President Uribe continues to ride high in the polls in advance of the March legislative and May presidential elections. However, many observers wonder whether we can expect a surprise from Colombiaâ€™s â€œdemocratic leftâ€ â€“ the term often used to describe left-of-center parties and candidates working within the constitutional system.
Left-leaning third-party candidates did surprisingly well the last time Colombia held elections, in October 2003, when â€“ despite high approval ratings for Uribe, their polar political opposite â€“ they captured several key governorships and mayorâ€™s offices, including BogotÃ¡.
For now at least, very few expect a third-party leftist to unseat Uribe. But it is possible that a left-wing presidential candidate could perform much better than expected, and that leftist parties could do quite well in the congressional elections. They even stand a chance of unseating the Liberal Party as the principal opposition bloc, essentially moving from third-party to â€œsecond-partyâ€ status.
This is so for two reasons:
- The pendulum of Colombian popular opinion has begun to swing away from the â€œmano duraâ€ and a single-minded focus on security. While Colombiaâ€™s war continues to rage and appears to have intensified in 2005, the majority of Colombians who live in cities and near main roads are still feeling safer thanks to Uribeâ€™s security policies. As a result, though, poll respondents are (a) more concerned about economic issues like unemployment and poverty than with security; and (b) more open to the possibility of renewed negotiations with guerrillas. Both of those trends favor the â€œdemocratic leftâ€ and other less right-wing candidates.
- Colombiaâ€™s traditionally fractious left has achieved an unprecedented degree of unity. When not being brutally repressed, political aspirants on Colombiaâ€™s left have generally been dispersed among many parties and tendencies. They had been divided for many reasons: ideological disagreements (some are much more radical than others); origins (intellectuals versus working-class, for instance); degrees of pragmatism (willingness to work with the right and â€œtraditionalâ€ politicians when necessary); and simple personal ambitions and personality clashes.
Until very recently, most â€“ but certainly not all â€“ had coalesced into two groupings. The Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Independiente or PDI, a legally constituted party formed in 2003 at the initiative of the current mayor of BogotÃ¡, Luis Eduardo GarzÃ³n, included nine members of Colombiaâ€™s Congress, including two former members of the M-19 guerrilla group. The Alternativa DemocrÃ¡tica or AD was a coalition of smaller parties, generally more radical or Marxist in orientation, but ironically with no former guerrillas among its candidates and officeholders.
At the end of November, after nine months of difficult negotiations, these two tendencies managed to unite as a new party, the Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Alternativo or PDA. It is significant that they chose to go beyond merely backing the same candidate as a loose coalition, and instead formed an entirely new party.
Here are ten figures on Colombiaâ€™s democratic left from whom we are likely to hear much more over the next four years, as they lead the opposition to Uribe and become Colombiaâ€™s most vocal proponents of peace negotiations, human rights, social programs and alternative security strategies. We can expect these and other left-of-center candidates to be among the countryâ€™s top vote-getters in the March legislative elections, in part because of the leftâ€™s popularity in urban areas (just as Democrats perform better in U.S. cities) in a country that is 70 percent urban. Nonetheless, they will still likely be a minority, often overshadowed by the right â€“ including the extreme, paramilitary-tied right. But 2006 could be a good year for them, and 2010 could be a great year.
1. Antonio Navarro Wolff. The Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Independiente chose Navarro as its presidential candidate at its nominating convention last June. He is generally expected to be the candidate of the new Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Alternativo, which will choose its candidate through a ballot measure during the March legislative elections. Navarro is one of the best-known figures in Colombian politics. He was the number-two leader of the M-19 guerrilla movement that demobilized in 1990 after successful peace negotiations with the Colombian government. After M-19 leader Carlos Pizarro was assassinated that same year, Navarro ran for president as the M-19 candidate and got 700,000 votes â€“ at the time, a record for a leftist candidate â€“ and he was named Minister of Health in the government of the victorious candidate, CÃ©sar Gaviria. A coalition including the M-19 made a strong showing in elections for the assembly that rewrote Colombiaâ€™s constitution in 1991; Navarro was one of the assemblyâ€™s three co-chairs. Navarro went on to be a well-regarded mayor of his home city of Pasto, then a senator; he was the second-highest vote-getter in the 2002 legislative elections (Colombia elects its senators on a national basis, not by department or region).
Though a former guerrilla, Navarro is not a radical; he has moved steadily toward the center over the years. â€œThough it makes many of my alliesâ€™ hair stand on end, I am of the center-left,â€ Navarro recently explained to an interviewer. While a critic of free trade and current drug policy, he supports both extradition (of criminals, not armed-group members) and aggressive military action against guerrillas â€“ though he insists that this must go hand-in-hand with a comprehensive rural development strategy. While more ideological members of the democratic left consider him to be too accepting of â€œpolitics as usual,â€ Navarro has often served as a key mediator between the PDI/PDAâ€™s centrist and far-left members.
