Reforming Colombia’s electoral system?

One of the lowest turnouts in Latin America, widespread political apathy, delegitimized and broken democratic institutions, widely disliked politicians – Colombia’s political and electoral systems aren’t working as they should be, and it becomes even clearer with every passing scandal or political incident. Reforming, improving, Colombia’s political system is one of the intentions of the recent peace agreement with the FARC, and perhaps one of the more important points of this peace agreement – how can you build peace if the ones building it aren’t seen as legitimate?

Colombia’s political and electoral systems have many problems, with deep historical roots. Historically, Colombian politicians and parties have failed – often because they were unwilling – to accommodate and effectively represent new sectors of society, which helps explains the enduring control of regional political and economic elites (caciques) over political parties, which in turn make parties weak and incoherent amalgamations of personalist and clientelist machines (rather than representative of citizen interests as the theory would like them to be). These regional and national political and economic elites have, at times, consented to democratizing the system to integrate new emerging interests and groups into the political system, as with the 1991 constitution, which has had undeniable positive effects on the quality of democracy in Colombia. At the same time, they seek to use these same reforms to fit their own interests or otherwise pretend that everything is OK, usually under the facile argument that “Colombia is Latin America’s oldest democracy”. Although Colombian politics are too dynamic and complex to be reduced merely to ‘regional and national elites’ – certainly local government in the major cities has shown that these elites may be successfully challenged – the broadly elitist nature of Colombian politics over the past several decades, as well as the armed conflict, has contributed to widespread political apathy. The last World Values Survey poll showed that 75% of Colombians were ‘not very interested’ or ‘not at all interested’ by politics – including nearly half who weren’t at all interested; in general, political interest isn’t very high in Latin America compared to ‘global north’ democracies, but Colombia has the highest levels of disinterest in the region.

Colombia is one of the few Latin Americans without compulsory voting, which makes regional comparisons more difficult, but it has one of the lowest turnouts in the region. Turnout has been below 50% in all non-local elections since 1998; it was 44% in the 2014 congressional elections, 40% in the first round of the last presidential election, 48% in the second round of the last presidential election and just 37% in the 2016 peace agreement plebiscite. Unlike in most other countries, Colombia has significantly higher turnout in local elections – 60% in 2015, which shows several things: the parochial nature of Colombia and its politics, with its long history of poorly connected regions; greater interest with local politics of direct relevance and concern to voters; the maximal influence of clientelistic (vote buying) at the local level. Usually, the bigger cities don’t show great variations in turnout between national and local elections, whereas smaller towns and villages, especially in poorer peripheral region, have very big differences. Geographic analysis of turnout shows significant differences between any given election (often due to differential mobilization of clientelistic machines), but also persistently very low turnout in peripheral and ‘forgotten’ regions with a very weak state presence, poor communications, historic guerrilla presence and large illegal economy.

Recent polling all shows how widely disliked and unpopular many leading politicians and most institutions. Congress is hated, nearly 80% had an unfavourable opinion of it in the last Gallup. Political parties in the abstract are even more widely hated, with only 9% thinking well of them – that’s less than respondents who had positive opinions of the FARC (19%) or Donald Trump (13%). In sum, it should be pretty obvious that there’s something wrong and something to fix.

The peace agreement, among other things, created a ‘special electoral mission’ to make recommendations on potential reforms to the electoral system – particularly aspects like electoral management bodies, resolution of electoral disputes (electoral justice), campaign financing and the electoral systems for different bodies. In January, the names of the six members of the special electoral mission were announced, having been selected by international and national organizations working on electoral matters (Carter Centre, Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy and the political science departments of the National University and the Universidad de los Andes) with a seventh representative from Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission (MOE). The special electoral mission has four months to deliver its recommendations. It reported on its initial proposals today/March 24. Its presentation can be seen here.

The mission has spelled out its goals as: building strong, legitimate and professional electoral bodies; improving the quality of political representation, especially for women, youth and ethnic minorities; strengthen political parties so that they’re less personalist and clientelistic; promoting a financing system which cuts costs of politics, is transparent and more publicly funded; establishing a simpler electoral system for citizens, candidates and electoral bodies.

Its recommendations are interesting and provide a good basis for debate.

A major focus recently has been reforming the structure, responsibilities and makeup of Colombia’s electoral management bodies (EMBs), notably to make them more efficient in dealing with things like campaign finance law violations. Under the 1991 constitution, Colombia’s EMB structure is a bit peculiar in that its divided between two separate bodies, unlike in most other South American countries.

The Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil (National Civil Registrar) has non-electoral responsibilities like vital records and identity cards (cédula), but it is in charge of voter registration, registering candidates, organizing and managing all elections/referendums and counting the votes. It is a fairly non-controversial body, as it is politically independent and counts the votes (very) quickly, which isn’t something that can be said about its equivalents in Ecuador or Venezuela.

