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 media are wrong; election is up for grabs


Don`t believe the hype or the Santos friendly media; 2014 is an election where anything could happen.

Polls show just 25% of the nation wants Santos to be re-elected. And 50% – yes 50%! – of Colombians can`t decide who to vote for or will spoil their ballot in protest at the poverty of choice.

Odd then that the media go with “Santos; the candidate with the best image” and “Santos; ahead by miles”.

An independent journalist might suggest Santos is as popular as Lady Thatcher in an English mining town. To propose he is already on course to win by a landslide is, well, tosh isn`t it.

I know I bang on about how the media is conveniently cosy with the government (not just this one, but who ever the government of the time is). But for me the media should always be the fourth branch of power, a force holding politicians to account not brown nosing.

You think I`m exaggerating about the relationship between the media and Santos? Tune your dial to Hora 20 on Caracol Radio, or BluRadio`s morning programme and you`ll hear that even journos themselves accept the argument.

So, let`s ignore those who say it`s all a foregone conclusion.

Let`s look at the reality.

Santos is ahead of his rivals? Yes. In fact, add the percentage points of the other candidates together and Santos is still above them.

Santos has the support of the parliament? Yes. He has built a coalition of over 90% of congress and now has the U Party, the Liberals and Cambio Radical officially supporting his candidature. Even some Conservatives will unofficially support him despite having their own candidate. Weird? You bet.

Santos has the media on side? Ave María, of course.

So, yes he`s on course to win. There is no one at the moment that looks ready to take him on. On the right, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, former president Alvaro Uribe`s choice, has sunk without trace, now on 8%, while the affable Clara Lopez on the left struggles to get above 5%.

Conservatives`Marta Lucia Ramirez has only just got going – she has been a candidate for less than a fortnight, and Enrique Peñalosa, a possible for the Greens, won`t formalize his candidature until March.

Santos is the clear favourite? Absolutely.

But…if 50% of the electorate is up for grabs and two thirds are against the president`s re-election, well it`s not as clear cut as the experts would like us to believe.

Think back to the “Green Wave” of Antanas Mockus in 2010. Mockus almost over night surged into what looked like an unassailable lead in the polls. His message of education reform and a crack-down on corruption had Santos pegged back, languishing even.

Mockus bottled it though in a series of painful interviews and debates and Santos – with the help of Uribe and campaign strategist JJ Rendon – went on to win with a record number of votes.

Remember too that in 2002 Alvaro Uribe burst onto the scene, coming from a very lowly position in the polls to win in the first round (which meant he won over 50% of the vote).

To my mind it doesn`t take that much imagination to see something similar this time round. Dissatisfaction with the old style of politics is at record levels, Santos is desperately unpopular in parts of the country, and let`s face it, he`s not the best communicator or campaigner.

A candidate with a clear message representing something slighty different could wipe the floor with him.

I`ve lamented before that there is no such candidate. Well, how about Enrique Peñalosa? He`s not even a candidate yet but registers 10% in some polls. He is well known, has a proven track record of good governance when mayor of Bogota. Ok, so he`s from the capital and is rich, but he`s a little outside of, a little different to the political class so loathed by Colombians.

Peñalosa`s advantage is that he is neither a loony lefty nor a reactionary right-winger. His is an ability to shift between the left and the right depending on the issue. As a consequence he attracts support from across the spectrum – just the sort of thing that becomes incredibly useful in the second round run off.

So if Santos fails to win 50% of the vote and he has to go to a run off with the second placed candidate, say Peñalosa the final result is anyone`s guess.

Santos would have his 25% guaranteed, but Peñalosa might just attract more of the 50% of the electorate up for grabs.

The ABS candidate, “Anyone but Santos” is a powerful ticket.

Am I getting ahead of myself? Of course. And does it have to be Peñalosa? No.

The point is that despite what the editors of some national papers seem to want us to believe. With 50% of the electorate in play, the game is very much afoot.

Picture, Mockus` 2010 “Green Wave”.

Colombian Greens and Progresistas merge to unite the left?


Colombia`s Green Party signs a agreement to join forces with Gutavo Petro`s Progresistas. An alliance of the left? Christian Ortiz wonders how it might work.

Can you imagine the Progressives, the Green Party, and Compromiso Ciudadano together in one party? For many, it would be like mixing oil and water! However, recently the three political movements approved a general consensus to begin negotiations to form a coalition.

Despite obvious ideological differences among the three groups, it seems they are all set on joining forces to go up against an eventual Santos reelection bid. Conditions couldn’t be better; President Santos and ex president Uribe are more divided than ever; Santos’ popularity rating has plunged to an all time low; and a very unstable and questionable economic model has left the country virtually paralyzed. Such is the context in which Antonio Navarro Wolff has set out to build an alternative political option for Colombia.

Early negotiations between the three movements have faced skepticism from all sides of the political spectrum, questioning the viability of placing leaders such as Gustavo Petro (Progresistas), Sergio Fajardo (Compromiso Ciudadano), and Enrique Peñalosa (PartidoVerde) under one single banner.

Political coalitions have been extremely successful in South America, however, and it may be a headache worth enduring. Progressives, Green Party and Compromiso Ciudadano joining together could be the start of something much more solid. Picture a Frente Amplio criollo – if you will – dedicated to the Constitution of 1991, but willing to enhance democracy by empowering the people. But also picture a broad coalition that could stand to defend diversity in order to collectively develop a more humane future for Colombia.

