With less than a month to go until Colombia elects its next president, the rumor mill is in overdrive, with some candidates falling prey to smear campaigns and other down-right dirty political tactics.
The 2010 presidential elections seem to be as much about discrediting other candidates as they are about self-promotion. Covert attacks on candidates’ integrity, and even on the candidates’ supporters, are increasingly the name of the game. The increased use of internet campaigning provides both campaigners and their opponents with a whole new arena in which to wrestle.
Smear campaigns and other dirty tactics
As Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus‘ popularity increases, so too do the attempts to sully his name.
On April 30 residents of Colombia’s southern city of Cali awoke to find banners featuring the Green Party’s official logo of a sunflower on a green background plastered around the city. Slogans such as “I would extradite Uribe,” “I admire Hugo Chavez,” and “I don’t believe in God” were the written on the banners, which, needless to say, had not been issued by Mockus’ party.
The appearance of the banners followed Mockus’ comment that he would potentially extradite Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a statement that he later explained came from a misunderstanding of extradition policy. The banners also referenced Mockus’ comment that he “admired” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Colombian politician later explained that he had meant to express that he felt “respect” for elements of Chavez’s government. The “atheist” banner follows comments by Mockus’ main rival Juan Manuel Santos that one of the main differences between himself and the Green Party candidate is that Santos believes in God.
The intention of the banners was to paint Mockus as a treacherous, Chavez-loving atheist, an image that does not go down well in a Catholic, conservative country where Uribe remains deeply popular. The identity of those who posted the banners remains unknown. Santos’ campaign team has denied any knowledge of the banners, and asked all the candidates to play a clean game.
Other presidential candidates have also been the targets of smear campaigns.
Emails are circulating which attempt to destroy Santos’ credibility. Among the email topics are claims that as defense minister he didn’t finish off the FARC, so as to have an excuse to remain in power; that he has a golf handicap of 14, because he hardly works and plays all the time; and that he would take the side of England in the case of a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Santos has relaunched his campaign strategy with Venezuelan spin doctor J.J. Rendon at the helm. Rendon has been called an “expert in rumorology” and ‘the king of ‘black’ propaganda.” In 2007 the Venezuelan publicist was almost deported due to accusations that he had blackmailed Congressman Nicolas Uribe by threatening that he would publish photos of the politician cavorting with prostitutes if Uribe didn’t fire a certain employee. Uribe resigned from the Partido de la U campaign in protest when Santos contracted Rendon.
Since Rendon’s arrival on the scene, a pro-Santos website has been launched, which attempts to discredit Mockus. The same banners that appeared in Cali are published on the website, along with videos and a cartoon depicting Mockus as Chavez’s buddy. Again the inference is that Mockus is pro-Chavez atheist, who plans to extradite President Uribe.
Polo Democratico’s candidate Gustavo Petro has fallen victim to dirty campaign tactics. La Silla Vacia reports that on April 17 Petro’s website was hacked and deleted, and replaced with an image of Santos. Petro’s campaign managers reported the hacking to Colombian authorities, but the virtual attacks continued, forcing the Polo Democratico team to employ specialists in web security to protect Petro’s page.
Polo Democratico supporters in the Colombian cities of Santa Marta, Valledupar, Barranquilla and Monteria have reportedly received anonymous phone calls asking that they don’t vote for Petro because he is a “terrorist and a guerrilla,” who will “turn the country over to Chavez.” According to campaign organizers, the calls are clearly an organized strategy, based on their sheer number, the consistency of the message they communicate, and their diverse geographic locations.
Dirt-digging and mud-slinging
The presidential candidates have assumed differing attitudes to confront the traditional dirt-digging and subsequent mud-slinging of election campaigns.
Cambio Radical’s candidate German Vargas Lleras has said that “under no circumstances” will he talk about his personal life and the Liberal Party‘s Rafael Pardo has concurred, stating that personal matters are not relevant to the electoral debate.
Santos and Petro have both admitted to smoking marijuana in their youth. Mockus says his greatest “sin” was two days expulsion from school, while Petro’s was “having too many girlfriends.” Weighing in on the “sins” debate, straight-laced Conservative Party candidate Noemi Sanin stated that “I belong to the middle class where addictions are more focused on coca-cola and chocolate … drugs, apart from aspirin, I have never taken.”
Rumor-mongering during elections campaigns is standard practice these days. However political analysts say it is now reaching a whole new level in Colombia
Votebien political analyist Rodrigo Lozada says that the tactics seen today in Colombia “were copied from the campaigns in the United States. The idea is find the opponents’ weak points, exaggerate and distort them, to make them look bad before society.”
Another political strategist, who asked to remain anonymous, told Votebien that negative publicity often backfires, and vicious rumors and chain emails can be among the best tools to discredit a candidate.
“People are paid to speak badly of a candidate in a queue, a bus or a taxi. Other people hear this and think they have had valuable information that no-one else knows. They start to believe it and spread it as a rumor. These strategies have excellent results,” explained the strategist.
Analyst Omar Rincon says that such strategies are often employed by candidates when their campaigns are faring poorly. According to Rincon the “rain of attacks” beating down on Mockus is the result of his increasing popularity in voter polls.
However, Rincon does not think the Green Party candidate should be concerned by such attacks.
“The majority of people who want to vote for Mockus are young people who don’t like the traditional way of doing politics, and as a result in this case the ‘dirty war’ may have the opposite effect [to the one intended].”