The National Electoral Council (CNE)’s powers include reviewing vote counts, certifying election results, legally recognizing political parties (and revoke that recognition), regulating and monitoring parties’ activities, revoking the registration of candidates, regulating polling and campaign activities and overseeing campaign financing. It is an administrative body with the power to impose sanctions on parties and candidates for violating electoral laws. The CNE is made up of nine members elected by Congress for a single four-year term. Unlike in most other Latin American countries, its members are partisan – parties or coalitions of parties propose candidates, then elected by Congress through proportional representation. The CNE’s predecessors were also partisan – it’s a holdover from the two-party and National Front period, when partisan disputes over elections made a balanced partisan composition of the EMB a necessity (the alternative was murdering the other side). The CNE has been very widely criticized for its partisan composition, constant internal deadlock, general lack of professionalism, inefficiency, lack of resources to carry out its functions and inability to enforce laws (like financing rules).

In addition, since 2009 the Fifth Section of the Council of State (the supreme administrative court) hears electoral disputes and has judicial powers to overturn election results (once certified). It also decrees loss of mandates (pérdida de investidura).

The mission proposes to clearly delimit powers (administrative vs. jurisdictional), without overlap. There would be a Colombian Electoral Council (CEC), an EMB of 5 non-partisan members selected from lists (not specified who will come up with these lists) for 8 year terms. It will plan, organize and administer electoral events, administer vital records and the voter roll (as well as the register of party members), count the votes, control political financing and promote civic education. There would then be an Electoral Court (CE), part of the judicial branch, to resolve electoral disputes, arbiter party disputes and decide on loss of mandates and removal from office. It would have 6 regional tribunals with 3 career magistrates each and a national body with 5 non-partisan magistrates (8 year terms).

In sum, the CNE would disappear into the CEC, which would also take powers from the Registraduría, which would presumably be reduced to its non-electoral roles (citizen identification). The Council of State would lose its powers over electoral disputes, placed in the hands of a specialized and professional electoral court. The jealously protective and corporatist Council of State won’t like this, and chances are the Constitutional Court wouldn’t like it either, as it tends to jealously protect the ‘corporate interests’ of the judicial branch from ‘political interference’. On the other hand, the mission proposes to have the electoral court be part of the judiciary rather than be a ‘fourth branch’, as it is in Ecuador, so the judiciary may be more amenable to this – probably even moreso if the members of the CE are selected through the same mechanisms as Supreme Court and Council of State judges currently are (as the proposal suggests).

The institutional architecture would ressemble Mexico, which has an EMB running the electoral processes (the INE) and an electoral court which is part of the judicial branch (the TEPJF).

The mission also proposes to review the electoral system – how members of multimember bodies, like Congress, are elected. The current Colombian electoral system is peculiar and rather unique in the world – party-list proportional representation but with both closed and open lists, leaving it up to parties what kind of list they put up, although in any case they may only put up one list per body (which may sound obvious to everybody, but before 2003, parties could and did put up more than one list for the same body). The mix of open and closed lists and the ballot structure (each candidate identified with a number rather than by name) is confusing to voter and results in a high percentage of unmarked or invalid ballots – 16% of votes cast for Senate in 2014 were invalid or unmarked, compared to just 3% in the presidential election a few months later.

Most parties choose open lists, because that’s the only way for them to continue functioning as disparate motley crews of regional elites and personalist machines. With open lists, voters may (and almost all of them do) vote for a single candidate on the list and the ordering, which determines election, is dependent entirely on the number of individual ‘preferential votes’ for each candidate. As a result, elections for multi-member bodies like Congress have remained intensely personalistic, decided by clientelistic/personalistic machines rather than partisan/ideological identification – congressmen seek out votes for themselves and their associated candidates. The 2003 electoral reform and later laws (like the 2005 law on party caucuses) impose an artificially rigid party system on a country whose party system was completely de-institutionalized by the 1991 constitution and, prior to that, by the National Front. With the 2003 electoral reform, there has been a clear consolidation of the party system – 63 competing parties in 2002, 9 in 2014 – but these parties are not necessarily stronger.

Critics of Colombia’s electoral system (myself included) claim that open lists encourage or aggravate problems like: excessive power of individual politicians, internal fragmentation of parties, expensive campaigns, vote buying, clientelism, infiltration of illegal money or groups and lower women’s representation. The main solution proposed, time and time again, has been closed lists; this was last proposed by the government in its 2015 constitutional reform package, but Congress gleefully scrapped that idea.

