Observers from Colombia’s main electoral watchdog said that mass abstention by the country’s voters during the first round of presidential elections shows the electorate’s delusion for the current political system.
Colombia’s presidential elections on May 25 saw an astonishing 60% of eligible voters abstain from participating in one of the country’s most important elections, with the incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos seemingly unable to mobilize support for his flagship policy of ending Colombia’s 50-year armed conflict against rebel groups through ongoing peace talks.
|Colombia’s 2014 elections|
The peace talks with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group the FARC have been taking place in Cuba since 2012 and have been the main driver of Santos’ presidency and re-election campaign.
Jerman Robayo, investigator for the Democratic Observation team of the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) told Colombia Reports that the overall turnout during the elections was “worryingly low.”
“In two important states on the coast, La Guajira and Atlantico, there was only 23% or 24% of turnout to vote, in Bolivar [state] voted 26%, those numbers are very, very low,” he said.
During the presidential election’s first round, only 40.07% of Colombia’s 33 million eligible citizens turned out to cast their vote, of which 25.69% supported Santos, according to the country’s National Registry.
Although none of the five candidates gained the majority of votes necessary to take office, it was clear that Oscar Ivan Zuluaga from the Democratic Center Party (Centro Democratico – CD) emerged as the temporary victor with 29.25% of the overall vote.
Colombians “bored” with the ineffective political process
According to Robayo, the abstention can be indicative of a disillusioned population adhering to “nonconformity” to go out and vote for what they believe is a failed system.
“The people are bored of the politics; they don’t care about the subject, and they distrust the institutions,” he added.
Prior to the first round of presidential elections, scandals and criminal accusations blazed through the candidates’ credibility, causing many analysts to call campaigning leading up to May 25 the “dirtiest” in Colombia’s history.
Although Robayo referred to Colombia’s high historical abstention rate, which according to the National Registry hovers between 50% to 55%, the recent elections saw a considerable drop in voter participation across the board.
“In the majority of municipalities [in the country], the participation decreased on average by 15% to 20%,” he said.
Based on these figures, which the MOE has been analyzing, Robayo stated that “[Colombian] Society does not want to vote for different reasons, and the difficult thing is to point to the various reasons of why they didn’t vote.”
He added that places such as Baru, for example, an island off the Caribbean coast of Colombia, abstained 100% from voting in the recent elections because of the government’s continuous lack of development and action to address the island’s poverty.
This sentiment was echoed in a number of municipalities throughout the country, most of which are underdeveloped and often overlooked by different government’s, causing mass inequality in wealth distribution.
Poverty per state (2012)
Blank “Protest” Vote not understood by electorate
In the months leading up to the election, a campaign by a number of groups looking to prevent all the candidates from running in the presidential election emerged — the blank vote.
Simply put, if the blank vote — which could be selected by voters on the election ballot — won, the losing candidates would have been prohibited from participating in the next round of elections.
According to Robayo, however, the majority of the Colombian population did not understand how the blank vote worked within the electoral system.
“One of the principal factors about the blank vote was the misinformation received by the [Colombian] people. A lot of people were saying that the blank vote would go towards the candidate who gained the most votes on the day.”
Robayo explained that people thought their blank vote would be added to the top candidate, essentially aiding them in possibly receiving the majority of the votes needed to take office.
“Even though the blank vote in these elections was the highest that it has ever been, I feel that there was a misunderstanding about the power of the vote,” he said, adding that the increase in nearly 300,000 blank votes indicated that people are beginning to “believe” more in the alternative.
Second round, increased abstention
Now with polling stations set to open again on June 15, Colombians will have to choose either to abstain completely, cast the now-obsolete protests vote, or decide between incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos and opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.
As the peripheral candidates that gained the lesser vote step back from the presidential race, the abstention rate is expected to rise for a second round shaping up to be a photo finish as the first national poll showed the two candidates to be neck and neck.
- Interview with MOE Democratic Observation investigator Jerman Robayo (Colombia Reports)
- Historico de Resultados Electorales (National Registry)