Nationwide elections were held in Colombia on the 27th of October 2019 to elect governors and assembly members for the country’s 32 provinces as well as mayors and councillors for over one thousand municipalities. While the results demonstrated continuity in some areas, they also revealed numerous fundamental shifts and changes in the political landscape.
Of most concern is that the politically and economically motivated violence against social leaders, farmers, Indigenous people, trade unionists, students and others has not diminished, and corruption, fraud and other irregularities remain endemic throughout all stages of the electoral process.
Nonetheless, voter turnout was a relatively respectable 62% of the electorate. A surprisingly large number of candidates who won were not from the traditional ruling elite and are clearly committed to improving the accountability and responsiveness of State institutions. Moreover, several of these victories occurred in some of the most powerful posts, including for the mayor’s office in Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. Hence it seems that the achievement of what could be broadly labelled ‘progressive’ political and social forces in the most recent presidential election, when Gustavo Petro received over 40% of the vote, has been consolidated and they have managed to maintain a substantial level of support for the moment at least.
The remainder of the article is a translation of analyses of the results by two Colombian experts.
“Territorial elections: progressive advance and ‘Uribista’ decline” (“Elecciones territoriales: avance progresista y declive uribista”), Álvaro Villarraga Sarmiento, 4 November 2019, Prensa Rural
In the territorial elections held on the 27th of October in Colombia, the most significant results were: the significant advance of progressive and leftist political parties and candidates; the notorious decline of the extreme rightist ‘Uribista’ factions (particularly the political party founded by former president Álvaro Uribe, Centro Democrático – ‘Democratic Centre’); the decline of traditional centre or centre-right parties; and the loss of power by regional clans and elites associated with ‘parapolitics’, although they still maintain an important presence in many regions and cities. The occasion was the nationwide election for mayors, governors, (municipal) councillors, and (provincial) deputies, with over 36 million people qualified to vote in 32 departments (provinces) and 1,101 municipalities.
In contrast to the previous elections, the central dilemma was not the dispute between the proponents for peace or war – the implementation of the peace agreement is now a reality, notwithstanding the many obstacles and faults, and broadly speaking the partisans of peace have won that contest. Consequently, local and regional programs and projects were the primary focus of political debates. Voters rewarded political candidates and projects committed to the fight against corruption.
Political coalitions predominated, which largely reflected the weakening of most political parties – especially the traditional parties. And the underlying context of the electoral campaign was insecurity and illegal interference, with political violence seriously affecting many campaigns and electoral crimes such as vote buying, mass voter transfers, identity theft and other forms of fraud playing a major role.
Regarding political violence and insecurity prior to the elections, the national government recognized the existence of high levels of insecurity in 114 municipalities. The day before the elections, and at the request of the Ministry of Interior, the Immediate Reception Unit for Electoral Transparency (Unidad de Recepción Inmediata para la Transparencia Electoral – Uriel) reported 5,366 complaints concerning alleged electoral crimes. A report by the Ombudsman’s Office established that ‘extreme risk’ alerts were reported in 78 municipalities, located (in descending order of frequency) in the provinces of Antioquia (17), Bolívar (11), Chocó (13), Norte de Santander (9) , Nariño (8), Cauca (5), Córdoba (4), Arauca (4), Caquetá (4), Risaralda (2) and Cundinamarca (1).
For their part, the valuable monitoring reports of the Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral – MOE) established that 88 threats, 12 attacks and one kidnapping were registered during the electoral campaign, producing a total of 108 victims from almost all political parties, further reporting that 461 municipalities were at risk of fraud and 305 at risk of violence (170 medium, 85 high and 50 faced an extreme risk of violence).
With respect to electoral irregularities, although the practices are widespread they tended to be more generalized in certain regions and areas of high poverty and marginalisation, both rural and urban. “There is concern in particular about the purchase of votes – apparently a widespread evil that has reached levels of organization and systematization of a truly criminal enterprise, the constraint of voters, and actions that put the physical integrity of both candidates and voters at risk. In some cases the security of polling stations was also problematic. There were also numerous complaints about the presence of organized crime money in electoral campaigns.”