The Senate (save for 2 special indigenous seats) is elected in a single national constituency. The ‘national Senate’ has allowed for the political representation of minor parties and strong national leaders have emerged, but national interests are poorly represented: many senators have regional strongholds and/or are identified with their region of origin, leading to the over/under-representation of some regions. The House of Representatives (166 seats) is elected by department with district magnitude ranging from two to 18.

The mission proposes a 100 seat ‘national Senate’ elected on closed lists, using the current system of PR (D’Hondt) and a 200 seat House elected in departments (min. 4 seats each) through a mixed system with closed lists and single-member districts (MMP or parallel voting). Parties will need to choose their candidacies and list ordering through internal democratic mechanisms like primaries. The mission talks of ‘moving towards’ gender parity on party lists, likely with requirements for gender alternation on lists as is the case in France.

Advocates of a closed list PR system in Colombia argue that it would strengthen parties, give them greater internal cohesion, make elections about parties rather than individual candidates and increase women’s representation. The most valid concern against closed lists is, like elsewhere in the world (South Africa just to give one example), placing power in the hands of the party leadership and making congressmen accountable to party leaders rather than voters. Internal party primaries is a solution, but there’s a risk the existing machines would just work within primaries instead.

The recommendation for a mixed system in the House is interesting and novel. Former Green senator John Sudarsky had proposed a mixed system for both houses in 2012 (and again in his 2014 presidential campaign in the Green primary). His idea was a 60-40 split between single-member seats and PR list seats, with single-member districts of about 410,000 people for the House (820,000 for the Senate).

The electoral mission doesn’t offer more details about how many list seats and SMDs there would be. There are 33 departments in Colombia (including Bogotá D.C.), four seats minimum per department would leave just 68 seats to be divided based (presumably) on population, so smaller departments would very much overrepresented. The four seat minimum per department is also a bit ridiculous, considering remote Vaupés and Guainía in the Amazon have populations of barely 40,000 (vs. 7.8 million in Bogotá).

Congressmen won’t like the idea of closed lists, mostly because it reduces their individual power and weakens their political machines greatly. On the other hand, they might like the idea of SMDs for the House, as they might find (especially in rural areas) that SMDs can consolidate local, individual fiefdoms. Could this be a ‘fair’ compromise to get them to agree on closed lists?

The mission does not recommend compulsory voting, an idea proposed by some politicians (recently by interior minister Juan Fernando Cristo), instead recommending some civic education and improvements in voting accessibility (more polling stations, free public transportation on election day). The EU Parliament will be able to tell you that ‘civic education campaigns’ are a waste of money and time, but the idea for free public transportation on election days is an interesting and worthwhile idea: currently local political machines are effectively in charge of transportation on election day, which perpetuates clientelism and vote buying politics.

Political financing is a complete mess in Colombia. In theory, electoral campaigns are partially publicly funded, foreign donations are banned, corporate donations to presidential campaigns are banned, anonymous donations are banned, vote buying is a criminal offence, strict sanctions (including loss of registration and removal from office) can be imposed for contravening the law and there are campaign spending limits. But, as one old Colombian saying goes (coined by old Liberal sage Darío Echandía), una cosa es Dinamarca y otra Cundinamarca – Denmark is one thing, [but] Cundinamarca (Colombian department surrounding Bogotá) is another. In practice, illegal campaign financing is widespread, public reporting systems are a smokescreen, vote buying is commonplace, nobody cares where the money comes from, candidates themselves don’t know how their campaigns are being paid for and the CNE is too useless and incompetent to do much about it. The issue of political financing has been a big focus this year, with revelations that both 2014 presidential campaigns in the runoffs – Santos and Zuluaga – probably received money from corrupt Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, or that Odebrecht through a Panamanian firm had footed the bill for Santos’ 2010 posters. The Santos 2014 campaign’s claim that they relied only on public financing and a bank loan is ludicrous and I have seafront property to sell you in Arizona if you believe that tale.

The mission proposes a mixed, predominantly public, system of financing increasing public funding to parties, half before the election and the other half after the election. It also proposes more effective control by the EMB and free airtime on TV (it already exists for public TV and radio, but most TV and radio stations in Colombia are private). These sound like noble ideas but not a very big shift from what is currently on the books: public financing already exists and its amounts are clearly defined by law. The main change would be a more effective EMB or electoral court. Public financing obviously isn’t perfect either and has a lot of problems. Mexico shows the risk of public funding turning parties into lucrative businesses for their owners – just look at the infamous example of Mexico’s “green party” PVEM.

These are only preliminary recommendations. Their transformation into reality would require a constitutional amendment, which is probably unlikely to happen before the 2018 elections even through the ‘fast-track’ mechanism for legal implementation of the peace agreement. I expect significant push back from the ‘special interests’ standing to lose from some of these ideas – the Council of State, the CNE, congressmen and maybe the Registraduría. The mission dreams of the ‘broadest possible parliamentary majority’, ‘broad political consensus’ and ‘political will’ but that’s a pipe dream, particularly in the current context of continued polarization and pre-electoral politicking between parties. However, these are interesting recommendations which would, on balance, likely help improve Colombia’s electoral and political systems.

