Colombia`s elections, what to look out for


Colombians go to the polls on Sunday to elect the most important congress in a generation.

What should you look out for, and what will happen?

First, some stats.

33 million Colombians are eligible to vote, 17 million women and just under 16 million men. There are 97,000 tables and 11,000 polling booths. Half a million Colombians living abroad will vote across 63 countries.

Over 2,400 candidates are fighting three elections, the senate, the house of representatives and the Andean Parliament.

In addition, Colombia`s Green Alliance has an open primary to choose its presidential candidate.

Now, here are my 10 predictions:

1. A new party, ex-president Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democratico could win the highest number of senate seats. They have over 20% of the vote, with only the Liberal Party close. Expect the CD to win up to 25 seats.

2. Corruption will reach historic levels. Top Green Alliance hopeful Antonio Navarro says vote buying is “ferocious”, while reports claim candidates are pumping up to 5 billion pesos into their campaigns. Votes are changing hands for as little as $24 USD in some areas but rise to $150 USD in others. These will be the most expensive elections on record.

3. Left-winger Jorge Enrique Robledo could emerge as the senator with the highest number of votes. Robledo has been the most visible opposition parliamentarian of the last four years and is charismatic, forensic and indefatigable. A politician of some real conviction. You may not agree with his politics but it’s hard not to admire the man.

4. Apathy and protest will rule. The voto en blanco – literally blank vote – could emerge with the highest share of the vote. Polls suggests that north of 20% of Colombians will register their antipathy towards to the political class by refusing to vote for any of the candidates available. Sadly, abstention will also be high; over 50%.

5. The Conservatives and the U Party will see their vote collapse. The U won 28 senate seats in 2010 as the party of Alvaro Uribe, but Uribe has ditched them. The U are currently the largest party in the senate, but will lose around 50% of their seats tomorrow. The Conservatives have been particularly hit by corruption charges and are divided between those who support Santos and those who side with Uribe. Once the largest political force in the land, the blues will be reduced to fewer than 15 senators.

6. Left Wing Polo Democrats will continue to struggle to make an electoral impact, perhaps falling behind the newly formed left grouping, the Green Alliance. Robledo will of course be there, but he will be joined by fewer than a handful of senators.

7. Over 100 candidates are alleged to have links with paramilitaries. In some cases politicians already convicted of working or being financed by these brutal far right militias have simply passed their candidacy and their “votes” to family members. Verdad Abierta have also revealed that 35 candidates are themselves under investigation for parapolitics. The parapolitics scandal will come back into focus as later this year hundreds of demobilized paramilitaries will be released from jail.

8. Enrique Peñalosa by a mile will win the Green Alliance presidential primary. Over night Peñalosa will be transformed into the main challenger to President Santos in the May presidential elections.

9. 20% of those elected will be entering congress for the first time. Hardly the “renovation” politicians have been calling for, but a start. About the same percentage of winners will be women.

10. Although FARC guerrillas have threatened to terrorize the vote across 181 municipal areas, they will be largely thwarted by Defence Minister Pinzon’s action to put 266,000 members of the armed forces on the streets to monitor 99.9% of the voting booths. Pinzon claims these elections will be the safest in recent history. They must be.

These elections will change the way politics is conducted over the next four years. President Santos has enjoyed a coalition of over 90% of congress, meaning the legislature has been, well, a bit of a patsy in recent years.

If Santos is re-elected he will face major opposition from within the new parliament. He may even struggle to establish a majority. It will depend on how many seats Uribe`s CD wins and how many of the Conservatives will sit and vote with Uribe`s group.

With the return to the arena of Colombia`s political big beasts like Antonio Navarro (Green), Horacio Serpa (Liberal), and Alvaro Uribe (Centro Democratico), the next parliament is set to be a lively place. On paper this should be good for democracy. Whether the polarized nature of debate will help the governing of country is quite another thing, however.

This is the congress that will implement the peace accords with the FARC and prepare Colombia for post-conflict; it is the most important in a generation.

What should – but probably won`t – worry politicians is the level of distrust and contempt the electorate have for their elected representatives.

As abstention and protest votes emerge as the real winners on Sunday, the mandates of those elected to the 2014-18 parliament will be weaker than ever.

Politicians’ failure to represent the will of the people will undermine their ability to deliver the urgent reforms the nation needs. Or perhaps someone will get the message and change the way politics are done in Colombia. Perhaps…

Photo, Vanguardia

Colombia`s next president; a woman


Presidential hopeful Marta Lucia Ramirez was yesterday elected as the Conservative party`s candidate to fight Juan Manuel Santos in May`s elections.

