Last Friday, political news website La Silla Vacia reported about two rallies in central Bogota that failed to attract large crowds. The first was a Green Party protest against recent statements by Enrique Penalosa, Green candidate for mayor of the capital, that suggest he may be willing to ally himself with former President Alvaro Uribe. The other protest was the latest anti-FARC gathering, coming soon after the guerrillas released a handful of hostages. The photos that accompanied the article showed a tiny group of Green supporters casually sitting down, chatting and blowing cigarette smoke and an anti-FARC group so small that they could not even hold up their largest flag, which was laying on the floor.
Not too long ago, both of these causes would have drawn thousands of supporters to the streets, even under Bogota’s typically overcast skies. The campaign against the FARC and their horrific kidnapping campaign inspired several concurrent protests, the largest in recent memory, in all of Colombia’s larger cities in 2008. During last year’s presidential race, which saw Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus pose an unexpectedly formidable challenge to the Uribista Juan Manuel Santos, the young movement’s similarly young supporters turned out in droves somewhere in Colombia almost every day, even if just to sing songs, hang out and show off their hip green t-shirts. La Silla Vacia reported that at this most recent Green gathering, someone tried to rile up the crowd with a guitar, but almost nobody joined him in chanting political slogans.
So what has happened? Die-hard Greens must surely have been outraged by their mayoral candidate’s suggestions that he might collaborate with Uribe, a much more controversial figure than their movement’s opponent in the 2010 elections. Why did they stay home during such a crucial moment for their party? And what about the millions of fervently anti-FARC Colombians? Why did the latest hostage release, which in typical FARC fashion became a dysfunctional political show, not drive them back onto the streets?
To solve this puzzle, it is worth looking back at Colombia’s recent political history. For several decades now, the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties have started to lose their hold on Colombian politics. Largely elite-based and clientelistic the parties failed to represent the needs and aspirations of average Colombians. Like in many Latin American countries, this gave rise to several guerrilla movements that initially had a fair amount of popular support. Nine years ago, two decades into a new drug-funded conflict between the remnants of these guerrilla movements and other trafficking groups, a desperate country elected Alvaro Uribe president. Uribe’s entire political platform was centered on a hard-line security aimed at doing away with the guerrilla threat.
His immense popularity drastically changed Colombian politics. Drawing on a coalition including members of a wide array of old and new parties, mostly right of center, he drove the traditional Liberal-Conservative distinction further into obsolescence. The country’s new political landscape was largely split between Uribe supporters and opponents, and this division often cut across party lines.
Uribistas and anti-Uribistas disagreed on some broad political issues but, as the categorization suggests, the crux of their differences was their respective views of the president. Uribe’s aggressive and ambitious political style alienated many Colombians wary of his effects on the separation of powers and the country’s democratic institutions. His role in and reaction to several prominent human rights and corruption scandals further divided the country. By the end of his second term, the whole of Colombian politics was absorbed in a national debate about the president’s integrity and, to a lesser extent, the sustainability of his improvements in security.
The 2010 elections began to break down these political divisions. Santos was clearly the Uribista candidate, in that he was hand-picked by Uribe to represent his coalition, but Mockus and the Greens were by no means conventional anti-Uribistas. On the contrary, a large part of Mockus’s appeal lay in his ability to present a kind of post-Uribe political vision centered less on Bogota gossip and scandals and more on the practical needs of Colombian voters. The fact that the political establishment and the traditional opposition were stuck in fruitless and highly personal debates about Uribe-era controversies allowed the Green party to rise virtually overnight from an alliance between former Bogota mayors to the country’s second largest political movement.
Once in office, Santos began to defy Uribe-era political labels. His approach to many key policy areas, including security and foreign relations, has been the exact opposite of Uribe’s. Unlike his predecessor, he has largely allowed the judiciary to deal with the main scandals of the past decade, even if that leads to convictions for top Uribe-era officials. This has forced politicians to stop debating gossip/scandal focus on policymaking. Faced with this new task, Colombia’s various political parties have discovered many areas of broad agreement and understanding. For example, few politicians today disagree, except in minute details, with Santos’s views that Colombia should invest more in social policy or concentrate on the emerging paramilitary threat, and those that do run the risk of alienating voters.
What is happening now is therefore a national process political self-discovery. Until now, the country’s politics has been a hodge-podge of the ancient, almost tribal rivalry between the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties, the ideological debates of the Cold War era, and the more recent Uribe-era controversies. But with Uribe’s departure, Colombians have been forced to re-think their political identities. As evidenced by the potential alliance between Penalosa and Uribe and the rapprochement between Santos and the leftist opposition, prominent politicians are doing the same thing. In truth, few voters today have a clear sense of which politicians they support and which they oppose. One of the few things they know for sure is that they like Santos.
In this sense, the poor turnout at last weeks’ rallies is hardly surprising. The Green wave of 2010 was essentially a movement to bring Colombia’s government closer to its people and to shift part of the country’s focus away from personal vendettas and security issues. Today, even with an ostensibly Uribista president, the country is already moving in this direction. The Green movement is no longer the only one to turn to if you want more transparent government and more effective social policies. Similarly, everyone wants the FARC to go, or at least to stop kidnapping and release all of their hostages. The government is a strong defender of this position, the FARC remains frustratingly stubborn and there is little point in rallying just to reiterate the national consensus on the guerrillas.
Over the coming months and perhaps years, this state of flux will continue. Parties and movements will emerge, disappear and merge as Colombia tries to figure out a post-Uribe political equilibrium. For now, the main beneficiary of all of this will be Santos. In just seven months, he has managed to bring many Greens, Uribistas and others under his centrist, pragmatist roof. Until Colombians discover new issues to fundamentally disagree on, there are unlikely to be huge political rallies anytime soon.