To watch: Cajamarca (Tolima) votes in a highly anticipated local referendum on mining projects in the area tomorrow. A very important vote for the future of mining in Colombia.

Why did Colombia’s Vice President resign? Who is he?

Colombian Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras formally announced his resignation on March 14, 2017 and his resignation was duly accepted by the Senate on March 21.

Germán Vargas Lleras resigned in order to run for President in next year’s presidential election, which will be held in May and June 2018. The Colombian constitution (article 197), since a 2015 constitutional amendment, requires the vice president and any number of senior officials (like cabinet ministers, governors and mayors) to resign from office at least one year prior to the presidential election if they seek to run.

Vargas Lleras is one of the early favourites for the 2018 presidential election, and has been a major player in Colombian politics since the late 1990s. Who is he? Here is his biography.

Offices held: Vice President (2014-2017), Minister of Housing (2012-2013), Minister of the Interior (2010-2012), Senator (1998-2008)
Age: 54 (1962)
Party: Cambio Radical (Radical Change, CR)
Region: Bogotá / Cundinamarca

Vargas Lleras, born in Bogotá in 1962, is the maternal grandson of former President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) and the nephew of Carlos Lleras de la Fuente, former ambassador to the US. He is a lawyer by profession, graduated from the Universidad del Rosario (one of the most prestigious private universities in the country, the alma mater of many famous politicians).

Growing up close to his grandfather, Vargas Lleras entered politics as a teenager – first in the ranks of the Nuevo Liberalismo (new liberalism), the dissident reformist and moralizing movement founded by Luis Carlos Galán in 1979 as a dissident faction of the Liberal Party. It virulently attacked political corruption and made its name in the 1980s by being the first to denounce the infiltration of the drug cartels (notably Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel) in Colombian politics – a battle which took the lives of several members of the movement, most famously Galán himself in 1989, shot in Soacha (Cundinamarca) by a hired assassin as he was the runaway favourite for the Colombian presidency in 1990.

Under the banner of Nuevo Liberalismo, Vargas Lleras won his first elected office – municipal councillor in the small town of Bojacá (in Cundinamarca, outside of Bogotá) – at the age of 19 in 1981. He was elected city councillor in Bogotá in 1988, reelected in 1990 and 1992. Following Galán’s assassination in 1989, Vargas Lleras rejoined the wider Liberal Party and served as secretary general of the Liberal Party between 1990 and 1992.

Vargas Lleras was elected to the Senate in 1994, with his Liberal list obtaining about 23,800 votes nationally (over 13,200 of them from Bogotá), placing in the bottom tier of successful candidates. He was reelected to a second term in 1998, again with the Liberal Party, with about 55,200 votes.

Vargas Lleras gained a national profile as a strong opponent of President Andrés Pastrana’s peace process with the FARC (1998-2002), famously detailing the FARC’s abuses and illegal activities in the Caguán demilitarized zone (zona de distensión) during a Senate debate in October 2001. His opposition to the peace process led him to leave the Liberal Party and endorse the presidential candidacy of Álvaro Uribe, a Liberal dissident with a hawkish stance against the FARC and the doomed peace process. Riding on his newfound national renown, Vargas Lleras was reelected to a third term in the Senate in 2002, with 210,500 votes, making him the third most popular candidate nationally.

In 2002, he ran with Colombia Siempre, one of a plethora of empty shell parties which had proliferated in the late ’90s (this party was led by Juan Lozano, a former galanista, now an uribista columnist). Pushed by the partisan consolidation which followed the 2003 political-electoral reform, Vargas joined Cambio Radical (CR, Radical Change), a party founded by galanista Liberal dissidents in 1998, and soon thereafter became leader of the party. Since then, though particularly since 2010, he has maintained a stronger hold over his party than any other Colombian politician (besides Uribe with his new cult-like party) and revealed himself as an excellent political operator, strategist and an expert in the art of forming political coalitions, ensuring bureaucratic representation for his people and strengthening his own party.

Vargas remained a loyal ally of Uribe during the first term, playing an important role in securing congressional support for his most important legislative initiatives. He served as president of the Senate for the 2003-2004 session, which saw the first debates on the constitutional amendment allowing for one consecutive reelection. However, the two men had some disagreements and their relations were complicated after 2005 by Uribe’s apparent preference for Juan Manuel Santos over Vargas Lleras. The latter resented the former as an opportunist and arriviste who was rapidly making his way up without having earned his stripes as Vargas, who felt that he had been with Uribe from day one (even before Uribe’s victory in 2002 became inevitable). Santos and Vargas had nasty encounters in 2005 and 2006, to the point that Uribe himself was forced to intervene. In the 2006 congressional elections, Vargas Lleras led CR’s list and won the most preferential votes of any single candidate that year – 223,330. Nevertheless, the victory of Santos’ new party Partido de la U (with 20 Senate seats against 15 for CR) was a disappointment to Vargas.

