Guaranteeing fairness and good practice in Colombia’s upcoming congressional and presidential elections is a matter of political urgency, which requires vigilance by citizens and the media, and the use of new technologies.
This opinion piece appears just after an event with enormous repercussions for Colombia, which will be considered from the perspective of its impact on the distribution of political power in the country, and on Colombia’s democracy, which is still in need of consolidation.
The Constitutional Court’s decision not to allow Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to run for a third term was the starting gun for a campaign that will be like none that has gone before it, in which the presidential candidates will have to push themselves to extremes to be able to define their images and policies to the public.
The parliamentary elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives will define the alliances for a second round, in which the result will depend on the accords made between parties to capture the regional votes. For this reason, three regions will be crucial in determining the election’s outcome: The North Coast, which accounted for 16.7% of the nation’s total votes in the elections of 2006 (1); Antioquia, where the current president dealt his opponents a resounding defeat in 2006 (2); and Bogota, the biggest electoral pool, which accounted for 18.3% of the nation’s votes in 2006, with 2,201,173 votes.
Let’s take the following hypothesis as a starting point: it is highly unlikely that any of the current candidates will be able to reach the required “50% plus one” of all valid votes in the first round of the May 30th presidential elections. Therefore, with Uribe out of the race, no candidate will be able to call victory after the first round, and so coalitions will need for be formed in order for someone to win in the second round.
The best strategy for any presidential candidate is to focus one’s efforts on gaining influence in the Senate and the Chamber, in order to achieve the necessary weight to guarantee the party’s influence on the second round. To achieve this, no party with any real aspirations to power can turn its back on the events unfolding on the three regions mentioned before, two of which (the North Coast and Antioquia) have several politicians who have been investigated and prosecuted for ties with paramilitary groups.
With this scenario before us, we can see that it is essential to ensure that illegal and mafia-like organisations have as little impact on the election as possible, by giving citizens the means to report abuses.
The evidence provided by the Mission of Electoral Observation (MOE)(3), though valuable, fails to fully capture the complex reality of the situation in parts of the country which are still influenced by a complex network of criminal organisations, which have mutated from pure political clientelism to illegal militancy – a recurrent feature of guerrillas and paramilitaries, and of their heirs.
Therefore, it is not enough to identify these crimes; accusations made by the media will only have an effect when they are made concrete, through the votes of people who wish to break the spine of the regional political mafia-like structures.
This is no utopian dream. The electorate in the Cordoba department in the elections of 2006 gave its support to the two opposition parties(4), despite the fact that the region has been recognized as one of the historical cradles of paramilitary organization AUC, and has suffered much political and economical intimidation at the hands of this terrorist organization. Likewise, we cannot forget that something similarly heartening took place in Algeciras, Huila department, where a candidate from an independent party became the victor despite facing pressure and threats from the FARC, or that events of the same nature that took place in San Vicente del Caguan, Caqueta.
The cycle of illegal wrongdoing can only be broken in this way if the citizen is given the means to report crimes, and identify and sanction criminals, as they occur during the electoral process. For this to be possible, a process for obtaining reliable and verifiable information is necessary, to give a “face” to such felonies. This face can only be constructed under the shelter of a task force created amongst all the organizations responsible for these processes.
In Colombia, the Center for Electoral Intelligence (CIE)(5), brings together key players in the process of intelligence, research and prosecuting criminals. This might become a very useful tool for future elections, and a means to encourage the citizens to become part of the process of identifying these crimes and the structures behind them. Only then can the crime and its executor be brought into the public gaze. Of course, this cannot be considered the definitive solution to the problem, but it should be made known to the citizens through the media, so they are aware of its existence and can turn to it to report, if necessary, these crimes.
The question in the opinion vote
The transfer of power from the hands of President Uribe, after 8 years in government, is making us witness to a very interesting picture: the options for power are no longer limited to the inherited two-party model. On the contrary, the political debate is based around proposals aimed at the empowerment of citizens and the use of technology. We are facing an electorate which no longer buys the stories fed to them by the political class, and which is interested in hearing proposals with real political value – today’s voter is someone who wants positive projects to be continued and the wrongs of the past to be righted.
This is the proposal made by Sergio Fajardo of Compromiso Ciudadano (“Citizens’ Commitment”) and the Mockus, Peñalosa and Garzon triad from the Green Party, who, for the first time in the political history of the country, decided to unite to reach an agreement on the plans for government of the one chosen from amongst them. The independent candidates will try yet again to jump the fence of the electoral threshold, and hope to gain the necessary momentum to overcome clientelism and the purchase of votes. However, these good intentions may suffocate by high-profile, traditional figures who will not be willing to give up an inch of territory they consider their own, and who, through their wives, children, cousins, will try to rule from the sidelines, avoiding the sentences imposed by the Colombian justice.
With all of these ingredients on the table, the electoral campaign of 2010 has certainly become one of the most interesting, dynamic and unforeseeable of the last years – something that should be looked upon with a healthy dose of optimism. But only time will tell.
Thoughts for the future: those who claim that after Alvaro Uribe leaves power his political influence will end (whether they like it or not), are wrong – the ideal he represents for the political arena will continue to make him a part of the decisions made in the nation’s politics for the coming years. This surely is not a president who will let people forget him, like a discarded toy in an old trunk.
Author Erik Rojas Arenas is a political analyst specialized in electoral processes and political marketing and advisor of public and private entities on issues related to government, defense and international cooperation.
 Source: National Electoral Council, results for the presidential election of 2006.
 Source: National Electoral Council, results for the presidential election of 2006. Álvaro Uribe obtained a total of 1.108.085 votes in Antioquia from the 1.587.158 total votes registered for that department.
 Source: “Risk maps by electoral anomalies and irregularities 2010”, report published by the Mission of Electoral Observation, in February 2010.
 Vote Right – Elections 2006, portal Terra Noticias: “In the elections of 2006, the Liberal Party and the Alternative Democratic Pole obtained 191.660 votes. The right-wave parties (Parties considered “uribistas” – U Party (Partido de la U), Democratic Colombia (Colombia Democrática), the Conservative Party and Radical Change (Cambio Radical) only obtained 119.817 votes”.
 Author´s note: this Center for Electoral Intelligence makes part of the “Plan for Democracy 2010”, where more than 70 thousand million pesos will be invested in. However, the existence of this initiative has not been spread enough among the citizens to promote effective denunciation.