The local elections have highlighted the increasing divisions between rural and urban Colombia and the political struggle between powerful interest groups according to Adam Isacson, director of the Regional Security Policy Program at the Washington Office on Latin America and expert on Colombia.
“The election results we have seen so far show two different countries,” Isacson told Colombia Reports. “One of independent minded voters not at all voting for traditional machine candidates, while in the countryside, in many areas, it was all about who had the most money, who was able to buy votes and who could intimidate or keep viable candidates from winning.”
In his pre-election analysis Isacson highlighted the growing divide between the two power bases that have dominated Colombian politics in recent times. According to Isacson, President Juan Manuel Santos inherited a governing coalition that allied the “the urban, modernizing, globalized, manufacturing-and-services elite that includes much of the country’s socially prominent families” with the “rural, large-landholding and extractive-industry elite, often tied to narco money and paramilitarism.” However, since Santos came to power the relationship between the two groups has been increasingly fractious, with Santos filling key roles with members of the urban elite and traditional political families.
Isacson believes Sunday’s elections helped fortify the growing influence of Santos’ allies. “The more modernizing urban elites are certainly happier,” he said. However, according to Isacson the powerful landholders and politicians with paramilitary ties have retained control of key strategic areas, especially in coastal conflict zones. “The parapoliticans have been marginalized compared to where they were in 2006/07,” he said, “they are not able to operate as openly as before, they have been relegated to more far-off rural areas, more feudal or forgotten corners of Colombia, but they are there and they are still able to run.”
One of the key power struggles between the two groups revolves around Santos’ flagship Victims Law land restitution program, which has been fiercely opposed by rural landowners who may have to return lands to displaced people. With the success of the law in many cases resting on the cooperation of local officials, Isacson believes the battle lines have now been drawn for the process, which begins next year. He said, “In a lot of places where landholding is at its least equal, people have been elected that are going to fight this fiercely and you’re going to see some conflict.”
The power struggle has been personified by the increasingly tense relationship between Santos and his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Following defeat for a number of high profile candidates backed by Uribe, Isacson said the ex-president “got a black eye” in Sunday’s elections. However, Uribe-backed candidates won in several areas of key economic interests and areas likely to be affected by the land restitution process. “Uribe is diminished,” he said, “he has been forced to retrench but what he has been left with is a rump of the hardest line opposition to the more progressive parts of Santos’ agenda.”
Isacson believes the results could mean end of the alliance between Santos and Uribe and a new political landscape with Uribe opposing the president, especially if Santos pushes ahead with the Victims Law. “If land restitution is attempted for real…,” he said, “Uribe will be the main opposition figure in the country.”