On two occasions, Vargas was the victim of terrorist attacks. In 2003, he lost fingers on his left hand from a letter bomb. In October 2005, he narrowly escaped a car bomb which severely injured several of his bodyguards. The government quickly attributed the attack to the FARC, but Vargas believed that it had been a plot involving the corrupt state intelligence agency (the DAS) and paramilitaries.

Relations between Uribe and Vargas Lleras became increasingly strained during the first half of Uribe’s second term, particularly as Uribe and his most fervent supporters began ramming through their referendum on a second reelection. Vargas Lleras – because of his own presidential ambitions – declared himself an uribista antirreeleccionista (anti-reelection uribista), something which a furious Uribe declared could not be a thing and responded by stripping Vargas’ friends of their bureaucratic positions. The issue divided Vargas’ party, with some of its members of Congress – for example, representative Roy Barreras and senator Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez – supporting Uribe’s second reelection. In the lower house, presided at the time by Vargas’ close ally Germán Varón, CR representatives contributed to to the lengthy agony of the reelection referendum bill. Vargas Lleras continued to support Uribe’s centrepiece democratic security policy, but criticized the government and its ministers on several occasions.

To make matters worse for Vargas Lleras during this time, Cambio Radical was the party hit hardest by the parapolitics scandal – no less than 6 senators and 9 representatives from the party were found guilty of having ties to paramilitary groups in the 2002 and 2006 elections. 8 of CR’s 15 senators elected in 2006 were investigated for parapolitics, the highest absolute number among any party, although not the highest percentage. Among those convicted was Javier Cáceres Leal, elected to the Senate on the CR list in 2006 and 2010 and president of the Senate in 2009-2010. He was arrested in September 2010 and sentenced to 9 years in jail in 2012. The scandal further tainted Vargas’ image, showing his willingness to ally with sleazy and contemptible people for strategic purposes.

Vargas Lleras resigned his Senate seat in June 2008, to devote all his time to preparing his 2010 presidential candidacy (which he officially announced in June 2009). He fed a lengthy suspense about his potential participation in a ‘interparty primary’ either with the opposition Liberal Party (as ‘Liberal reunification’) or uribismo, but went through to the end with his candidacy. Lacking Uribe’s official backing (which ultimately went to his rival Santos) and indeed shunned by the palace, Vargas Lleras’ campaign fared poorly in the polls and never enjoyed a spate of momentum. However, his campaign was one of the better ones that year – efficiently and smartly run, with a solid program of ideas, a memorable slogan (mejor es posible – better is possible) and a standout performance in the debates. It was not enough for a top two finish, but with 10.1% he was an unexpectedly strong third (he had polled 3-5% in the last polls).

Santos and Vargas Lleras reconciled their differences between both rounds, and he was appointed Minister of the Interior and Justice (the two portfolios had been merged by Uribe’s government reorganization in 2002, but were later separated in 2011), an appointment poorly received by Uribe. He had originally been rumoured for the Ministry of Defence, but in the face of Uribe’s frontal opposition to that idea and Santos’ pragmatic desires to avoid a spat with Uribe so early in his presidency, he received the interior and justice ministry instead. As interior and justice minister, he was in charge of mending ties between the executive and the courts, which had become appallingly bad during Uribe’s second term. On the political front, he consolidated in Congress the president-elect’s Unidad Nacional alliance with the Liberal, Conservative, U and CR parties. He was also the government’s chief advocate for the victims’ law, a royalties reform and other major legislative projects. In May 2012, Vargas was shuffled to the Ministry of Housing, where he attached his name to the government’s popular program of 100,000 free (or low-cost subsidized) houses and apartments for poor families. He saw the ministry and its most publicized program as an opportunity to add a ‘social’ angle to his image as a strict, conservative law-and-order politician. Since then, he has relished photo-ops delivering new free houses to the poor.

Vargas and Santos had a good relation throughout the first term, but questions about Vargas Lleras’ political future arose in 2013 as the 2014 electoral cycle drew closer. He was rumoured as a presidential candidate on the off chance that Santos did not run for reelection, others speculated a return to the Senate leading a CR list to oppose Uribe’s list . In May 2013, he resigned from the housing ministry to lead Santos’ reelection campaign.

