The upcoming parliamentary elections will result in the election of a Congress with little to no legitimacy. A sizable number of votes will go to neo-paramilitary candidates, while a small proportion will be divided between the dynastic politicians, the quasi-politicians and the honest politicians.
With the election of the 2006 Congress Colombia experienced one of its worst outrages, which served to tarnish an already utterly delegitimized legislative power: the parapolitics scandal. It came to light after a report evidenced the atypical voting patterns for some candidates in certain regions of the country that were controlled by the paramilitaries. This report triggered unprecedented investigations – and prison sentences of 40 years in some cases – into 35% of Congress. As most of these glorious patriots belonged to pro-government political parties, a congressman labeled the episode “the para-Uribista scandal.”
These links had been forged decades before with the birth of the paramilitaries. From its original conception as a counterinsurgency military project it became a “political paramilitary project” that sought the ultimate power, political might. Politicians were needed to attain this goal, and politicians in return needed these armed groups to catapult themselves into councils, mayoralties, governorships, and the country’s Congress. In the mid 1990s the paramilitaries became a mass phenomenon, which reached into most regions. Naturally, this rapid expansion also benefited other groups: landowners, businessmen, drug traffickers, government officials, army officials, peasants, and the unemployed.
These paramilitary groups were and are successful at efficiently “tying” a vote to a given candidate. A “tied vote” or “voto amarrado” means that voters are pressured to vote for a given candidate by employers or armed groups, or simply sell their votes (as Pablo explained last week). This tied vote can represent upwards of 70% of all votes in some regions of Colombia, according to the report that revealed the parapolitics scandal, authored by Claudia Lopez and NGO Nuevo Arco Iris.
As a result of this synergy and the broad economic benefits brought to a wide range of people these corrupt politicians will continue to be elected. The new breed of politicians obtaining these votes are the neo-paramilitary candidates running in lieu of politicians who are in jail awaiting sentencing, or already sentenced. Most of these substitute candidates are spouses or relatives of jailed politicians, who are reluctant to lose the hard-earned vote-buying machinery and the links with the underworld that worked so well in the 2002 and 2006 elections. Even the national registrar, Carlos Ariel Sanchez, announced four months ago that there would be electoral fraud in one-third of the 1,002 municipalities. What is interesting about the statement, of course, is that it was made before the elections.
Most of the neo-paramilitary politicians are running in the recently established political party PIN (Partido de Integracion Nacional) because another shady political party AND (Alianza Democratica Nacional) was closed down by the authorities due to flagrant irregularities. The PIN was created from the ashes of various parties which saw most of their members jailed due to the para-politics scandal. According to newsweekly Semana, the PIN party has about a million votes which may be considered “tied.” That would translate into ten to fourteen Senators (out of 102) and twenty Representatives (out of 166).
Even the more established political parties cannot resist the “blood votes” of these neo-paramilitary candidates. The Conservative, Liberal, Cambio Radical, and Partido de la U political parties have eleven, five, five, and thirteen candidates respectively under investigation or with close relatives in jail, mostly due to paramilitary links. All these questionable candidates were allowed to run by the heads of these political parties, who in most cases (with the exception of the Conservative party) are also presidential candidates: Rafael Pardo, German Vargas Lleras and Juan Manuel Santos.
Up to this point everything is normal, this is politics as usual in Colombia. The real problem arises with the 2,750 candidates running in these elections, most of whom are fighting for the remaining, un-tied votes. These are “opinion votes” or votes based on likeability, be it for their political projects or persona. These votes are being fought over by three different groups of politicians: the dynastic politicians (although they also source “tied votes”), the quasi-politicians and the honest politicians.
The dynastic politicians running for Congress, and even the presidency, belong to established political families, often with members who have previously occupied the presidency. They are easily elected due to their recognizable family names: Galan, Gaviria, Gomez, Lara, Lleras, and Santos. Even though they are more honest than the neo-paramilitary candidates, their political programs only serve to maintain the status quo whereby the same elites keep their grip on political power.
The quasi-politicians are a breed formed by candidates with no obvious links to politics. In theory this could strengthen democracy and legitimize Congress to some extent, as these candidates can represent alienated sectors of society. However, most of these candidates are simply using their fame in areas such as sports, entertainment, radio shows, and illegal pyramids schemes, to secure power and therefore an enviable salary. A congressman’s salary is 36.5 times higher than the minimum wage, or COP21.045.638 (~ $10,000) compared to COP576.500 (~ $288). When they retire they will receive this salary even if they were in Congress for less time than one four-year term.
And as a result, the honest candidates fighting for the opinion votes are in danger of extinction. Most of these candidates belong to the Partido Verde, Polo Democratico Alternativo, and Compromiso Ciudadano political parties, which have as presidential candidates: three Bogota ex-mayors, Gustavo Petro, and Sergio Fajardo respectively. Moreover, with this situation the rest of the population becomes more disillusioned with politics and therefore abstains from voting or simply sell their votes, which decreases the number of “votes of opinion.” A tragic vicious cycle. Nevertheless, the internet, by giving the public access to timely information, may offer some hope.
The slow but heroic decisions taken by the Supreme Court regarding the parapolitics and DAS scandals, and the Constitutional Court’s recent barring of Alvaro Uribe from perpetuating in power, evidence how strong Colombia’s democracy is. But when the legislative and executive powers are controlled by unscrupulous individuals the strength of this democracy can only be a mirage.