The polarization of Colombia’s public opinion

Since October 2008, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, has consistently stressed the importance that public opinion plays in a state under the rule of law.
This emphasis started a few weeks after Congress formally commenced
studying the popular initiative to call for a referendum on an
immediate presidential re-election.

In Uribe’s words “the equilibrium between participative democracy
and representative democracy has made that public opinion, of
escalating activity, becomes the determinant factor of the legislative
product. (speech given last week during a dinner in honor to the visiting heir of the Spanish throne)

Since Uribe, by his own accounts, does not read newspapers, it is
obvious that by public opinion he means the general population that
consistently regard his administration as the best in living memory,
rather than other important voices representing public opinions such as
op-ed columnists.

In Colombia, deep polarizations along political party lines have led
to bloody periods as in 1948 when 180,000 people died in 10 years, in a
period remembered as “The Violence”. However, today’s deep polarization
has become more pronounced along educational and political awareness

A way to prove the sentiment of the more educated and
politically-aware people is by reading the op-ed columns in the two
national newspapers, El Tiempo and El Espectador. The former is
naturally more pro-government given that it was funded, and is run, by
the family of the current Vice-president and the former Defense
minister, Juan Manuel Santos. Their op-ed columnists are academics,
lawyers, journalists, human rights advocates, politicians, former
government officials, among others.

In the op-ed columns published last week (Mon-Sun), explicitly
addressing the government, the pattern in terms of the opposition to
the president continued despite the lack of new incidents affecting his
administration. From the 45 columns related to Colombian current
affairs published in El Espectador there were 14 anti-Uribe articles
and only one pro-Uribe opinion. In El Tiempo there were 29 columns with
five explicitly anti-Uribe and only one pro-Uribe.

In turn, the sentiment of the general population is best gauged by the latest poll
on current political affairs. For instance, 67 percent of people would
vote for the re-electionist referendum, with 83 percent supporting it.
Moreover, if Uribe is a candidate he would obtain 57 percent of the
votes. And if the president does not run again the most favored
candidates are Juan Manuel Santos and the former Agriculture minister
Andres Felipe Arias, who are the epitome of  Uribe’s war policies.

In a democracy, the majority decides elections. However, this does
not signify that their perceptions on the political environment are
correct. For example, in the same poll, 30 and 8 percent respectively
think that Santos and Arias have fought corruption. Thus, the many
incidents evidencing the contrary have been heavily discounted.

Furthermore, 55 percent of the respondents did not think the recent
illegal wiretapping by the government’s security agency on Supreme
Court judges, the opposition and journalists, influenced their
perception of the president. More disturbing still is that 13 percent
claimed the scandal has positively influenced the president’s image.

This great divide between the more educated and politically-aware
class and the general population may not lead to a repeat of “The
Violence”. However, it demonstrates the condition of media consumption
in Colombia where analyzes on political developments are seldom read by
the general population. This great divide only highlights the power of
the media for manufacturing popular consent that is then used by Uribe
to boast his “democratic principles” in front of foreign dignitaries.

Author Sebastian Castaneda is Colombian and lives in Hong Kong 

Related posts

The threats to Colombia’s biodiversity

Reestablishing Colombia’s sovereignty; approaches to a new relationship with the US

The diplomatic smokescreen between the US and Colombia