In February 2014, he was announced as Santos’ running-mate. While the Colombian vice presidency has usually been a low-profile position, not a stepping stone to higher office, Vargas Lleras’ stature and the legal possibility for the vice president to be appointed to other executive positions or be delegated responsibilities opened an interesting possibility for him. Following the hard-won reelection, Vice President Vargas Lleras was given responsibility for several important domestic policy issues – infrastructure (notably the government’s multi-million dollar investments in ‘fourth generation highways’ across the country), housing, access to water and mining. The ministers of transportation and housing, appointed in 2014, were both from CR (but CR lost the transportation ministry in the April 2016 shuffle).

The vice president spent most of his time promoting the big infrastructure projects and housing photo-ops, a smart strategy given that transportation and housing are basically the only two remaining areas where the government remains popular.

In the meantime, Vargas Lleras was conspicuously silent about the Havana peace process – leading to speculation that he was uncomfortable (if not opposed) to the peace process, given his past positions, and that he was playing it cautious in anticipation of a 2018 presidential candidacy (reaping benefits of peace if it is successful, running a hardline conservative campaign if it fails or is unpopular). After the first peace agreement was announced in August 2016, Santos uncharacteristically called on Vargas Lleras to campaign for the Yes in the plebiscite – “I want to see you next week supporting the Yes”. Irked by Santos’ admonishment, Vargas gave a “yes, but” answer – that he would vote yes, but he said that he disagreed with the powers granted to the transitional justice mechanism. His actual participation in the plebiscite campaign was very limited, mostly summed up to a large campaign event in Barranquilla with Santos and mayor Alex Char in the last few days. The results of the October 2 plebiscite – the narrow unexpected No victory – showed, in the details, that the CR’s clientelistic political machines had not turned out their people for the Yes, resulting in very low turnout in regions like the Caribbean where CR has built strong machines.

Vargas spent much of his time in the vice president laying the groundwork for his quasi-certain presidential candidacy. In the 2015 local and regional elections, with the help of Alex Char, now the wildly popular CR mayor of Barranquilla, he built a strong coalition of CR candidates across the country, particularly in the Caribbean region. Many of his candidates were controversial because of past links to organized crime, illegal groups or corruption scandals, but most were successful. In Bogotá, CR endorsed the ultimately successful mayoral candidacy of former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, going against CR’s other two Unidad Nacional allies (the U and the Liberals) who supported Rafael Pardo — although given that Peñalosa’s approval rating is barely 25% and faces a serious recall effort, he isn’t an asset to any campaign. CR has also been saddled with its endorsements of two governors in the Caribbean department of La Guajira in 2011 and 2015 — in 2011 it endorsed Kiko Gómez, who was arrested in October 2013 and recently convicted for a triple homicide (with more charges pending); in 2015 it endorsed Oneida Pinto, a politician close to Kiko Gómez who was removed from office in 2016 (over a legal technicality) but is now facing several corruption charges. CR’s leaders are refusing to take responsibility for these endorsements, with the general result being bad press for the party and Vargas Lleras.

Most politicians in the Party of the U and the Liberal Party were publicly annoyed with the vice president’s barely concealed presidential aspirations and Santos’ apparent favouritism for him (in bureaucratic appointment and favours). The U and the Liberals have been exploring the possibility of forming a coalition for the 2018 elections, officially to defend the implementation of the peace agreement, unofficially to form a strong alternative to both uribismo and Vargas Lleras. However, in January 2017, Vargas Lleras allegedly offered the vice presidency (on his 2018 ticket) to Simón Gaviria, the director of the national planning department and the son of former Liberal president César Gaviria. Reportedly, Vargas Lleras made similar offers to Conservative representative David Barguil and uribista senator and 2018 candidate Iván Duque. Although little has since come of this, it shows Vargas Lleras’ remarkable abilities as a keen political strategist, working to divide potential rival parties by co-opting (poaching?) individual politicians.

Vargas Lleras is a hot-tempered man prone to fits of anger, often reprimanding subordinates or lowly politicians for unsatisfactory work or performance. In public, he is usually able to keep up appearances. However, in December 2016, Vargas Lleras, while visiting a village, hit one of his bodyguards on the head (apparently over how the bodyguard was managing a local crowd). The incident went viral and is known as the coscorrón.

Germán Vargas Lleras has typically ranked as one of the most popular politicians in the country, with a teflon-like popularity. While Santos has become extremely unpopular, with a 24% approval in the latest Gallup poll, Vargas Lleras remained quite popular, with favourable ratings in the 50-60% range – because of his identification with the government’s popular policy areas and his detachment from the more controversial areas (peace process, the economy). However, auguring poorly for his nascent presidential campaign, the last Gallup poll in February 2017 showed a major collapse in his popularity: for the first time, he has a net unfavourable rating — 44% to 40%, a 20 point swing since December. He had been hobbled by the the coscorrón, general distaste of establishment politicians like him, unfavourable media coverage and by CR’s La Guajira nightmares; even a xenophobic anti-Venezuelan schoolyard brawl with Diosdado Cabello hasn’t saved him (at an event, he said that the free houses weren’t for venecos, a pejorative term for Venezuelans in certain regions of Colombia, and Diosdado Cabello retorted by calling Vargas hijo del gran puto, or ‘son of a bitch’).