Navarro has had difficulty getting his poll numbers out of the single digits, however. His standing has been affected by raw memories of the M-19â€™s tragic attempt to take over Colombiaâ€™s Palace of Justice in 1985, which Uribe has deftly exploited, and by a recently published book by a deceased journalist with ties to the Cali cartel, which claims that Navarro received money from narcotraffickers (the candidate vehemently denies this charge).
2. Luis Eduardo GarzÃ³n. Before being elected mayor of BogotÃ¡ in late 2003, GarzÃ³n was the head of the CUT, Colombiaâ€™s largest labor union, and a third-party presidential candidate in 2002. He had a difficult first year in office, facing problems of rising crime and the difficulty of governing when starting from scratch with a small political organization. He has since recovered his high approval ratings, and is now one of the most popular public figures in Colombia, widely believed to be a viable candidate for the 2010 presidential elections. (He is not running for any office this year, but the BogotÃ¡ mayorship is generally considered the last stepping-stone before the presidency.) GarzÃ³n has governed as a centrist, and has feuded quite openly with more ideological members of the PDI/PDA on BogotÃ¡â€™s city council.
3. Carlos Gaviria. A former president of Colombiaâ€™s Constitutional Court, Gaviria was elected to the Senate in 2002 as a candidate of the Alternativa DemocrÃ¡tica coalition. He was the AD candidate for the presidency, but Antonio Navarro, not Gaviria, is expected to be the candidate of the new PDA. Even before the leftist parties unified, Gaviria had nobly signaled his willingness to drop his candidacy in the name of unity, writing that â€œthe consolidation of a democratic left force would be a historic event, and to have helped it happen would be my greatest political satisfaction.â€ Gaviria is viewed as an intellectual, well to the left of Navarro and GarzÃ³n on most issues, and is widely admired among Colombiaâ€™s intelligentsia. But intellectuals rarely win elections, and Gaviria is considered neither a gifted political organizer nor a dynamic public speaker.
4. Gustavo Petro. Considered the leader of the radical wing of the former PDI, Petro is a popular congressman from BogotÃ¡ â€“ the top vote-getter in the lower house â€“ and a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement. He often makes headlines by publicly denouncing corruption and human-rights abuse â€“ especially paramilitary infiltration of institutions â€“ often by hosting congressional debates and hearings. When Colombiaâ€™s Caracol radio station asked members of Colombiaâ€™s Congress last year to name the colleague whom they considered to be the chamberâ€™s â€œmost outstanding,â€ Petro won overwhelmingly. This year, he is running for the Senate and is expected to win easily. An enthusiastic admirer of Venezuelaâ€™s Hugo ChÃ¡vez, Petro has quarreled with more moderate members of the PDI/PDA, particularly BogotÃ¡ rival Luis Eduardo GarzÃ³n.
5. Jorge Enrique Robledo. Like Gaviria, Senator Robledo is considered a radical politician with a more academic or intellectual background. He is the most prominent officeholder from the Independent Revolutionary Workersâ€™ Movement (MOIR), a decades-old non-violent Marxist-oriented party that participated in the Alternativa DemocrÃ¡tica coalition. Robledo has been an outspoken opponent of free trade and globalization, and has also actively sought to stop the U.S.-funded practice of spraying aerial herbicides in coca-growing areas. He was a reluctant, but crucially important, participant in the democratic-left partiesâ€™ unification negotiations.
6. Wilson Borja. A congressman from BogotÃ¡ and a longtime labor leader, Borja is rarely seen without his trademark suit, tie and fedora. He was a member of the Patriotic Union party (started by the FARC during a 1980s peace process, then wiped out by a campaign of right-wing violence) and the Communist Party before becoming a key figure in the Alternativa DemocrÃ¡tica. He is active in BogotÃ¡ politics; like Petro, he is sometimes at odds with Mayor GarzÃ³n. In December 2000 Borja â€“ then a union leader â€“ was the target of an assassination attempt in Bogota, in which his car was hit by 56 bullets and Borja was severely wounded. The attack was carried out by several military and police agents and paramilitaries; few have been found guilty or punished.
