Contrary to popular belief, primary elections were a step forward for Colombia’s opposition parties, but internal divisions hamper efforts to produce a Presidential contender for 2010.
Last month, Colombia’s main opposition parties, the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) and Liberal Party (PL), held seemingly unsuccessful primary elections. Only 1.4 million people in the two elections combined. To most observers, including my colleague Gustavo Silva Cano, the low turnout confirmed the weakness and irrelevance of Colombia’s opposition is weak, unpopular and irrelevant.
However, there is much more to the story. First, the low turnout is not a clear indication of general political weakness. Few political systems in the world draw a high number of voters to primary elections. September’s virtually unpublicized primaries were held in part to settle internal political disputes, not to showcase each party’s political strength. In the general election against an Uribista coalition, many more voters will likely turn out in support of the PDA and PL. Indeed, few people, perhaps not even the party leaders publicly predicted a massive turnout, actually believed that the event would draw more than a few million PL and PDA supporters.
Therefore, rather than just confirm the relative irrelevance of Colombia’s opposition, the primaries left us with a far more important lesson, one which will shape Colombian politics in 2010 and beyond. The primary results show us that the pragmatic, centrist wings of the Colombian opposition seem to be gaining the upper hand within their parties, making an broad left-leaning coalition more likely than ever.
In the case of the PDA, the primaries were almost an impeachment of the party’s traditional, purist leadership. Former M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro, who has long advocated a more pragmatic political strategy, upset his archrival and PDA official candidate Carlos Gaviria 50% to 45%. This result is all the more surprising given that Petro only had the support of 4 out of the 19 PDA congressmen. Quite clearly, the party is headed for some kind of renewal in the coming months and years – either a change in leadership or a schism. In either case, change will refresh and re-energize the PDA, which has recently been crippled by internal strife as well as corruption scandals among its senior leadership.
In the Liberal primary, former defense minister Rafael Pardo’s somewhat predictable victory was a more ambiguous political and ideological statement, but also signaled a changing of the guard. Although Pardo had the support of many senior party leaders, his consolidation as a PL has shifted the party’s attention away from the outdated, boring Gaviria-Samper rivalry. He, like Petro, seems to believe that the opposition’s best strategy looking toward 2010 is to form a broad coalition.
But what would such an alliance look like? And what are its political prospects?
On this point, observers who view the PDA and PL as irrelevant have a point. Even a broad and highly unlikely alliance with German Vargas Lleras’s Cambio Radical, the new Green party formed by three former Bogota mayors, and former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo would still lag about at least 30 points behind any Uribista candidate. Although the PDA and PL could probably turn out far more than 1.4 million voters in 2010, more than seven million people would likely vote just for Uribe’s re-election referendum.
Still, both the PDA and PL have finally begun to define themselves politically after scrambling – and often bickering among themselves – in futile attempts to counter President Uribe’s aggressive political agenda and immense popularity. The PDA in particular, a young party held together only by common opposition to Uribe, will likely emerge from its current strife as a real party with a concrete political platform and with Petro as its leader.
Unfortunately for them, the parties’ process of renewal is simply too little, too late. Campaign season is months away, but neither party’s candidate has the name recognition or charisma to take on Uribe or one of his supporters. Pardo is a fine candidate, but the Liberal Party’s confusion and lack of a coherent message in the Uribe era greatly hamper his efforts to produce a credible, viable political message. Similarly, the PDA’s leadership crisis is far from over. For at least the next few months, the party will be mired in stalemate between Petro and the traditional party machinery.
This says as much about President Uribe’s political abilities as it does about the recent ineptitude of the opposition. By displacing the Liberal Party, a traditional party with a proud history, to the fringe of Colombian politics, he has forced it into unfamiliar territory. For the past seven years, the party has been incoherent.
In the case of the PDA, the President has divided and conquered his clearest ideological opponents, by forcing the party into an old trap: some pragmatic leaders want to accept an unfavorable political climate and forge coalitions, others want to stay true to the party’s original message and remain independent, and the infighting between the two currents is destroying the party from the inside.
Primaries were a step toward resolving the Colombian opposition’s its identity and leadership crises, but not in time for the upcoming elections.