There has been so much talk about elections in Colombia for such a long time, that the fact the country has finally had one seems, well, rather strange.
For months, people have been speculating about who the next president will be, what will happen to the uribista parties now that Uribe has to go, who will win the Conservative Party’s primary election, whether independent candidates could get a surprise avalanche of votes, etc. Now, one day after Colombia’s congressional elections, the answers to these and many other questions seem very clear. Finally, the political landscape has started to gain definition.
And the conclusion to be drawn from Sunday’s election is that Colombian politics is dominated by the center-right. The big winners of the congressional election were the Conservative Party and the government’s Partido de la U, now led by former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. Colombian voters rewarded the two main parties in President Uribe’s coalition with 24 seats in the Senate for the Conservatives and 27 for La U. This means that the two parties added together could form a majority in the upper house of Congress. The Liberal Party, in opposition, came in third place, winning 18 seats. This proves once again that the Liberals are the strongest, most important force in Colombia’s center-left.
In contrast, things were not so good for the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA) and Cambio Radical. The PDA got a mere eight Senate seats, down from the ten it obtained in the 2006 election, which demonstrates that Colombians are not really interested in the socialist ideas put forward by that party. Moreover, Bogota is the traditional stronghold of the PDA, but the disastrous administration of Samuel Moreno, a PDA member, may have led many disenchanted voters in the capital to support other parties.
The defeat was even more painful for Cambio Radical, the center-right party led by German Vargas Lleras. Cambio obtained a spectacular fifteen seats in the Senate in 2006 (just three fewer than the Liberals), and the party decided to join the uribista coalition in Congress, thus giving the President a solid majority in the legislature. On Sunday, however, the party obtained only eight Senate seats. The reason behind this fall was that a number of prominent members of Cambio Radical decided to change parties and join La U, taking their votes with them. Mr. Vargas Lleras’ absence from the ballot, as he is no longer running for Congress but for the presidency, may have hurt his party’s chances as well.
But the election also brought other surprises, some good, and some bad. On the good side, there was success for the newly founded Green Party, led by Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Eduardo (“Lucho”) Garzon, three former mayors of Bogota. The Greens, who were also holding their primary election for the presidency, won four seats in the Senate, which will make them a small but loud force in Congress for the next four years. Also, Mr. Mockus was elected over Peñalosa and Garzon as the party’s official presidential candidate. Although it is unlikely that he will even make it to the runoff election, it is a great relief to see that honest, decent politicians can build a party out of nothing and get support from the voters without the need to bribe or intimidate them. Good for the Greens.
The unpleasant surprise came from the Partido de Integracion Nacional (PIN). Early in the congressional race, the PIN became infamous because a good number of its candidates were relatives of politicians involved in the parapolitics scandal. The PIN, founded only last November, obtained eight seats in the Senate on Sunday, making it a force to be reckoned with. Of course, there is nothing illegal in running for Congress if your aunt, father, niece, grandmother, cousin or whoever else in your family was a thug. Who cares if my _______ (fill in the blank) was an ally of the same paramilitary groups that killed people by the dozen and terrorized large parts of the country – I am not legally responsible for that. However, the victory of the PIN sends the awful message that the parapoliticians are not entirely a thing of the past. Their successors will have a voice in Congress, and that is quite simply an embarrassment for Colombia. I am still waiting for someone to give me a satisfactory explanation of how the PIN was able to obtain over 780,000 votes, and to be honest, I fear the worst.
The other sad story of the day (although a different kind of sad) came from Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellin. His movement Compromiso Ciudadano obtained only one seat in the Senate, and its number of votes may be so few that it could actually lose its legal status as a political organization. Mr Fajardo’s performance was the big disappointment of the day, and this defeat puts his presidential ambitions into question. Some people who tweeted from Compromiso Ciudadano’s headquarters yesterday described the atmosphere as somber and heavy. I also read a (probably apocryphal) tweet that said that his daughter had asked Mr. Fajardo not to run for president, after seeing the awful results that his movement obtained in the elections. I believe this puts an end to the Fajardo enigma, as the voters have realized that his campaign and his entire movement have very little substance.
But perhaps the most important part of Sunday’s election had nothing to do with Congress, but with the Conservative Party’s primary elections. Noemi Sanin and Andres Felipe Arias were neck-and-neck for the entire evening, and for some reason (Ms. Sanin’s campaign suspects something fishy) the vote count happened extremely slowly. At the time of writing (2 AM), Mr. Arias had over 517,500 votes, while Ms. Sanin has over 514,500. The problem is that those numbers came from only 46% of polling stations, so 54% of the votes were still waiting to be counted. The election was too close to call, and Ms. Sanin’s campaign complained that the votes from Bogota, Antioquia, and Valle del Cauca were not being counted fast enough. With the two candidates so close to each other in the final count, it is difficult to predict what will happen. Nonetheless, regardless of who is declared the official winner, I am confident that the loser will put up a fight afterwards – and it could get nasty.
The main conclusion to be drawn from this election is this: the candidates and the parties that supported President Uribe have prevailed, while those who stood against or who failed to show loyalty to the administration have suffered bitter defeats. The votes of the citizens have shown that all those opinion polls were not lying about the president’s popularity, and those who thought that the end of uribismo would begin after the Constitutional Court’s “big no” to the referendum were wrong. Colombia, after all, is still Uribeland, and Sunday’s election shows that the balance of political power in the country has shifted decidedly to the right. The Colombian left, after all, is still irrelevant, and that will be the state of affairs for the next four years. We will see how the presidential election unfolds after what happened on Sunday, but I think Colombia should be getting ready for a landslide victory of uribismo. After eight years, it seems, Colombia still can’t get enough of it.