Disjointed general reflections on Colombian politics and political history

Politically, Colombia is a country of paradoxes: (one of) “the oldest democracy in South America”, but also the oldest armed conflict in the Americas (since 1964, or, more accurately, 1946-8). It is a country with a long tradition of competitive elections, civilian governments, peaceful transitions of power and – for most of its history – a fairly consensual (formal) political culture. It is also a country with a long tradition of political violence, expressed in a dozen-odd civil wars in the nineteenth century, the madness of the Violencia or the barbarity of the current armed conflict in all its plural forms. How these two, apparently self-contradictory, things can apparently coexist is one of the most interesting things (to me) about Colombian politics.

Colombian politics and history, even disregarding violence, stand out in Latin America – I mean, pick up any undergrad textbook which mentions South America, and Colombia is nothing more than a footnote or mentioned in passing, usually preceded with the word ‘except’. Despite being South America’s second most populous country, and one of its largest economies, less is commonly known about it than is known of, say, Argentina or Chile (and, obviously, Cuba). I suppose that’s because Colombia is that annoying exception which breaks down polisci theories. Colombia is practically the only Latin American country which was not carried by the Pink/Red wave a few years ago (also, Mexico, but Mexico has a strong left). Related to this point, Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries which lacks a strong left. Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries (along with minor Central American countries and basket case Paraguay) where the nineteenth century two-party, Liberal/Conservative, system survived well into the twentieth century – certainly much longer than it did in Mexico, Ecuador or Venezuela. There are plenty of other cases where Colombia is the odd man out, or unique in some way – the near-absence of military coups, the lack of an authoritarian military dictatorship in the 1970s or the oddity of the National Front, for example.

The common refrain about Colombia being “the oldest democracy in South America” isn’t entirely accurate, and if your definition of democracy is the slightest bit more demanding than “they hold elections”, then you’d probably disagree with it. At the same time, it does have a lot of truth to it – Colombia had a peaceful transition of power between two opposing sides following an election in 1836, Colombia’s change of government during the Depression era (1930) came through an election won by the opposition (because the governing party was divided) rather than a revolution or coup as in most other South American countries, presidents who don’t serve the entirety of their terms are far more the exception than the rule (hello Ecuador) and elections are a central element to political competition in Colombia (and there is a long list of closely contested elections). On the other hand, several points strike pretty big holes in the idea of “the oldest democracy” – the quasi-permanent undemocratic states of emergency under article 121 of the 1886 constitution between the 1940s and 1991 (which allowed governments, among other things, to legislate by decree), massive human rights abuses by public authorities, the widespread collusion and criminal alliances between illegal groups and politicians, the ruling elites’ inability/unwillingness to integrate new social groups (especially disadvantaged or marginalized ones) into formal political mechanisms or the exclusionary power-sharing National Front (1958-1974). Several of these factors have been causes and effects of the armed conflict.

Something must be said about the Liberal (rojos – reds) and Conservative (azules – blues, or godos) parties, and their role in Colombian politics and society. Both arose sometime in the nineteenth century, at roughly the same time, one in reaction to the other, and they remain the only two relevant political parties until the 1990s. The initial ideological differences between the two were similar to those between the same parties in other countries in the region – overstated, though with some differences on things like religion/the role of the Church, free trade and territorial organization (federalism). The Liberals of the nineteenth century got their wet dream in the 1863 constitution, of the ‘United States of Colombia’, and supported very decentralized federalism, personal freedom (with caveats), free trade (to an extent) and state-ordained secularism/laïcité; the Conservatives, on the other hand, got their wet dream in the 1886 constitution, and their foundations were family, faith and order (still reflected in the national anthem – Comprende las palabras / Del que murió en la cruz, or on the coat of arms – Libertad y Orden). In any case, both parties have always been a complex, convoluted mess of factions – who, at specific times, have jumped ship for purpose of defeating a common enemy. The differences in social makeup of the parties, at their outset, have been overstated as well – it was never a ‘landowning Conservatives’ versus ‘bourgeois merchant Liberals’ affair of the kind suggested by some old literature. Political competition between and within the Liberals and Conservatives took place in elections (i.e. 1930, 1946), but also in civil wars – like those of the nineteenth century, of the War of the Thousand Days at the turn of the last century and, most recently, the Violencia. The Liberals and Conservatives, in a country lacking a national myth or ethos, served an important function in unifying a fragmented and poorly connected country of regions. At the same time, they (and, for the godos, the Church) also created and cemented ‘inherited hatreds’, fuelling political violence. To the above list of ideological differences I would add a really important one – murdering the other side. A tour guide in Cali once told me that the Liberals and Conservatives have been the cause/root of every problem in Colombia – it’s hard to disagree.

