“This is dead.” Those were the words of a Barranquilla polling officer on Sunday when she was asked about the affluence of voters. 29 million Colombians were allowed to vote in yesterday’s primary elections, which decided the names of the presidential candidates for the Liberal Party and the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA), both in opposition. In the eight hours during which the polling places were open, a mere 1.4 million people voted.
With such a pittance of a vote, the Liberals elected former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo while the PDA chose Senator Gustavo Petro. Alfonso Gomez Mendez, a former Prosecutor General and a presidential hopeful for the Liberal Party said he was “very worried” about the high levels of abstentionism during the election. The hours went idly by, the polling places were empty, the polling officers grew increasingly bored, and the voters stayed home. Oh, democracy!
This primary election was a good indicator of several aspects of contemporary Colombian politics. Above all, the anemic results obtained by both the Liberals and the PDA confirms their status as minority parties. The years they have acted in opposition to the Uribe administration have weakened their constituencies and affected their chances of winning the presidency in the medium term. Before Sunday’s election, former President Cesar Gaviria, now leader of the Liberal Party, declared that “the volume of our votes will show that we are a real option for power in 2010.” After Sunday’s results, Mr. Gaviria and all other Liberals should stop deluding themselves. No more wishful thinking. Please stop, for your own good. They, together with the PDA, should start admitting the fact that the next President of Colombia will not come from their ranks, and that they will be reduced to being in opposition for another four years in Congress. The least they should give their constituents is that simple truth.
But Sunday’s was not only a journey of defeat for the Liberals and the PDA. It was also one of great waste. The organization of the primaries cost Colombians 57 billion pesos (28 million dollars) in taxpayers’ money. That means that the price of each of the votes casted was a hefty 28,000 pesos. Most of the 23 million voting ballots that were printed for the election will, no doubt, have to be burnt, for they were unused.
Of course, both opposition parties had the right to call a primary election in order to choose their presidential candidates, but one wonders whether the effort and the resources spent will matter at all. If one knows that a specific action will render a meaningless, futile result, should one carry it out in any case? Even more, should one carry that action out knowing that one has to spend a lot of cash and bother many people (trust me, the polling officers were not happy to receive the letters in the mail saying they had to spend their Sunday at the polling station? Prudence, I believe, would answer ‘no’ to both questions.
But well, Colombia has to assume all that comes with being a democracy, both the good and the annoying bits, even if that means spending a little more money. Opposition parties and the minorities that constitute the bulk of their supporters have a right to participate in the political life of the nation. It is just somewhat sad to think that those 57 billion pesos could have been spent on other, more useful, badly needed, less pointless things.
So, once again, the Colombian voters have told the Liberal Party (which has veered sensibly toward the left) and the PDA (which is quintessentially left wing) that they are not interested in their message. Those two parties have once again been condemned through the ballot box to irrelevance in national politics. Since their opponents in ideology have been humiliated, Uribistas have cause to celebrate –- although they cannot really look confidently towards the future. In the coming months, they will fight each other in a nasty and bloody battle for the presidency. That, and not the dull stillness of this Sunday, will be the real highlight of this election. In the meantime, let us silently cheer for the defeat of the Liberals and the PDA. Silently, because we respect their pain, even if we rejoice with their misfortune.