7. Daniel GarcÃa-PeÃ±a. If youâ€™ve ever attended a conference about Colombia held in the United States, there is a decent chance that youâ€™ve seen GarcÃa-PeÃ±a who, with his unaccented English and very clear analysis, is in high demand as a panelist. As vice-president of the old PDI, he has been a key ally of Luis Eduardo GarzÃ³n and a vocal advocate of unifying and expanding the democratic left. GarcÃa-PeÃ±a was a government peace negotiator during President Ernesto Samperâ€™s administration, he founded and directed the NGO Planeta Paz, and is now one of the â€œcivil society guarantorsâ€ of the ongoing talks with the ELN guerrillas. And he is also running for Congress from BogotÃ¡.
8. Parmenio CuÃ©llar. CuÃ©llar served for a year as Minister of Justice in the administration of President AndrÃ©s Pastrana, then was elected governor of NariÃ±o department, where he remains a very influential political figure. Though not a member of the PDI, AD or PDA, he â€œleads a bloc of leaders in the south of the countryâ€ which, according to El Tiempo, is negotiating the possibility of integrating into the PDA.
9. Gloria FlÃ³rez. The PDAâ€™s list of officeholders and candidates is heavily male-dominated; in fact, Colombiaâ€™s best-known female progressives â€“ figures like Piedad CÃ³rdoba, Cecilia LÃ³pez or MarÃa Isabel Urrutia â€“ have not joined the PDA; the first two, in fact, remain on the left wing of Colombiaâ€™s Liberal Party. An exception is Gloria FlÃ³rez, a longtime human rights activist who founded and heads the influential human-rights group MINGA and was a member of the PDIâ€™s governing board. Though FlÃ³rez is not running for office this year, Colombiaâ€™s most-circulated news magazine, Semana, named her one of the most influential women in Colombian history. â€œHer colleagues consider her to be one of the [PDI] movementâ€™s most trustworthy members. And she is surely one of the leaders with the brightest future on the countryâ€™s left.â€
10. MarÃa Emma MejÃa. A key figure in the Liberal Partyâ€™s social-democratic wing â€“ including a term as foreign minister in the Samper administration â€“ MejÃa is in intense negotiations with the PDA leadership as she considers switching parties. If she joins the party, a condition may be that she heads the partyâ€™s list of candidates on the ballot for elections to the Senate. If MejÃa, whose government experience gives her broad name-recognition, defects to the PDA, it will be considered a major coup for the party and a strengthening of its centrist credentials. However, it may not sit well with party activists from farther left on the political spectrum or from labor, campesino or popular-sector backgrounds. MejÃa, after all, is a well-connected elite politician who served in governments that strictly followed orthodox â€œWashington Consensusâ€ economic policies. However, Gustavo Petro, widely considered a leader of the PDI/PDA radical wing, insists that he would be happy to have MejÃa join the partsy: â€œI invited MarÃa Emma to join the Polo on two occasions. I donâ€™t understand where people get the idea that Iâ€™m against her.â€
This list leaves out a few other key figures. Angelino GarzÃ³n, the governor of Valle del Cauca department (which includes the cities of Cali and Buenaventura) is a PDA member and a strong advocate of renewed negotiations with guerrillas. Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, a doctor and popular politician who served twice as governor of Tolima, ran unsuccessfully for the PDIâ€™s presidential nomination in June; he is considered to be to the left of Navarro. Samuel Moreno, a senator who held the PDIâ€™s rotating presidency last year, is considered an ally of mayor GarzÃ³n and also lost the presidential nomination in June. Jaime DussÃ¡n is a center-left senator from a union background. Floro TunubalÃ¡, a former governor of Cauca and the first indigenous governor in Colombian history, is not a member of any national party but is being actively courted by the PDA.
A recent analysis in the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio explained well the opportunities and challenges that face Colombiaâ€™s democratic left in 2006.
The Conservative Party has no candidate and is supporting Ãlvaro Uribe. The Liberals are incapable of renewing themselves since Horacio Serpa (the losing Liberal Party candidate in 1998 and 2002) seems to be able to win their nominating convention. As a result the PDI and AD â€“ or rather, the new PDA â€“ has the responsibility to become the true electoral alternative. In order to do so, their leaders have to define a left-leaning platform that neither smells like the old Marxist orthodoxy nor falls into the trap of populism, but that is able to attract a significant portion of working-class voters.
And of course, once theyâ€™ve done that, the leaders of the democratic left have to stay alive â€“ which hasnâ€™t always been possible for non-violent leftists in Colombia. However, if political space for elected leftists remains open â€“ if a violent backlash can be avoided even after a possible strong showing in the March elections â€“ it will be a very positive sign about the strength of Colombian democracy. It will mean that, in the words of Daniel GarcÃa-PeÃ±a,
Less than twenty years after the genocide against the Patriotic Union, the development and growth of the PDA implies that a new political map is being drawn, and that Colombian democracy is evolving â€“ despite the paramilitarization of vast regions of the country.