst records in the hemisphere. The country runs the risk that democracy will devolve into a vote-casting ritual that comes around once in awhile.

The prime example of electoral reductionism in the region is the Honduran elections on November 29, when less than half the population went to the polls to choose a successor government to a military coup d’état. The U.S. government endorsed these coup-sponsored elections as the restoration of democracy, despite a popular boycott and an atmosphere of lawlessness, in which paramilitaries murder members of the opposition on a weekly basis.

From here Colombia moves on to the first round of presidential elections. Officials have vowed to get the kinks out of the voting and counting procedures before then. But it will take more than removing technical glitches. Elections delegate power. As long as illegitimate power — power by force, power by corruption — continues to show its strength with impunity, constituting government through elections will look more like a mirror game of de facto powers than an act of popular will.