… However, in the largest cities and in several provincial capitals the weight of public opinion or free citizen’s vote gained weight. This favoured alternative proposals for democratic change emphasizing topics such as social and environmental issues, recognition of diversity and non-discrimination. In these cases, as the political campaigns progressed they were increasingly influenced by the candidates’ performances in televised debates, political mobilizations and concentrations, direct propaganda actions in the communities, and the extensive use of social networks. These were clear manifestations of progress towards a political culture with the possibility of free democratic competition secured by the necessary rights and guarantees.
In contrast, clientelistic practices and regionally all-powerful elite clans continued to dominate in the intermediate-sized cities, often involving alliances with mafia sectors and others with recognized links to the so-called parapolitics phenomenon, albeit subject to distinctive regional and rural influences in different regions. In these scenarios many of the members of the national Congress also continue to depend on maintaining links with such regionally powerful individuals and groups for financing and other forms of support. It is now very apparent the extent to which candidates are willing to grant, negotiate and even sell guarantees of support for respective campaigns and political parties, often without any consideration of principle or political programs, clear expressions of a substantial degree of deinstitutionalization and commercialization of politics.
The “exchange of endorsements and guarantees … was pursued and consummated with an unprecedented aggressiveness and lack of scruples.” Local endorsements and alliances were arranged with candidates who possessed no political or other relevant experience or qualities, and were even made with candidates heavily implicated in irregularities and crimes, all in the interest of gaining a political or financial advantage over rivals, with no regard for the political programs and proposals of prospective allies.
The consolidation of power by these regional clans, in part by way of agreements between traditional politicians and emerging sectors – especially groups and individuals associated with drug trafficking, paramilitary groups and corruption (‘parapolitics’) – has been the subject of academic studies and its harmful effects have been denounced by a wide range of actors in different contexts. On the occasion of the latest round of electoral and political campaigns an investigation by the newspaper El Espectador identified many expressions of the phenomenon in different regions, as did some other independent media.
At the same time it is an undisputed fact of Colombian politics that quite often many of the regional and local leaderships and candidacies involve people with convictions or investigations for drug trafficking, paramilitary activities and corruption – or these people have nominated close relatives as candidates in order to avoid legal and judicial impediments.
Consequently, the conformation of the State and access to State institutions through political representatives and officials of public corporations currently has a double nature, one part comprised of protagonists of the aforementioned advance of transparent, democratic and programmatically inspired political projects and citizens, existing alongside the regionally powerful criminal groups and political and economic dynasties (‘clans’) that are typically heavily involved in electoral fraud, vote buying and corruption.
Regarding the electoral results, it is positive that, as in other recent elections, majority participation was achieved, although the level of electoral abstention is still very high: this time 61.68% of registered voters participated. Another notable feature was the importance of the blank vote which, although it was not dominant in any district, in several cases accounted for a substantial portion of the vote, obtaining second or third place as an expression of disagreement with or rejection of all of the candidates.
In relation to the achievements of the various political parties and coalitions, in many cases a reconfiguration of the contours of administrative and executive powers in the respective regional and local public corporations and offices occurred.
The most notorious development was the triumph of Claudia López in securing the mayor’s office of Bogotá with the endorsement of the Green Alliance Party (Partido Alianza Verde – PAV), the Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo – PDA) and support from other progressive sectors… Claudia López was one of the main protagonists of the anti-corruption referendum that secured the support of more than eleven million citizens. Her program emphasizes social and environmental issues, non-discrimination, the fight against corruption, social justice and the fight against widespread violence and insecurity.
The PAV also led the coalition that supported the successful candidate for mayor in Cali (Jorge Iván Ospina), and that won the mayor’s office of Cúcuta (Jairo Tomás Yáñez), of Florencia (Luis Antonio Ruiz) and of Manizales (Carlos Mario Marín). In addition, it obtained another four mayorships in coalition and significantly increased its membership of many municipal councils and several provincial assemblies.
