After years of refusal and half a year ahead of local elections, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has invited a notoriously shady political party to join his coalition.
The Citizens’ Option (OC), a political party whose founding members have been convicted for ties with paramilitary groups, officially entered Santos’ National Unity Coalition last week, reported political website La Silla Vacia.
In order to allow the party a taste of Santos’ governing power, one of the party leaders was appointed to lead the Superintendency of Economy Solidarity and manage an annual budget of $10 million.
So far, Santos had ignored the political party’s calls to join the coalition amid ongoing accusations of its members’ ties to paramilitary groups and electoral victories that were met with vote-buying accusations.
Several OC leaders were also invited to discuss the upcoming legislative agenda directly with Santos at the presidential palace, solidifying their full incorporation into the mainstream Colombian political landscape after years of being shunned.
From Citizens’ Convergence to PIN to Citizens’ Option
The OC traces its origins to the National Integration Party (PIN), an iteration of an older political party created explicitly by now-imprisoned politicians.
The Citizens’ Convergence (CC) party, as it was called, was founded originally in 1997 by Luis Alberto Gil.
In the run-up to the momentous 2002 election, wherein former president Alvaro Uribe rose to power, the party was known to have incorporated controversial figures suspected of collaborating with paramilitaries, such as senator Luis Eduardo Vives and Eleonora Pineda.
Similar paramilitary influence of parties across the Colombian political environment came to be known as the Colombian parapolitics scandal.
The scandal came to light in 2006 when the recovered laptop of a paramilitary leader was found to contain incriminating evidence connecting many Colombian politicians to paramilitary groups. The scandal resulted in the imprisonment of more than 40 lawmakers and 5 governors.
Parapolitics hits back
The CC, however, was most affected by the scandal as many of their leaders, including founder Gil and representatives Luis Alfonso Riaño and Juan Manuel Herrera, were detained based on their connections to paramilitaries.
The blows dealt the CC in the fallout from the parapolitics scandal ultimately led to its dissolution, though in 2009 the party reformed as PIN in an attempt to distance itself from the marred history of the CC.
In the 2010 elections, PIN surprised Colombian politics by capturing nine seats in the Senate and 12 seats in the Chamber of Representatives despite 2010 being their inaugural election year.
Many of the politicians backed by PIN in 2010 had familial and other connections to politicians imprisoned in the wake of the Parapolitics scandal. These include ex-senator Gil’s wife, the son of ex-governor Hugo Aguilar, who was investigated for ties to paramilitaries in the Santander state, and the sister of ex-senator Alvaro Garcia Romero, who was convicted of embezzlement and involvement in the massacre of Macayepo.
Moreover, Gil was believed to be leading the party from prison by making decisions and directing the putative leader of the party, Alvaro Caicedo. Gil was also thought to organize the integration of members of the National Democratic Alliance (ADN), whose legal status as a party was rescinded based on ties to paramilitaries, into PIN.
In 2013, PIN again reformed, this time as OC, in another attempt to change the image of the party and distance itself a second time from a reputation consistently associated with paramilitary groups. As such, it can be said that OC is the current incarnation of PIN and the CC, parties long since disgraced for their explicit connections to paramilitaries.
The move seems to have worked. For the first time since former President Alvaro Uribe left office, the group once again enjoys significant influence in Colombia’s legislative process.