Speculation is already growing that Alvaro Uribe loyalists will join forces with Ramirez making her a real prospect as Colombia`s first woman president.

The race is wide open as Santos languishes on 26%, while the majority of Colombians say they are undecided or will spoil their ballot.

Yes, Ramirez`s own polling figures currently barely register, but Colombia`s politics are a rare beast, and Alvaro Uribe himself won 2002`s presidential race in the first round just months after he had been written off as an also ran.

Santos is an unpopular president but he has the support of 90 per cent of the congress – which his opponents accuse him of buying off with over 1.5 billion dollars of “mermelada”, or jam.

Even with the support of senators, congressmen, governors and the U Party, the Liberals, Cambio Radical and a hotchpotch of others, it is almost impossible to see Santos winning the 50% needed to secure victory in the first round. That means he must face a run off against the second placed candidate.

At this stage – if not before – Uribistas could swing their weight behind Ramirez making her candidature difficult to beat. Uribe`s movement elected Oscar Ivan Zuluaga as their candidate just three months ago, but Colombians have turned up their noses at his uninspiring campaign, and privately many Uribistas have been pitching around for a new face.

Support for Uribe has certainly fallen in recent months, but he remains popular in much of rural Colombia – where the Conservatives are also strong.

Ramirez`s biggest challenge will be to hold together her divided party.

The Conservatives remain part of Santos` national coalition government and many of the parliamentarians still favour joining the Santos re-election campaign.

Ramirez and her allies accuse the parliamentarians of siding with Santos not because of ideological coincidence but because they`ve grown fond of the taste of the jam.

Ramirez alleges senators like Santos supporting Arturo Yepes paid for transport food and board for delegates to attend yesterday`s conference – from which Ramirez emerged victorious – and vote to down Ramirez`s candidature.

The decision by Conservative party activists to go against the wishes of their parliamentary representatives is seen as a rebellion against the political class.

Ramirez announced her candidacy in January 2013 and Colombia Politics argued then that she was the Conservatives` best hope of returning to power after more than a decade on the sidelines.  Since then we`ve met her a few times and have been struck by her clarity. She may remain unknown to large swathes of the nation, but unlike many politicians she has a clear agenda. She has less than four months to sell this to the country.

Is she a realistic hope for Colombia`s first female president?

Picture, Semana

Ex-President Uribe on course to win 2 million votes


Colombia`s Ex-President Alvaro Uribe is set to win over 2 million votes in next year`s congressional elections says poll.

Based on the findings of canvassers Datexco, Colombia`s three main political parties will all see their vote share reduced by hundreds of thousands when ballots are cast in March.

Leaders are staring down the barrel of a gun as President Santos supporting U Party is on course to lose over 900,000 votes, while some 660,000 will desert the Conservatives. And although Liberal Party boss, Simon Gaviria denies his collective will be affected, they are projected to shed 474,000 supporters.

Despite never having fought an election in the past, Uribe`s Centro Democratico (CD) movement is threatening to emerge as the largest party in congress, dealing a heavy blow to President Santos` hopes of a successful second period in office.

It is far too early to tell how soft the support for Uribe is; Senate and Representative lists for the CD were only announced last month and candidates face a long and brutal campaign.  And while the former president himself remains hugely popular in certain sections of Colombian society, his running mates are largely invisible figures.

What ever the result next year, however, it looks certain that an incoming president will face a very different congress to that enjoyed by President Santos these past three years. Santos has ruled over a coalition government that controls over 90% of the legislature. Record numbers of laws have been passed, and opposition to the executive has been feeble, almost non-existent.

A congress with Uribe leading a pack of new and hungry senators is a prospect that has some political commentators salivating. Should Santos run for president again (he has until 25 November to announce his decision) and win, he would struggle to pull together a majority coalition in congress.

Colombia Politics expects the Conservatives will eventually join forces with the Uribistas of the CD. Santos must also face the reality that a number of supposed colleagues elected as U Party members remain loyal to their old boss, Uribe (rather than their current boss, Santos) and will link up with the Conservatives CD grouping.

If all remains to play for in the presidential elections, the same can also be said of the congressional vote.

Colombian Conservatives and Alvaro Uribe in talks


Colombian Conservatives´ new leader Omar Yepes met this week former president Alvaro Uribe in Bogotá to discuss possible alliances ahead of the congressional and presidential elections in 2014.

Yepes has gone on record stating the Conservatives´intention to run their own candidate for the presidency; competing against Juan Manuel Santos´ likely re-election campaign, and a possible candidate for Uribe´s Democratic Centre movement.

