In recent years, Colombians have been successful in eroding some negative stereotypes about their country, mostly related to drugs and violence. Nevertheless, one (not necessarily negative) stereotype – that Colombia is a distinctly conservative country – has persisted and even grown stronger during the same period.
One reason for this is Colombia’s role in recent regional political dynamics. For much of this decade, as many Latin American countries have elected left-leaning leaders, Colombia has been a stronghold of conservative and pro-American rhetoric. Its outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, is often perceived the right-of-center counterweight to Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chavez. Both presidents have been re-elected and remain relatively popular, leading some to think that the differences between the two leaders reflect ideological differences between the Colombian and Venezuelan people.
Colombians are also often perceived as being conservative on cultural and religious issues such as abortion, gay rights, drug legalization, and so on. Indeed, most Colombians are devout Catholics, and many others belong to rapidly growing evangelical denominations. As with other countries, many aspects of Colombia’s religious and cultural landscape are changing, but the country remains relatively traditional. Its divorce rate, for example, is among the lowest in the world.
Recently, one academic has finally put this stereotype to an empirical test. In an article for an excellent Colombian website called Razon Publica, Jorge Gaitan Villegas analyzed data from the World Values Survey (WVS), a global poll of political, social and cultural values. His goal was to place Colombia, its regions, and its age groups, on the global map of political cultures.
The most famous visual representation of WVS data is the Inglehart-Welzel map, a chart that places countries along two axes according to the results of large surveys. Typically, more liberal and secularist countries are in the top right section of the map. Sweden, for example, is far in the top-right corner. Most Latin American countries are in the bottom center region, meaning that they are culturally traditional but relatively neutral on issues of individual rights and self-expression.
According to the map, Colombia is indeed a conservative country. Within Latin America, only El Salvador and Puerto Rico are more averse to secularism, but they both value individual rights and self-expression more highly than Colombia. Interestingly, Venezuela is Colombia’s closest neighbor on the values map, being only slightly more secularist than its neighbor to the West.
Gaitan Villegas also constructed an Inglehart-Welzel map of Colombia’s geographical regions and age groups. Unsurprisingly, Colombians aged 18-25 are somewhat less conservative than those aged over 50. However, they are by no means liberal on a global scale; if the country’s youngsters formed a nation of their own, their closest cultural neighbors would be Turkey and Indonesia. The only outlier is the remarkably liberal demographic of Bogotanos age 18 to 25, who are closest in cultural and political values to Uruguay, Italy and France.
As with any attempt to quantify and map the values of world cultures, the Inglehart-Welzel chart should be taken with a pinch of salt. Global surveys are inherently flawed, and mapping accurately something as complex and abstract as culture is simply impossible. Nevertheless, other measures of political values, such as the Latinobarometro survey of political attitudes, confirm the WVS’s findings that Colombia is among Latin America’s most conservative countries. As Gaitan Villegas shows, Bogota’s youth may be the only exception.
In theory, this should be bad news for Green Party presidential candidate Antanas Mockus, an eccentric former mayor of Bogota, and Sergio Fajardo, his vice presidential candidate and a former mayor of Medellin. Though he is popular among Bogotanos, especially young ones, the WVS suggests that Mockus cannot count on the rest of the country to vote the same way.
But Mockus is known for not playing by the rules. His political platform defies definition. While he is by no means the typical Latin American leftist, neither his positions nor his political tactics would appeal much to traditional conservatives. He is famous, for example, for pulling his pants down at public gatherings to silence rowdy crowds. One way to describe him would be that he is simply “different.” Often, his political positions lie nowhere on the left-right spectrum, but far beyond it. During a recent debate with other candidates, for example, Mockus answered a question about Plan Colombia – a U.S. aid plan that funds the anti-drug effort in Colombia – by proposing an open national dialogue on the drug trade in order to reach a consensus about, among other things, whether drugs are on balance a good or bad thing for Colombia.
If Colombians were as conservative as they appear, Mockus’s unique style and political platform would probably attract few supporters outside of Bogota. Indeed, national polls seem to show that voters do in fact favor conservatives. Front-runner Juan Manuel Santos, heir to a traditional Colombian political dynasty, served as Uribe’s defense minister and was instrumental in shaping and executing the president’s hard-line security policy. Noemi Sanin, who until recently was second in most polls, belongs to the Conservative Party and is also an Uribe supporter.
Nevertheless, recent voter surveys also show that Colombians are far more centrist and politically open-minded than the stereotype would suggest. Most of the larger polls were conducted before Mockus and Fajardo joined forces to form a single ticket. If one adds together their individual numbers, the new alternative ticket has relatively strong support across the country: 21% support either Mockus or Fajardo in Bogota, 16% in the central-eastern region, 18% in the south-west, and 20% in the Coffee Belt and Antioquia. Only in the north of the country do Fajardo and Mockus struggle, with only 8% voter support. This clearly challenges the notion that Bogota is highly politically distinct from other regions. Further, the only poll conducted after Fajardo joined Mockus’s ticket shows that the former mayors have pulled ahead of Sanin into second place and would make it to a run-off round against Santos.
At the moment, Mockus and Fajardo have the momentum. Their decision to join forces made headlines and helped Fajardo overcome his name recognition problem. Santos, basically the uribista shoo-in, has been unable to attract much media attention except for a somewhat silly controversy surrounding his inconsistent positions on a dialogue with the FARC guerrillas (he supported the measure over a decade ago but now opposes it). Sanin, too, is attracting attention for the wrong reasons, mainly her continued public spat with Andres Felipe Arias, her rival in the Conservative Party primary elections.
Contrary to conventional views of Colombia as a conservative country of party loyalists, Mockus and Fajardo’s strong numbers suggest that independent candidates can appeal to a significant portion of the electorate. Of course, the key question now for the former mayors is how many additional voters they can win over. After all, in a run-off round, many Sanin supporters would probably vote for Santos, giving him a likely victory. Still, the former mayors seem to be making some progress at the expense of both the Uribista coalitions and the opposition. In other words, a fair amount of Uribe supporters are open to voting for Fajardo and Mockus.
Such voters are by definition not ideologues. Most likely, they supported President Uribe not primarily because of his conservative ideology, but rather because he appeared to address their most urgent practical concerns at the time: violence and insecurity. Thanks in part to Uribe’s success in reducing homicide rates and to his government’s failure to shield Colombia from the effects of the global economic downturn, these pragmatic voters now have different concerns, namely jobs, poverty and inequality. This gives Fajardo and Mockus, known for investing heavily in poor areas as mayors and revitalizing their cities’ economies, a unique window of opportunity, and they are taking advantage of it.
Many Colombians may not be willing to take the risk of electing two eccentric mayors with more experience in academia than in politics. Nevertheless, if Mockus and Fajardo make it to the run-off round, the country may finally shed its conservative stereotype. Defying conventional wisdom, the campaign season so far shows that Colombian voters are not moved by ideology, but rather are exhausted with it. For a country with a history of brutal political violence, this is both predictable and healthy. Now, more than at any other moment in the country’s political history, Colombians are pragmatic and willing to listen to new ideas, even from a nerdy professor with his pants down.