Another very notable development was the victory for the mayor’s office of Medellín by Daniel Quintero, an independent candidate who positioned himself with a strong campaign against corruption and a democratic and inclusive discourse, thereby defeating Alfredo Ramos, the candidate of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático – CD). The unexpected victory for the mayorship of Cartagena by William Dau was also very significant, another independent candidate in the fight against corruption who managed to defeat traditionally powerful clans linked to parapolitics in the region.
Another triumph of relevance, and also by an overwhelming majority, was the victory achieved in Magdalena by the democratic-leftist project ‘Citizen Force’ (recently founded political party Fuerza Ciudadana) led by Carlos Caicedo, who was elected governor of the province. At the same time, Virna Lizi Johnson Salcedo was elected mayor of the province’s capital Santa Marta, resulting in a resounding defeat for the traditional regional power-broker clans linked to individuals and illegal armed groups involved in parapolitics.
To these achievements can be added the triumph of Juan Felipe Hartman as mayor of Villavicencio, backed by the endorsement of the PDA, PAV, Human Colombia-Patriotic Union (Colombia Humana – Unión Patriótica, CH-UP) and the Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement (Movimiento Alternativo Indígena y Social – MAIS).
Among the progressive political parties, the most successful party was the PAV (Partido Alianza Verde), particularly in coalition with other progressive forces including the PDA which also consolidated its status as an emerging political force. The CH-UP party, in alliance with the MAIS, also obtained some significant positive results, but overall the role of the CH faction was decisive given its strengths in terms of leadership, coherence, initiative and organizational base.
The loss of ground by the CD (Centro Democrático) was very pronounced; the party only obtained one governorship outright (in Casanare). This result was promptly acknowledged by the former president Álvaro Uribe on Twitter, declaring: “We lost, I recognize our defeat with humility.” The Liberal Party (PL) obtained the mayorship of just two municipalities directly, although it claimed 7 others through its participation in regionally-based coalitions; Radical Change (Cambio Radical – CR) secured five governorships outright and 11 others in coalition; the Party of the U (el Partido de la U) won the governor’s office in a single province, as did the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador – PC); the results by these parties therefore range between stagnation and a significant loss of political ground and influence.
More governors were elected from coalitions than from single-party candidates, winning in 25 of the country’s 32 provinces – as in the case of Antioquia where Aníbal Gaviria won with the endorsement of CR (Cambio Radical), PAV (Partido Alianza Verde) and PL (Partido Liberal), defeating Uribismo in what has been one of its most secure strongholds. Coalitions also won the contest for the mayor’s office in 15 of the 31 provincial capital cities.
The newspaper El Tiempo mistakenly interpreted the domination of coalitions in the elections as a result of the weakening of all political parties: “Although the CD, Colombia Humana and the Greens, as well as the traditional parties’ – Liberal and Conservative – positions have been weakened … most likely, all will declare themselves winners, when in reality the situation shows a weakening in the political power of all of them.”
However, the results clearly favoured the program-based and oriented coalitions formed by independent, progressive anti-corruption and centre-left sectors and parties such as the PAV (Partido Alianza Verde – ‘the Greens’), the PDA, the PL and other like-minded factions. At the same time, substantial weakening of other political parties is clearly apparent in the successes of other coalitions, particularly those referred to above that were formed opportunistically for purely pragmatic interests rather than in the pursuit of coherent political and social projects and programs.
Of the candidates postulated by powerful clans of regional economic and political elites in alliance with criminal elements, Vicente Blel won the governorship in the province of Bolívar, Mauricio Aguilar in Santander and Clara Luz Roldán in Valle del Cauca; while the clans of Yair Acuña – who has ten judicial processes against him, and was also supported by the parapolitics-linked Álvaro García clan – were defeated in the contest for the governorship of Sucre, as was their candidate for the mayor’s office of Sincelejo (Mario Fernández). William García was defeated in the contest for mayor of Cartagena, and Miguel Cotes in his aspiration for the governorship of Magdalena – despite the fact that his renowned clan had secured endorsements from CR, CD, PL, as well as significant support from other conservative sectors and from the Citizen Option party (Opción Ciudadana), the latter in particular widely reported as being involved in parapolitics.
