As the congressional elections draw near, it is already clear that they will be riddled with fraud and corruption. The next generation of Colombian leaders will likely include more than a handful of crooks and criminals.
In less than two weeks, Colombia will hold legislative elections. At first glance, everything seems to be proceeding quite normally. Polling agencies are conducting surveys, candidates are engaging in public debates and political parties are littering Colombia’s streets with posters, fliers and banners. One need not look too far below the surface, however, to find clear evidence that the Colombia’s legislative elections will be far from democratic.
The most obvious problem with the upcoming elections is the widespread risk of voter fraud. According to a study by several Colombian universities, 27% of the country’s municipalities are at serious risk of electoral fraud in the Senate elections and 36% are at risk in House elections. Most of these municipalities are in rural areas, and the problems are most common in the plains and jungles of eastern Colombia and along the northern coast. Not coincidentally, the most problematic areas also happen to be traditional strongholds of guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Areas with significant oil fields and coca crops are also disproportionately prone to voter fraud.
Elections in major cities are also at risk. According to Semana, a Colombian news weekly, buying a vote is actually cheaper in Bogota and Cali, where a vote costs about US$10 to $15, than in the Bolívar department on the coast, where the average cost rises to about $25. In mid-size cities, a vote can be as cheap as US$7. Reports suggest that nearly every political party across the ideological spectrum engages in vote-buying, but a few parties stand out as particularly sleazy. Several congressmen told Semana that the practice became more common after the emergence of the ADN and PIN, two young pro-Uribe parties.
Buying votes in Colombia is a remarkably simple process. A local neighborhood leader, called a “captain,” promises a given number of votes, typically ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand, to a candidate. The two arrange a down payment and, if after the elections the number of votes for that candidate in the neighborhood equals or exceeds the number promised, then the candidate pays the captain a much larger sum of money. Finally, the captain distributes part of that sum to the voters and keeps plenty for himself. For one thousand votes, a captain can earn up to US$35,000.
In order to compete in such an environment, candidates must have large sums of cash at their disposal. The typical competitive candidate today spends between US$1 million and $2.5 million on a congressional campaign, most of which goes on publicity campaigns and for local-level campaign leaders, including “captains.” This greatly exceeds the legally established limits for campaign spending, and forces candidates to seek extra sources of funding.
Where does this money come from? One common source of under-the-table donations is contractors, who pay candidates large sums of money and expect public works contracts and legal favors in return. These old-fashioned schemes are common worldwide and have been common in Colombia for many years, but analysts and anonymous sources from within the political system indicate that the problem is increasing.
Another source of illegal funding is drug money. Drug traffickers and warlords have not slowed their efforts to buy political allies, although their methods have become more sophisticated. Two decades ago, drug lords like Pablo Escobar ran for national office. Today, they make campaign donations to friends in Congress. And if those Congressmen happen to be sent to jail, then the drug lords simply pay for the jailed person’s relatives to run for office.
Here again, the ADN and PIN are the worst offenders. The short-lived ADN’s constituent assembly contained several jailed politicians before the party had to close. After that, many former ADN members joined the PIN, another young uribista party, which is no cleaner than the ADN. Both parties had a disproportionately high number of candidates on a list published by Colombian daily El Espectador of the fifty shadiest candidates in the legislative elections. Several PIN candidates had direct business, political or family ties with imprisoned politicians, paramilitaries and mafiosos. Others are suspected of engaging in corrupt activities in their previous local- and department-level positions.
With just weeks before the elections, any effort to prevent fraud, corruption and criminal participation will likely be a mere drop in the ocean. But the warning signs have been there for many months. Watchdog groups, including several government observation agencies, have been issuing formal complaints, publishing reports on the risk of fraud and demanding more funds from the national government. Indeed, many of the problems of the upcoming elections were totally foreseeable, especially the participation of candidates with links to paramilitaries. In the four years since the initial outbreak of the “parapolitics” scandal, little has been done to prevent the continued influence of paramilitary groups in politics.
The strongest measure taken against parpolitics is the so-called “empty chair” bill, which prevents parties from appointing new legislators to seats vacated by Congressmen who resigned due to parapolitics accusations. But the law is not retroactive, meaning that many such replacements (some of whom are under parapolitics investigations themselves) and other paramilitary-linked legislators are still serving. Worse yet, there is no credible legal structure in place to prevent additional paramilitary-linked candidates from running for office, as evidenced by the prevalence of shady candidates for the upcoming elections.
Prominent politicians and presidential campaigns are well aware of the gravity of the problem. Marta Lucía Ramirez, a pro-Uribe presidential candidate, recently said there was a medium-to-high risk that the 2010 elections will exacerbate the phenomenon of parapolitics. German Medina, an adviser to presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo, believes that part of the problem is that the campaign season for the upcoming elections has been extraordinarily short because politics was put on hold while the country waited for a decision on whether President Uribe would run for a third term. Therefore, there has not been enough time for the public to scrutinize the candidates, creating many opportunities for illegality.
After years of corruption and parapolitics scandals in Congress, the 2010 elections should have been an opportunity to clean up the national government. With just weeks to go before the elections, it is safe to say that that opportunity has been missed.