Colombia: Right wins amid high abstention, disillusionment

May 30, 2014

With right-wing parties gaining footholds throughout the world, Colombia followed suit with the far-right party, Democratic Centre (CD) winning with a narrow lead in the first round of the presidential elections on May 25. CD won just under 30% of the vote.

The election presented Colombians with a five-party choice, ranging from the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo) with Clara Lopez to the CD's Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and his major rival, incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos from the Social Party of National Unity.

Despite the right winning the majority, the left has made considerable progress. This was perhaps due to the tactical decision to merge the campaign of Polo with the Patriotic Union (UP) in an bid to unite the left and provide Colombians with a real alternative to the country’s traditional right-wing politics.

The results produced a narrow win by Zuluaga over Santos (29.25% to 25.69%). CD is the party of the notoriously hard-line ex-president Alvaro Uribe, whose influence in Colombian politics of Colombia is still strongly felt.

Zuluaga has promised a return to a “hard hand” approach to the country's decades-long conflict, rejecting the peace talks with rebel groups in favour of greater militarisation.

With no candidate winning 50% of the vote, the second round will take place on June 15.

In recent years, Colombian politics has been characterised by widespread disillusionment, with many equating politics with the swirling pool of corruption and scandal that has marked mainstream politics for decades.

With a 40% voter turnout for the first round, the sorry state of Colombian democracy was exposed. This was despite it being a crucial election for the future of the country, with the ending or continuation of the civil war at stake.

After Congressional elections in March were marred by fraud, irregularities, including vote-buying and party advertising on election day, fresh scandals were expected on May 25. However, in Colombia’s of capital Bogota, elections passed peacefully with few accounts visible irregularities from the various NGOs and UN institutions monitoring the poll.

In fact, in parts of Bogota, there was an 85% voter turnout, a result far higher than elsewhere in the country.

However, vote-buying remains a popular method of collecting much needed support. There were reports of several parties bribing groups and monitoring the results of some tables to ensure they voted as they were paid to vote.

Some parties also provided buses for remote voters, shipping them to polling stations on the condition they vote for them.

Election campaigns were also riddled with scandals. A video of Zuluaga dealing with a well-known hacker was released, along with details of Santos accepting drug-trafficking money to help pay for campaign costs.

The big issue in the election arose in the rivalry between Santos and Zuluaga ― peace or war. Santos promised to continue peace talks between the government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerilla group, with a view to a negotiated solution to the civil war. Zuluaga, on the other hand, is committed to a much more hard-line and militaristic approach.

These positions represent the polarised nature of views on political participation of the FARC and a post-conflict peace and reconciliation process.

Colombians are, perhaps rightly so, largely disillusioned with a political system that serves a few elite families and traditional power blocks. Ongoing scandals and corruption have left many people preferring to sell their vote for a couple of pesos or some roof tiles rather than engage meaningfully in the system.

Despite being heralded as Latin America’s oldest liberal democracy, a 60% abstention rate shows that democracy is far from what it should be. That the vote was won by the extreme right shows the power of old forces resisting progress.

Colombia remains a stagnant, unequal society ― a breeding ground for discontent and apathy.

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