Colombia’s Senate Vice President, Edgar Espindola Niño has sparked controversy with an initiative to allow serving military and police officers to vote in elections, something they have been denied for over half a century.
President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-1946 / 1958-1962) famously cast Colombia´s armed forces as “guarantors of democracy.” Neutrality was expected of these guardians.
Espindola, and those who support his initiative, see that Colombia is not the country it was in Lleras Camargo´s day. “La Violencia” is over, the National Front´s rule is a distant memory, and the 1991 Constitution put an end to the old two party state in which Conservatives and Liberals alternated power every four years. In pluralist Colombia, the threats to democracy have evolved.
There are those like the columnist and broadcaster Laura Gill who go further, claiming that voting is a fundamental human right. For Gill, the Colombian constitution violates this right to universal suffrage, and treats the army and the police as second class citizens.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has lent his support to the initiative, although he was quick to confirm that the government has yet to establish an official line.
In contrast, those against the proposal, say that while the right to vote is fine in other countries like the USA, Chile, Argentina, Spain and Great Britain, Colombia´s democracy is not ready for this change; that the possible abuses of power are too great. They fear that allowing the near 460,000 active forces the vote could distort the electoral process.
Primero Colombia, the Uribista think tank, published an article claiming the hierarchical nature of the army would lead to a form of block voting.
It is naive to think that soldiers and police officers will vote against
their commanders, and naive to think these commanders won't try to
influence or even order their subordinates to vote one way or the other.
Most would conclude that this argument greatly discredits the armed and police forces, their ability to reason, and their capacity for independence of thought.
But for those who follow this line of thinking, Venezuela is the perfect test case. Chavez changed the constitution in 1999, sanctioning the army´s involvement in the state. The military is now a crucial part of the Chavez electoral machine.
But in Venezuela the army has been revolutionized, and placed under the control of comandante Chavez. And the proposals before the Colombian Congress share very little in common with what has happened in the Bolivarian Republic.
So, it is worth being clear exactly what Espindola’s law would and wouldn’t allow.
The legislation is precise. The forces would not be allowed to convene party events, participate actively in campaigns or run for office. In other words there is no threat that the military top brass could be seen on the election trail urging the public to vote one way or the other (at least not legally).
Colombia would not become Venezuela, and the ballot box would be the only place where the forces´ politics would be exercised.
This is a debate which divides those on the right (Uribe himself has called the proposal wrong and erroneous), as it does too for those on the left. The side of the fence you sit on depends more on your optimism or otherwise, both in terms of democracy as an abstract idea, and more specifically in the case of Colombia.
Colombia is far from having a perfect system, but the only way of solving its problems of democracy is with more democracy.
Finally, it must be remembered that this debate is not taking place in isolation. Should the peace talks prove successful, should the FARC demobilize, and should former combatants enter politics, well it will seem even more absurd that the military are denied even the right to vote.
Bogota based journalist Richard McColl reported last month, on the BBC, that the military are concerned about how, particularly if they are denied a role in the democratic process, they might be treated once peace is secured. Colonel Bahoman told him:
“Why can’t we get the right to vote, after all we have been defending the country and fighting for her for 60 years?”
Shouldn’t we give the military and police a vote? Aren´t they citizens — albeit citizens in uniform?