The Liberals ruled between 1861 and the early 1880s – the ‘radical Olympus’; the Conservatives ruled from about 1886 to 1930 (in different forms) – the ‘Conservative Hegemony’ and the Liberals ruled between 1930 and 1946 – the ‘Liberal Republic’. After 1930, the Liberals became the dominant party – they were the majority party in every election until some point in the 1990s, and when they lost elections (1946 and 1982) it was because of vote splitting. The Liberals’ advantage came from their ability at integrating or (more accurately) co-opting some emerging social group into the political system – unionized workers, some peasants, new urban clienteles and parts of the political left (the Communist Party, for one, was basically an appendage of the Liberals for a good period of time). In every case, of course, the Liberals sold all of these people out – agrarian reform, the lack thereof, being the most tragic and pernicious example.

The last round of red-blue violence in The Violence having been particularly egregious even by Colombian standards, a genius power-sharing mechanism was created by Liberal and Conservative elites in 1957 and entrenched into the constitution – the National Front (Frente Nacional). Among other things, the National Front meant a guaranteed equal 50-50 division of seats in all elected bodies (from town council up to Congress) between the two parties (with other parties explicitly barred from running themselves), an alternation in the presidency (in the style of Restoration Spain’s turno pacifico) over what ended up as four terms (1958-1974), an equal division of cabinet and bureaucratic gigs at all levels between parties, requirements for inflated super-majorities to do or pass anything and an indefinite sunset clause guaranteeing bipartisan power-sharing far beyond 1974 (article 120 of the 1886 constitution) — although the National Front dispensations ended in 1974, the first single-party government was that of Virgilio Barco (1986). The National Front was hardly democratic, and although its successes should not be downplayed (i.e. the Liberals and Conservatives stopped murdering each other, although this took away their last remaining ideological difference, and other people were murdered instead), it had a fairly negative long-term impact on Colombian democracy and political participation (i.e. it’s one of the reasons why turnout is crap). That said, although other parties were excluded from political/electoral participation, this wasn’t as bad as it sounds – the other parties were jokes on their own, regardless of other things, and the other parties found ways to participate by becoming factions of the two parties. It wasn’t as if there was no democratic opposition to the system – you had the MRL and later the ANAPO, and former military dictator/poor man’s Perón Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957) nearly won the 1970 election with his anti-FN ANAPO (amidst claims that it was #rigged, which I’m not convinced is true). The National Front turned competition from inter-party to intra-party, and this continued (and accelerated) after 1974, reinforced by Colombia’s laughably bad electoral system (changed in 2003). The Liberal and Conservative parties collapsed progressively in the 1990s – with the highly progressive 1991 constitution which favoured the fragmentation/opening of the party system, the impetus from the electoral system and the paramilitaries’ hidden hand. In any case, the Liberal and Conservative parties and their ‘traditions’ now both exist beyond the parties themselves – the Partido de la U and Cambio Radical are basically factions of the Liberals which split off, and Juan Manuel Santos, a founder and leader of the Partido de la U, is at heart a Liberal.

Colombian politics remain intensely clientelistic and patronage-driven. No president has won without support of some kind of political machine — in Colombia, ‘political machine’ really takes on its nasty pejorative connotation; Antanas Mockus came closest in 2010, and modern post-2010 uribismo has gone very far without much in the way of traditional political machines (which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have any). The machines and clientelistic networks they represent reign supreme in Congress, the lair of criminals. They are kept in line to vote for the government’s bills through pork (in Santos’ Colombia, known as marmelade, which is a superior term), bureaucratic appointments for their friends and allies (at all levels, political machines/clans expect ‘bureaucratic quotas’ for themselves in administrations) and a chance to sneak in riders to bills (known as micos, literally ‘monkeys’, again a far superior term to boring English!).  If you don’t honour your deal with these “bad hombres”, then you will get screwed over – and those people really don’t mess around (ask Kiko Gómez, former governor, convicted to 55 years for homicide).

Much more could (and should) be said about the 1991 constitution, the judiciary’s important role, the paradoxical highly legalistic tradition of a war-torn country (Colombianos las armas os han dado la independencia, pero solo las leyes os darán la libertad – Francisco de Paula Santander), US-Colombia relations, Álvaro Uribe, parapolitics or the armed conflict — but I’d probably ramble on forever…