A tale of two parties?
As well as sharing power, the Conservatives and Liberals split the nation in a period of civil conflict labelled La Violencia between 1948 and 1966.
In recent years Colombian politics have become pluralist – at least on paper, that is.
Some argue that Colombia is moving away from party politics, as the personality begins to triumph the party organization.
Ávaro Uribe is perhaps the clearest example of the personality politics phenomenon: Uribe left the Liberal Party to create the Colombia First movement, with whom he became president in 2002. As he ran for the presidency Uribe was considered an independent, around whom a potent political force eventually grew. Indeed to support his re-election in 2006, a coalition of Uribistas coalesced to become the party of the ‘U’, officially established by current president, Juan Manuel Santos (elected in 2010). President Santos has now formed his own coalition – even stronger than that of his former boss, Uribe – which he calls the government of national unity.
This government has brought together the U, the Conservatives, the Liberals, Cambio Radical, and for a period, the Greens. It used to represent 94% of congress (from 2010-2014), but following rise of Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democratico party, it has shrunk back, and there is now real and organised opposition to the Santos regime – in congress at least.
Another party outside of the coalition is the Polo Democratico (the ‘socialist party’). Polo bigwig Clara Lopez ran for president in 2014, winning around 2 million votes.
Harvard academic James Robinson has called Colombia’s party system a “cartel” – highlighting how the Liberals and the Conservatives worked to prevent the arrival of any other political force, exclusively holding on to power (regardless of ideology).
Colombia’s parties have never formulated a “programmatic” policy framework for voters to consider at the time of elections. Too often the divvying up of bureaucratic positions has been the unique aim of the party elites.
Politics is often run through “caciques” or chiefs in local districts who, often with little regard to politics in a policy sense, decide to whom and where the votes and the party support should go. This is a clearly traceable hangover from the conquistador and “encomienda” system.
Clientelism and the dishing out of favours is depressingly what often governs political organisation and alliances. Policy platforms are usually lost in the alphabet soup of quid pro quos and the you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
Reading more on this site will give you a true flavour of the often bizarre party dynamic in Colombia.