The lead story from yesterdayâ€™s legislative elections in Colombia was the strong showing of the approximately nine pro-Uribe parties, who will dominate the Congress with a roughly 70 percent majority for the next four years. Beyond this further shift to the right, here are a few other interesting things about yesterdayâ€™s vote results.
1. With a few notable exceptions, candidates believed to have paramilitary ties did quite well. One of the biggest issues in this election was the growing political power of paramilitary groups, and the belief that in many parts of the country, only candidates with explicit paramilitary approval would be able to run for office. Indeed, the results for the House of Representatives, where people vote for candidates according to their own geographical district, show seven of the eleven candidates with the highest vote count â€“ indicating that they ran with little or no opposition â€“ coming from northern Colombian departments known for significant paramilitary influence.
The countryâ€™s major media speculated openly about which candidates were most likely to have links to the right-wing armed groups, and several of the more mainstream parties made a show of expelling nine candidates from their lists for suspected paramilitary support. Of these nine, four won seats as members of other parties which were happy to accept them: Habib Merheg, Jorge Caballero, Luis Eduardo Vives, and Dieb Maloof, who was profiled in a March 5 New York Times story about the paramilitary-infiltration phenomenon.
Three non-mainstream, pro-Uribe parties believed to have a relationship with paramilitaries (Convergencia Ciudadana, Alas Equipo Colombia and Colombia Viva) survived the 2 percent cutoff and will send members to Congress. Meanwhile, the son of Enilce LÃ³pez or â€œLa Gata,â€ a northern Colombian gambling boss arrested in February and accused of collaboration with paramilitaries, got more votes than any other candidate for Colombiaâ€™s lower house.
However, a few other legislators believed to be in the paramilitariesâ€™ pocket â€“ notably RocÃo Arias and Eleonora Pineda, who had arranged to have three AUC leaders address Congress in July 2004 â€“ were defeated.
In a piece posted today to the website of Semana magazine, reporter Claudia LÃ³pez explains what happened.
The paramilitaries and the mafia increased their influence, but they changed their profile. The â€œparasâ€ threw their women overboard. RocÃo Arias, Eleonora Pineda and Muriel Benito, their most visible figures, were defeated. In this new phase, the paramilitaries chose to go with traditional politicians, who have a lower profile and existing regional power bases that are harder to characterize as a result of paramilitarism, but who will continue to channel the groupsâ€™ economic, territorial and political interests. â€¦
As always, judicial and political impunity keeps us from having sufficient proof. We only have suspicions and hypotheses. It would seem that [CÃ³rdoba-based paramilitary leaders Salvatore] Mancuso and Vicente CastaÃ±o, after the approval of the Justice and Peace Law, left politics aside and dedicated themselves to business. Without Mancusoâ€™s support, Eleonora Pineda was sunk. The attempt to continue in the Magdalena Medio electoral district created for Carlos Arturo Clavijo failed. Neither Clavijoâ€™s successor, Carlos Higuera, nor RocÃo Arias were elected to the Senate, nor was Carlos Moreno. A clear defeat for [MedellÃn-based paramilitary boss] Don Berna. But this defeat was compensated by increases in Santander. To the House seat for JosÃ© Manuel Herrera were added two more, plus four senators, in what could have been a successful alliance between [Central BolÃvar Bloc leader] Ernesto BÃ¡ez and Convergencia Ciudadana to insure both political power and their national and international business. â€¦
In the zone dominated by [Northern Bloc commander] Jorge 40, the strategy of delaying demobilizations until territorial control and political influence solidified appears to have worked. In Cesar Mauricio Pimiento was re-elected in the â€œUâ€ party, and the Alas party re-elected Ãlvaro AraÃºjo and elected Jorge Ballesteros in La Guajira. Three of those expelled from other parties were re-elected [in this zone].
2. It was a bad day for â€œoutsidersâ€ of all stripes. Colombian voters appeared to prefer career politicians and party bosses over candidates from other walks of life. People whose resumes included experience in the real world generally didnâ€™t do very well.
- Former military officers performed poorly: those who failed to win seats included former Gen. Jaime Canal, who ran the Cali-based 3rd Brigade at a time when paramilitary groups began to form in that region; Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, a former â€œdrug czarâ€ accused of several past human-rights violations; former secret police (DAS) chief Luis Enrique Montenegro; and Rito Alejo del RÃo, who canâ€™t get a U.S. visa and is widely accused of encouraging the spread of paramilitarism in the northwestern Colombian region of UrabÃ¡.
- Candidates from labor unions or human rights organizations lost. These included labor leader HernÃ¡n HernÃ¡ndez, former ApartadÃ³ mayor and activist Gloria Cuartas, Jorge Rojas from CODHES, and Daniel GarcÃa-PeÃ±a from Planeta Paz. Juan Carlos Lecompte, the husband of kidnapped politician Ingrid Betancourt and a leading proponent of a prisoner-exchange agreement, also failed to win a House seat.
- Well-known columnists and analysts Hernando GÃ³mez BuendÃa and Alfredo Rangel both failed to win Senate seats.
- Candidates from protestant/evangelical religious movements mostly lost. Perhaps most surprising was the loss of Jorge Enrique GÃ³mez, a televangelist whose preaching fills football stadiums with the faithful. GÃ³mez had headed the Senate candidate list of Colombia Viva, a party viewed as closely tied to paramilitary groups.