Hernando Acevedo – whose relative has been identified as financing paramilitaries – was defeated in Cúcuta. For their part, the House of the Chars and their allies in Barranquilla were successful with Jaime Pumarejo winning the mayor’s office of Barranquilla and Elsa Noguera winning the governorship of Atlántico, with the support of a very particular coalition between the strong economic power of that family combined with an alliance that included all traditional political sectors from the independents to the CD (Centro Democrático). The Char clan has also been linked with parapolitics, an association that was recently confirmed with the acceptance by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (a transitional ‘war crimes tribunal’) of a case involving one of the Char brothers (who previously served as a senator in the national Congress).
In summary, outstanding imperatives include the need to guarantee the free exercise of political activities, as demanded by the peace agreement with the FARC which stipulated the implementation of an up until now failed set of fundamental political and electoral reforms, a failure that is the root cause of many ongoing problems. The definitive rupture demanded by the peace agreement – as well as by broad sectors of society – between politics and violence must also be vigorously pursued if the efforts to overcome the armed conflict and widespread political and economic violence are to have any chance of success…
** Footnotes omitted.
“Regional elections 2019: Game of Clans” (Elecciones regionales 2019: Juego de clanes), Alfredo Molano Jimeno, El Espectador, 27 October 2019
… El Espectador has established the presence of 40 family-based clans in 16 regions throughout the country.
Four years ago the regional elections were held under the domineering influence of the debate between supporters and opponents of the peace process with the FARC. The then president Juan Manuel Santos had just been re-elected and his coalition in Congress had 80% of the seats. Former President Álvaro Uribe had revived his political career by founding the Democratic Centre party and was seeking revenge (against his former protégé, Juan Manuel Santos, for initiating the peace process).
The result was an incontrovertible victory for the National Unity coalition that made up the Government; the elections also signalled the birth of candidates endorsed by coalitions and the consolidation of electoral clans – supra-partisan figures – who placed candidates and selected proxies to contest the elections on their behalf in various communities and regions.
On 26 October 2015, the day after the polls were held, the Liberal Party celebrated as no other: it won 181 city halls, four governorships outright and 10 in coalition. It was followed by Cambio Radical, with 155 mayors, five governorships outright and eight in alliance. The third on the podium was the U Party, with one particularity; it swept the mayor’s offices achieving victory in 258 municipalities, as well as two governorships outright and six in coalition. Uribismo, on the other hand, had a mixed result: 151 mayorships, one governorship outright and another in alliance. It also became the party with the largest number of councillors, obtaining 595. Somehow, this, added to the 19 senators which they achieved in the 2014 elections (for the presidency and national Congress), allowed the recently founded Democratic Center party to wield strong opposition in Congress and in the councils of key cities.
Today, the political landscape is not perforated by the wounds of the most recent presidential elections or, at least, not to the extent that it was four years ago. Gone are the bitter and entrenched battles against and in favour of the Peace Agreement, and the prevailing tone of the current electoral campaign has moved to the rhythm of the reorganization of regional political structures that are fighting to maintain power in the face of the growth of an opinion vote propagated from social networks .
And although no one can predict the electoral outcome, an analysis of the map of prevailing trends suggests the triumph of the political clans, around which many of the political parties have coalesced, mostly just to ensure their survival. And if in 2015 one of the results was the absolute triumph of candidates endorsed by several parties – obtaining 17 of the 32 governorates – today it will be a miracle if the parties can obtain a governor’s or mayor’s office on their own.
There has been an unprecedented ruthlessness, opportunism and lack of scruples among candidates and parties seeking endorsements and alliances. In the most recent elections for the national Congress (as well as in the current elections) the parties have given blank checks to their candidates to negotiate local agreements and alliances, who have consequently gone to their respective regions with complete discretion in the fiercely contested competition for power and influence. Some candidates sold their endorsement, others gave them to their friends or relatives; some played political chess by getting unfavourable candidates to endorse the campaign of a rival party… This development explains the fact that more than 17,000 candidates have been postulated, with an additional element: in these elections three ethnic parties appeared out of nowhere – Colombia Renaissance, the PRE and the ADA – as well as one religious party – Colombia Justa Libres.
