The main reason Ãlvaro Uribe dominates the polling for the May elections is security, as one of his opponents, the leftist former supreme-court judge Carlos Gaviria, explained recently.
A public-opinion study carried out by the University of the Andes at the end of last year and released at the beginning of this year indicates that the President is way off course in the fight against poverty, inequality and unemployment. But when people are asked if they will vote for Uribe again, they say yes. Why? Because the great deceiver of the people is "Democratic Security."
President Uribeâ€™s opponents are clearly frustrated to see him coasting toward a second term on Colombiaâ€™s lowered violence indicators, particularly when his Democratic Security policyâ€™s flaws appear so evident.
They point to the danger posed by networks of paid informants, mass arrests on flimsy evidence, and reluctance to prosecute human-rights abusers or paramilitary collaborators. They point to continued insecurity beyond cities and main roads, likening Uribeâ€™s policies to sweeping the worst of Colombiaâ€™s violence under the rug. They point to the lack of an economic development and nation-building strategy to go along with military â€œrecoveryâ€ of territory. They point to a deeply flawed paramilitary re-integration process, and even speculate about the Presidentâ€™s real relationship to paramilitarism.
â€œThis governmentâ€™s policy has failed in its fundamental objectives, related to the defeat of the guerrillas and advances against narcotrafficking,â€ says perennial Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa. â€œThe strategy of avoiding reality consists of making a rather superficial promise, in the sense that the illegal armed groups will be defeated by military means,â€ says Gaviria. Adds independent candidate and two-time BogotÃ¡ mayor Antanas Mockus, â€œI think that all of Colombia would like to have optimism about President Uribe. However, [the unfolding DAS scandal] shows that behind Uribeâ€™s power is the enormous power of paramilitarism.â€
Many Colombians, including many Uribe supporters, probably share these concerns and criticisms. But Uribe still owns the security issue, and his opponentsâ€™ attacks have had zero impact.
Uribeâ€™s main advantage is that people know what he plans to do about security: more soldiers and police, more offensives in guerrilla-held zones, more special powers for the security forces. Voters may be uncomfortable about aspects of Democratic Security, but if they live in populated areas theyâ€™ve probably seen somewhat less violence in their communities. These results may be slowing, as Uribeâ€™s policies reach the limits of what an almost entirely military strategy can do. However, voters still lean toward Uribe on security because he has a clear, easily explainable platform.
The same canâ€™t be said about Uribeâ€™s opponents. To the question of â€œhow will the Colombian government protect its citizens if you are elected,â€ the candidates’ plans are much less clear. Some do not differ greatly from the answer Uribe would give, while others have simply failed to articulate any answer that makes sense to voters.
- Mockus has the simplest response. He argues that he will continue much of what Uribe has implemented, but will take greater care to stay within the rule of law. A â€œDemocratic Security Liteâ€ that respects human rights and combats paramilitarism would be a dramatic improvement; Mockusâ€™ proposal, however, shares many of the other conceptual problems of Uribeâ€™s strategy, such as the lack of an economic component or a non-military way of speeding negotiations.
- Serpa has said he would continue much of what Uribe has begun, but would accompany it with more social spending and do more to enforce respect for human rights and to combat â€œformerâ€ paramilitaries. He also speaks about re-starting negotiations with guerrillas. Critics have pointed out, however, that the Liberal Party politician has offered few details to underlie his proposals.
- Ãlvaro Leyva, a former government minister and peace negotiator who played an instrumental role in starting the FARC-government peace talks in 1998, offers an entirely different solution. Leyva says he can end the conflict â€œwithin six monthsâ€ by beginning negotiations with guerrillas immediately. While this is certainly audacious, Leyvaâ€™s low poll numbers indicate that most Colombian voters are unconvinced. Leyva also has yet to articulate how he would differ from Uribe when it comes to protecting citizens from non-political violence, such as common crime and the activities of organized criminals, whether powerful mafias, narcos or poorly re-integrated ex-combatants.
- Of all major candidates, the one who needs to do the most to answer the â€œhow will the Colombian government protect usâ€ question is Carlos Gaviria, the pioneering candidate of Colombiaâ€™s â€œdemocratic left.â€ Though this is a critically important topic much of Colombiaâ€™s electorate, Gaviria normally doesnâ€™t answer the question as much as try to reframe it, portraying security as more of a structural socioeconomic challenge.
El Tiempo: What is your proposal with regard to security?
Gaviria: When security is spoken of, we associate it with the presence of the security forces. The presence of the state should not take this form, but instead should take the form of the presence of hospitals, schools, and all of the institutions that are lacking in the least protected sectors. When this presence exists in all of the country, under the institutions of the rule of law, the security forces can play a relatively small role.
This is true, and we agree with it 100 percent. But this answer is unlikely to resonate with most Colombian voters.
First, most voters do not live in â€œthe least protected sectors.â€ In fact, residents of cities and town centers â€“ at least 70 percent of Colombiaâ€™s population â€“ are those who have benefited most from recent drops in rates of murder, kidnapping and sabotage under Uribe. Second, those who live in Colombiaâ€™s vast ungoverned spaces do need schools and hospitals, but they also need their government to protect them from more immediate threats.
Just as Uribeâ€™s security strategy in ungoverned zones has favored a military response and neglected other government functions, Gaviriaâ€™s security proposal â€“ on the rare occasions when he articulates it â€“ seems to commit the opposite error. Quotes like the one above easily leave voters with the impression that a Gaviria administration would seek to build hospitals and carry out antipoverty programs in a security vacuum.
Political scientist and El Tiempo columnist Eduardo Posada CarbÃ³ â€“ whose opinions CIP rarely shares â€“ said it well when critiquing Gaviria in a recent column.
The security issue â€“ Mauricio GarcÃa has observed in these pages â€“ â€˜has always been a hot potato for the leftâ€¦ They believe that to talk about security is to make a concession to the right wing. That is why they go silent.â€™ Going silent about the issue is what the platform of Polo DemocrÃ¡tico Alternativo candidate Carlos Gaviria does. Except for a mistaken reference to â€œsovereign security,â€ the word only appears in reference to job or food security â€“ integral social security. These are noble and fair efforts. But there is not even a single word about the rates of murder or kidnapping.
Gaviria is right when he calls for an active government role in addressing the root causes of Colombiaâ€™s violence, such as poverty, inequality, state neglect and resentment of past injustice. But Colombian voters also want to hear answers about addressing the proximate causes of Colombiaâ€™s violence. How can the government reduce citizensâ€™ likelihood of being the victims of a robbery, kidnapping or terror attack right now?
There is no reason why a leftist candidate cannot propose to use the security forces more efficiently to address proximate causes. Gaviria or another opponent could be talking about community policing and efforts to earn the local populationâ€™s trust; swiftly punishing abusive or predatory behavior toward civilians, improving response times; managing budgets transparently; improving management and accountability; rewarding exceptional performance; investing in anticrime technologies; and coordinating closely with a reforming judiciary. A leftist candidate could be the only one explaining how to bring the state into neglected zones through a balanced combination of military security and civilian alleviation of â€œroot causes.â€ (Of, course, to do so would require acknowledging that a military role exists.)
Ãlvaro Uribe has little to say about proposals like these. Unfortunately, neither do his opponents.
Unless they begin to answer the security question more articulately and distinctively, Carlos Gaviria and the other opposition candidates will have ceded the security issue to Uribe. In Colombia, this is a fundamental concession to make. Any candidate who allows that to happen is guaranteed a first-round defeat.