Uribe is yet to decide whether to head up a list of candidates for the senate (he is constitutionally prohibited from running again for the presidency), but should he do so, analysts expect him to form a powerful grouping in the upper house.

Many within the Conservative Party see themselves as natural allies of Uribe and expect the party to join forces with this new Uribista intake next year.

There is also a possibility that should the presidential election go to two rounds (if no candidate has over 50% of the vote in the first round of voting, a second ballot is called between the two with the highest number of votes), the Conservatives and the Uribistas will unite against Santos.

Yepes met Uribe alongside former Antioquia Governor, Luis Alfredo Ramos who many tip as a possible candidate for the blues. Right-winger José Félix Lafaurie seen as a candidate either for Uribismo or for the Conservatives was also present.

Martha Lucía Ramírez, a minister in Uribe´s government and a natural Conservative has long spoken of a unification between her party and those of the Democratic Centre.

Much is in flux as alliances and deals are done just months before the campaigns officially begin in November. The Conservatives remain nominally within President Santos´National Unity coalition government, but there is little disguising their nonconformity with the direction Santos is taking the country.

Yepes takes over the Conservatives at a time of transition for the party. It must quickly define its route, its candidate and its platform for the elections.

Colombia´s ego-driven presidential race


Colombia´s `presidential election campaign has yet officially to begin but the list of candidates continues to grow as Green Party former Bogotá Mayor, Enrique Peñalosa this month threw his hat in the ring.

But Peñalosa, like three other candidates pitching for the top job –  Conservatives Martha Lucía Ramírez, and José Félix Lafaurie, and Liberal Eduardo Verano de la Rosa – is not even certain of securing the support of his own party.

Bizarre as it seems, many within the Green Party claim not to have heard about Peñalosa´s candidacy before he went public, and odder still is the party´s muted and ambivalent reaction following the announcement.

Are the Greens really a political party?

The Greens appear split from top to toe. And not only over whether to lend their troops to the Peñalosa front.

Former presidential candidate, Antanas Mockus walked out on his old gang at the end of 2011 when the then Bogotá Mayoral candidate, Peñalosa received the backing of Ex President Alvaro Uribe in his ill-fated campaign.

But worse was to follow when the Greens, under the stewardship of Lucho Garzón, then opted to join forces with President Santos in the National Unity Coalition Government, alienating further the Mockus wing who had campaigned against Santos in the 2010 presidential elections.

So what the Greens will do now is anyone´s guess.

Will they leave the coalition? Will they support Peñalosa? Will they disappear as a party?

Perhaps it is largely irrelevant as Peñalosa appears to be making a punt for the Casa de Nariño with or without the electoral clout (which is in any case rather limited) of his party.

Are parties irrelevant in Colombian politics? 

It´s most unfortunate for a politician to announce his campaign before being sure of his colleagues´support. But for there to be four such politicians in the same boat is careless indeed.

Political parties in Colombia risk becoming an irrelevance in an increasingly personalized system.

The parties are subordinating themselves to the whims of their would-be leaders.

Take for example Martha Lucía Ramírez. She is pitching to be the Conservatives´ candidate, but she is really after the support of Alvaro Uribe – and the same is true of Lafaurie, and perhaps even Peñalosa. The support of the Conservatives would be nice, it would secure her more votes, but politically, policy wise is it relevant? Is she, does she believe she is bigger than her party?

Ok, you might argue there is nothing wrong the idea of a coalition of interests or parties. Fair enough, but in this case no word has been mentioned of the politics themselves, no platforms are forthcoming. The candidates are engaged in nothing more edifying than a beauty parade.

And the parties themselves? Like judges on a talent show, perhaps.

Maybe their strategy is to wait until it becomes clear who is most likely to win and then swing behind them in the hope of gaining positions in a future government – even if that person does not represent the true “values” of the party…

Rather worryingly the Conservatives are not even sure whether they will run their own candidate – despite having a couple to choose from if they were minded to do so.

There are those within the grouping that suggest they should stick with the Santos campaign to ensure they continue enjoying the trappings of power…though the Conservatives in reality share little in common with the politics of the president.

Any different with the Uribistas?

Yes, within Uribe´s Centro Democratico movement, we know there WILL be a candidate who receives Uribe´s backing.  We also know that there are a at least three who have a chance of emerging with the CD seal of approval. Francisco, “Pacho” Santos, Vice-President in Uribe´s government and cousin of President Juan Manuel Santos leads the way, but there is plenty of time for this to change.

Uribe could have his pick of Peñalosa, Ramírez and Lafaurie too.

Plenty of leg showing, but very little trouser?