Therefore, these will likely be remembered as the elections that heralded the deinstitutionalization of political parties. For example, Liberal Party candidates have endorsed dogmatic religious candidates or former militants of its regional archrivals; similarly, conservative parties recruited former staunch protagonists of Liberalism…. This political and institutional quagmire is explained by one reason: the regional elections are the elections of the congressmen. The presidential elections constitute the domain of the great national figures; those for the Congress traditionally belong to the electoral barons and the directors of the parties.
There is another factor that makes these elections a political reality that is to a large extent without precedent. It is no secret that relations between the Executive and the factions that hold sway in the Congress are battered, largely because the current government insisted on breaking the traditional scheme for governing. President Iván Duque sacrificed governability by closing the door on the so-called practice of ‘marmalade’ – granting ministerial portfolios and other official positions to allied political collectives (or acceptable rivals), in this case leaving only meagre crumbs for the Democratic Centre and some other friends of the Government. This has led the political class to understand that the current elections are the key to their survival and they are therefore seeking refuge in the competition for mayors, governorates, councils and assemblies, from where they can oil their political machinery with political and administrative appointments and contracts.
In the opinion of some analysts, although presidential and congressional elections remain immersed in old-fashioned vices, such as the purchase or transfer of voters, there is a consensus that regional elections have different and even more complex toxic elements. In smaller municipalities, the fight for the mayor’s office often does not depend on the national directions of the parties, but on the framework of local political and economic interests: on the schemes and manipulations of contractors, merchants or local trade unions and business associations, among other sectors of power and influence. Aggravated by the fact that dark money coming from illicit or informal economies is much more difficult to track at these levels, in locations where widespread violence is the over-riding factor, where the control of institutions and political campaigns are financed by drug trafficking, corruption, illegal mining or smuggling…
After consulting the maps of the political terrain, El Espectador established that, of 32 provinces, there are 16 where political clans have assembled powerful electoral structures, in some cases hegemonic – as is the case with the Char family in Atlántico or the Gnecco family in Cesar; in other provinces power is disputed, as in Córdoba between the Lyons and the Musas. In some other regions the most powerful clans act in association, as in Bolívar where the García Zuccardi and the Blel act in alliance. But the phenomenon is not exclusive to the Caribbean Coast, although it is there that they have perfected the system. It is also present in Santander, Norte de Santander, Casanare, Arauca, Guaviare, Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Caldas and Antioquia…
But what are the characteristics that make a political group an electoral clan? In practical terms they must have some of the following elements: the consolidation of a political hegemony in the region, controlling an institutionalised structure through family networks led by a patriarch – most often someone with convictions and outstanding investigations for drug trafficking, paramilitarism or corruption. “By political hegemony is understood: clientelistic political organization that has ruled a region for eight years or more, directly or by an interposed person”, one veteran regional chieftain explained.
“These clans build structures that are characterized by controlling almost all of the regional institutions: the office of the governor, a large number of mayors, the environmental corporation, decentralized public institutes, regional or local branches of national agencies, the regional offices of the inspector general, State auditors, registries and, in some cases, State prosecutors…
As it is, today’s elections take the form of a real battle of regional clans. Only in the main provincial capitals, and cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants, where a growing middle class predominates and with a high concentration of young people, are these structures threatened by the emergence of the opinion vote…
Mr. Edgar: Thanks for the excellent, detailed article – there’s a lot to digest. It’s hard to get any political analysis or rational opinion about Colombia (at least here in the US). I find that odd, considering the amount of time and effort the US State Department and intelligence agencies have spend doing something there, but I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.
SF: It would be nice to see a brief (couple of lines) bio of the authors at the bottom for exclusive SF articles like this. The author is unfamiliar to me. If I go to the CIA’s Wikipedia site, I’m only offered the possibility of 1) Pacific northwest US synthpop band musician, 2) participant in some UK reality show a few years ago or 3) mayor of the Palca District, Tarma Province in Peru.