Colombia’s presidential elections take place every four years. Although a sitting president cannot stand for re-election in practice the two main right wing parties, Liberals and Conservatives, have kept a very tight control on the process, alternating the presidency between them.
This bi-partisan grip on official politics has been backed by state terror. For the last fifty years every left wing candidate with any prospect of winning at the polls has simply been assassinated, along with their election workers. For the workers and popular movements what is claimed as democracy is simply a weapon that is to silence them. Violent political exclusion has prevented their representation within the process. Elections were just another naked assertion of class power of the rich against the poor. That is why abstentionism is so strong amongst the working class and peasantry, most of whom see voting as providing legitimacy to a corrupt and contemptible perversion of democracy.
On 26th May Alvaro Uribe Vélez won the first round outright with 53% of votes returned, the first time this has been achieved. It is important it analyse the figures in some detail to see what Uribe’s ‘landslide’ really represents. Most significant of all was the low turnout, the lowest ever. There were 24,208,150 registered voters of which 13,216,619, that is 54.6%, did not vote. The voters were a minority of the population. In the southern departments hardest hit by Plan Colombia abstention rates were over 70%. Even then, 9% of those who did actually cast their vote returned either a blank or spoilt voting card, or marked the ‘no candidate’ box. Only 41.3% of all registered voters cast a positive vote for one of the candidates.
The true abstention rate is yet higher, since there are anywhere between 2 and 5 million Colombian adults who are not registered, either because they are displaced, are guerrillas or in zones controlled by the guerrilla movements, or simply have not entered into the registration system. Uribe Vélez got support from 24% of all potential voters, or more realistically no more than one fifth of the adult population.
In fact what the Uribe Vélez victory represents is not an election mandate from the Colombian people, but a mandate from the country’s propertied classes. After all it is their vote that counts in Colombia’s elections and they have seriously hardened their attitude. Uribe asserts their collective will to finish off all resistance to neo- liberalism: Plan Colombia will be pushed further with more military aid sought from the USA and other rich countries; spending on the armed forces is to be doubled; the aim is to recruit 1 million men into a vigilante force; the executive powers of the president will be strengthened and Congress will be disbanded; there will be no peace talks with the guerrilla movements unless it is to negotiate their surrender.
Uribe is the focal point of an extreme right-wing project which carries every indication of carrying through to become the Colombian form of fascism, with the full and active connivance of US imperialism.
The election campaign was in three phases. Horacio Serpa, a former minister in Ernesto Samper’s drug funded administration, and the official candidate of the Liberal Party started as the clear favourite. An opinion poll taken in September 2001 had Serpa well ahead with 42% of intended votes, with right wing Liberal dissident Uribe Vélez (23.4%) vying with the more reformist Liberal Noemi Sanín (16.2%) for second place. At first sight the old bi-partisan structure seemed to be breaking down. But in fact what was happening, and what unfolded through the campaign, was a not the end of political exclusion and bipartidismo, but the shifting of loyalties within this structure. The race for second place was going to be important. Colombia has a presidential electoral process similar to France, that is a first round open to all candidates, followed by a second round run off several weeks later between the top two candidates, so long as there is no absolute majority in the first round.
The only progressive candidate to show up with a programme opposed to neo-liberalism and the depredations of the multinationals was former President of the CUT union federation Lucho Garzon, standing on behalf of the newly announced Social and Political Front. In September last year, according to the opinion polls electoral support for Garzon was marginal at 1.4% of those intending to vote.
The campaign’s decisive turning point came at the end of January, by which time outgoing Conservative president Pastrana had clearly opted for all out war on the guerrilla movements. His government’s talks with the FARC were only rescued by the last minute intervention of the group of friendly countries, and were to limp on for a further three weeks. Both sides knew that the end of FARC’s demilitarised zone was imminent, especially since in the meantime the US ambassador was whipping up "anti-terrorist" sentiment, amplified in the Colombian media. The Conservatives found in Uribe the man they have yearned for, a man for war. The bourgeoisie united around the hard right ‘Colombia First’ candidate. Uribe’s poll popularity shot up 20 points, to 39% and rising. By March Uribe had reached 54% of intended votes.
Then came the second turn in the campaign. Garzon was down at 0.9% at the end of January. The looming prospect of Uribe Vélez as president seriously worried the left. The impetus for the Social and Political Front came through the Congressional elections held on 10th March. Although these were a victory for the hard right, by now clearly led by Uribe Vélez, the paramilitaries claimed the loyalty of 35% of Congress, nonetheless the Front also managed to win 5 seats. More significantly the political forces in the Front began to engage with the popular masses in a real debate about election tactics. As reported in our previous bulletin, Alexander Lopez resigned as president of SINTRAEMCALI in order to stand and was elected to Congress.
There remain serious divisions on the Colombian left about standing in elections. Why stand and legitimise a corrupt process? Indeed, according to columnist Hector Mondragon, 3 months after the 10 March elections 42% of the polling stations had still not corrected irregularities, as well as various forms of electoral fraud that went unpunished. Those who threaten to expose the corruption run high risks. Remember that Cali’s Catholic archbishop was assassinated days after he denounced funding from narco-trafficking going into election campaigns. Colombia is ruled by a political class steeped in criminality, clientelism and corruption. It has never allowed a free and fair election.
What certainly has happened is that the Front’s campaign benefited from and reflected real struggles from below. All of a sudden thousands began flocking to Lucho Garzon’s election meetings. The last two months of the campaign were characterised by a rapidly growing popular intervention beginning to overflow the confines of Colombia’s electoral farce. Garzon was joined by a former M19 guerrilla Vera Grave as his vice-presidential candidate and the Front, now renamed the Democratic Pole, managed to get 6.2% of the votes, coming third behind Serpa on 31.7%, and just ahead of Noemi Sanín on 5.8%.
There is no doubt that it was Uribe who won on 26th May. But in the conditions of Colombia today what does winning mean? Lucho Garzon has also won, simply because he is a democratic, left wing candidate who has stood in an election and came out alive. Winning means building an organisation that can at least represent the wishes of the majority and survive intact.
So is Colombia a democracy or a dictatorship? Many Latin American countries have seen military rule interspersed with periods of limited formal democracy. Colombia is not so different, except that its democratic and dictatorial forms of government are administered simultaneously, in parallel rather than in series. Whether you experience the state as democracy or dictatorship depends fundamentally on your class. Certainly the election campaigns have shown that the propertied classes can switch around their allegiances freely enough. But there is no such freedom of organisation for the 70% of Colombia’s population living in poverty. Whoever is voted in, the death squads rule. Nine members of the Social and Political Front were assassinated during the campaign. Moreover, since Uribe Vélez became president-elect the murder rate has been cranked up. As representatives of the popular movement Alexander Lopez, Wilson Borja and the other members of the front in Congress are at very high risk. The paramilitaries are already off the leash. Defend democracy, defend human rights, fight Uribe Vélez and his imperialist backers.