Too many candidates spoil both the broth and the appetite for politics. The public cannot help but to pinch their noses at the alphabet soup of options.

Lack of political organization and party control means Colombians will be excused if they switch off from next year´s elections in record numbers.

The debate, discourse and democracy would be much better served by two or three candidates each with political proposals and party backing. Oh for a two party state?

Where are the women in Colombia´s politics?


Colombian politics is a man´s world according to figures released by the United Nations yesterday revealing that just 12% of elected politicians are women.

Despite being in the majority, Colombian women are vastly underrepresented in the upper echelons of power, and across all the political parties.

The United Nations Development Programme´s ´Ranking of male and female equality in political parties´published on Wednesday concludes “the low level of participation of women in positions of power is evident and becoming progressively concerning”.

It goes on to note “Colombia has dropped 58 places in the rankings since 2006”, revealing that just 9% of Colombia´s governships and mayoralties are in the hands of women, while as little as 13% of house representatives and 15% of senators are female.

The Liberal Party has the best record for attracting women members, while MIRA and the Conservatives are second and third respectively. But none can be content with their record.

Although the figures are depressing there is hope. In 2010, Noemi Sanin represented the blues in the presidential race while Marta Lucia Ramirez is battling to become their candidate in 2014. Clara López too, has been picked to be the Polo Democrats´presidential hopeful.

Nevertheless, these women appear to be the exception that prove the rule. There is a real lack of visible female politicians, and a real lack too of ethnic minorities in power. Colombia´s politics is often criticised for being dynastic – with the sons and nephews of senators and presidents automatically falling into the top jobs.

This weekend the world celebrates International Women´s Day. Colombia´s political elite must up their game to make it easier and more attractive for women to enter their all too exclusive club.


Video, Editor´s views on Uribe and the elections

Colombia Politics editor Kevin Howlett´s videocast of the week ending 17  February 2013.

He looks at the presidential and congressional election campaigns that are already underway, and ex president Alvaro Uribe´s fortunes.

For more information, contact Editor Kevin Howlett.

Telephone: (+57)  321 300 9783

Email: [email protected]

Subscribe to our You Tube channel.

Colombia´s first woman president?


Colombian Conservative and former Uribe defence minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez on Wednesday announced her intention to run in next year´s presidential elections.

Ramírez must first gain the support of the Conservative bigwigs before her candidature is confirmed, but she is by a clear margin the best hope the party has of securing a meaningful representation in the race for the Casa de Nariño.

Conservative leader Efraín Cepeda is considering Ramírez´s move and also has to ponder whether to align his group with the Uribistas as Ramírez has said must happen.

In Bogotá last weekend ex-president Álvaro Uribe convened a group of his most loyal supporters to establish their strategy for an assault on the Capitolio in 2014. Uribe´s Vice-President Pacho Santos has claimed that his old boss is almost certain to head up a list of candidates for the senate, but there remains a greater level of uncertainty about who will emerge as a presidential candidate.

Many were pushing for Ramírez to be this person. She is perhaps the most visible and respected politician running on a platform of the “Democratic Security” doctrine that defined Uribe´s eight years in power. But Ramírez is committed to her old party.

In launching her campaign, Ramírez has muted the idea of a coalition of the Conservative Party and Uribe´s Centro Democratico movement, a concept that could force apart President Santos´ National Unity government and bring together a powerful right-wing block to face the more centrist Santistas.

Cepeda must consider if and when it is right to pull out of the government. There will be resistance from those enjoying the trappings of  power, but it is a move he must dare to pull off. The Conservative Party has flirted with irrelevance following a disastrous campaign in the presidential elections in 2010 and regional elections in 2011.

A once proud party that shared power with the Liberals, the Conservatives have in recent years appeared to allow themselves to be sidelined and defined by accusations of rank corruption and by issues – like and outright ban on abortion, and anti-gay marriage promises – that have little resonance within the electorate.

Marta Lucía Ramírez is very much an acceptable face of Conservatism. Given her Defence Minister past she is a worthy adversary to Juan Manuel Santos on security issues. But Ramírez´s advantage is that she has not allowed herself to be defined – as have many Uribistas – by her position on war and peace, but instead has built a reputation as an authoratative voice on the economy.

In a series of tweets since her announcement, Ramírez decided to focus not on the peace talks with the FARC, but on the Santos government´s preparedness for the FTA with the US, and the productivity of the so-called “locomotives” of the economy.

Colombia is entering the pre-election period. The battlefield is beginning to define itself. Marta Lucía is a very real presidential candidate, one with the potential to coalesce support on the right.