- Several other notable losing candidates are not exactly outsiders â€“ they have experience in elite political circles â€“ but are generally considered loners or mavericks. In several cases, even though these individuals received many votes, their small political partiesâ€™ candidates failed to combine for 2 percent or more of the total vote, thus disqualifying them according to Colombiaâ€™s new political reform, which favors big parties. â€œInsidersâ€ whose defeats were surprising included pro-Uribe former BogotÃ¡ mayor Enrique PeÃ±alosa; former central banker SalomÃ³n Kalmanovitz (and a few other intellectuals in the party led by another former BogotÃ¡ mayor, Antanas Mockus); former attorney-general Alfonso Valdivieso; cattlemenâ€™s federation president Jorge Visbal; and colorful, ardently pro-Uribe (and, most believe, pro-paramilitary) senator Carlos Moreno de Caro.
3. The three-year-old leftist opposition party, Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Alternativo, gained seats in both houses of Congress (from 9 to 10 or 11 in the Senate, depending on final results; and from 4 to 9 in the House). Three of its Senate candidates were among the top ten vote-getters in the country. The Polo appeared to have made a strong showing in urban areas.
4. In the Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Alternativo primary, Carlos Gaviria ran a great campaign and bested Antonio Navarro, a former M-19 guerrilla leader and one of the most prominent figures on Colombiaâ€™s left. Gaviria, a former supreme-court justice thought by many to be too ideological and intellectual to beat the better-known and more centrist Navarro, turned out to be a tireless campaigner who spoke in terms of detailed proposals, but did it coherently.
5. In the Liberal Partyâ€™s primary, Horacio Serpa ran a lackluster campaign and won, but by a surprisingly small margin. The older and larger of Colombiaâ€™s two opposition political parties, the Liberals â€“ directed by former President and OAS Secretary-General CÃ©sar Gaviria â€“ had a very bad day. They finished third in the voting and won only a handful of seats more than the Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Alternativo.
In their primary, the losing candidate in the 1998 and 2002 presidential elections, Horacio Serpa, once more won the right to run against Ãlvaro Uribe, whom nobody thinks Serpa can beat. Though Serpa, a skilled political machine boss, was the odds-on favorite to win the primary, he embarrassingly failed to win even 50 percent of his own partyâ€™s vote. He faced a strong challenge from Rafael Pardo, a senator and former defense minister who went from being a leading supporter to a leading critic of Ãlvaro Uribe. Serpa, however, will go on to continue playing the role of Colombiaâ€™s Adlai Stevenson.
6. In general, it was a bad day for moderates. The Liberals, who promise a less radical brand of opposition to Uribe than the Polo, failed to capture the publicâ€™s imagination. Meanwhile two former BogotÃ¡ mayors who claim the centrist mantle, Enrique PeÃ±alosa and Antanas Mockus (who is running for president but whose party sought to send candidates to Congress), were wiped out. Within the Polo DemocrÃ¡tico, center-left candidates fared poorly compared to more traditional leftists like Jorge Enrique Robledo, Gustavo Petro, and Wilson Borja. The results were seen as a setback for the Poloâ€™s more centrist, â€œpragmaticâ€ leaders like Navarro and BogotÃ¡ Mayor Luis Eduardo GarzÃ³n. With the center hollowed out, Colombian politics will be more polarized during the next four years.
7. An unusually high number of ballots were declared invalid or thrown out. The number of blank or â€œnullifiedâ€ ballots exceeded 1.3 million, which exceeds the number who voted for all but the three top vote-getting parties, and is about three times more than in 2002. Add this to a 40 percent turnout, and only a small minority of eligible Colombians had their votes counted yesterday. The Colombian press blamed the high number of invalid ballots less on foul play than on confusion about the new balloting procedure instituted by a â€œpolitical reformâ€ passed in 2004. For instance, many voters marked the logo of their preferred political party on their ballots, when they should have chosen candidates.
8. How much stronger is Uribe and Colombiaâ€™s right wing in general? Itâ€™s not clear. To paraphrase George W. Bush, yesterdayâ€™s vote was an â€œaccountability momentâ€ that gave President Uribe â€œpolitical capitalâ€ to spend. Indeed, like Bush and Hugo ChÃ¡vez in Venezuela, Uribe now faces a docile legislature dominated by his supporters, who can make his agenda their own.
This could lead to the passage of legislation limiting civil liberties, increasing the militaryâ€™s role in everyday security, legalizing landholdings for their present occupants, and watering down some of the reforms enshrined in Colombiaâ€™s 1991 constitution. Reforms like these are controversial, however, and could backfire if â€“ as is likely â€“ Colombiaâ€™s electorate is not as conservative as the leaders it chose.
Bush and ChÃ¡vez have both found a legislative majority insufficient to prevent their popularity from dropping at home, while Bush has found that the ruling partyâ€™s own divisions make it difficult to turn his priorities into laws. Yeserdayâ€™s results indicate that Uribe is likely to win Mayâ€™s presidential election easily, in the first round. But a pro-Uribe Congress doesnâ€™t guarantee that he will have an easier time governing.