We have seen in Uruguay, its Frente Amplio win the last two presidential elections, and as Jose Pepe Mujica is winding down his current term, the coalition is already working together to secure a third presidential mandate. Frente Amplio of Uruguay has been able to unite diverse sectors like the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Socialists, Communists, and even some Liberals. We have also seen center-left coalitions succeed recently in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Although Navarro Wolff seems to have set out to seduce the center parties first, he has revealed that ideally a next stepwill permit an accord with the parties and diverse social movements of the left. For the former M-19 Commandant, and ex Governor of Nariño, one thing is clear; “If we want to be a competitive option, we have to construct a diverse coalition, if not, Santos will easily defeat us, like a knife going through butter.”

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?

Mayor Gustavo Petro – the day that changed Colombian politics

Colombian politics have changed. For the first time in her history, a former guerrilla has become mayor of the capital city, Bogotá. But Gustavo Petro, once a militant in the M-19 swept to power not by the bullet, but by the ballot box. Over 32% of Bogotanos voted for the left-wing radical, 8% more than the establishment choice, Enrique Peñalosa.

It was unthinkable a few months ago, but Petro is now the second most powerful politician in Colombia.

How did Petro win, and what does it mean for Colombian politics?

As Colombia basked in the summer heat of June, former mayor Enrique Peñalosa appeared to be coasting to victory. It was almost certain that he would return to the mayoralty of Bogota after a 11 year absence. Peñalosa stood four years ago and lost – surprisingly – to Samuel Moreno, a mayor now shamed by a scandal that has shocked the nation, and has put Moreno in jail. Bogotanos would not make the same mistake twice it was thought; Peñalosa – a hugely successful mayor during his time in office – was just the man to rescue Bogotá from the inferno of Moreno´s mandate.

In a move designed to shore up Peñalosa´s support, and push him over the finishing line, ex-President Alvaro Uribe had joined the campaign earlier in the year. Uribe left office last year as the most popular president in Colombia´s history. A Uribe Penalosa ticket had been thought to be invincible. But public opinion is divided on Uribe. He is – for some – the nation´s savour, having brought the FARC to its knees. Others though point to what they see as corruption on a massive scale during his time in office. Rightly or wrongly, Uribe is now a divisive figure for sections of Colombian society.

Uribe´s support for Peñalosa caused much soul-searching within the Green Party (on whose platform Peñalosa was standing). Antanas Mockus (the Green Party´s presidential candidate in 2010), and one of Uribe´s fiercest critics, left the party to stand as an independent – against Peñalosa.

As the summer sun intensified, so did the competition. Gustavo Petro had now left the Polo Democratic party on whose platform he had stood in the presidential elections, to form his own, independent progessive movement.

Petro´s move was shrewd. By this point Mayor Samuel Moreno had been suspended from office, and was forced to stand trial for alleged corruption in the process of awarding contracts for Bogota´s infrastructure works. Petro knew that if he were to stand on the Polo platform he would be tarred with the brush that brought about Moreno´s denouement. He left and promptly stood on a whiter than white, anti-corruption platform.

The collective he accused of refusing to deal adequately with the Moreno corruption scandal elected their own candidate to run for office, but the majority of Polo´s natural voters stuck with Petro.

The polls continued consistently to show strong support for Peñalosa. But while in June he had enjoyed a ten per cent lead over the nearest candidate, Gina Parody, by September the race had narrowed and there were three horses in the race. By this time it had become clear that Mockus was failing to make a major impact and as a result joined forces with Parody. Parody´s support rose and she became a serious contender. But it was Petro´s candidature, however, that was beginning to make waves. He quickly moved from also ran to serious challenger, with some polls showing him in the lead while others put him a close second, behind Peñalosa.

With only a week to go until polling day, however, the race was still neck and neck, between Petro and Peñalosa. The city´s voters were set to deliver a technical draw. But, with days to go, Petro broke free, his support swelling – as votes ebbed away from the many also ran candidates – and polls on the eve of the election showed the 8 and 9% lead which eventually became the reality on Sunday night as the voting booths shut.

It was a dramatic end to a campaign that owed more to opinion polls than to policies. Peñalosa, the favourite from the outset had been beaten by Petro the outsider – a plucky tortoise who outran the dead cert hare.

Why did voters, eventually put their faith in Petro? There are three overriding reasons:

Petro represents change. He presents himself as a political outsider in a country in which the political elite is a closed group – where governors, senators and presidents are taken from the same (often family) stock. Bogotá needed to make a break from the past, from Moreno.

Petro has positioned himself as the anti-corruption candidate. Colombia has been shocked by the scandals at the heart of current mayor Samuel Moreno’s administration. By leaving the Polo Democrats, Petro was able to cast himself as the white-knight candidate. It is also true that Petro has made his political career by uncovering and standing against corruption at the heart of the political system.

While Colombia is a right-wing country, Bogotá is a left-wing city. Colombians elected right-wing Alvaro Uribe as president between 2002 and 2010, but in Bogotá they elected left-wingers Luis Garzon in 2003 and Samuel Moreno in 2007. Petro will continue this trend.

It is also possible to point to the split in the centrist vote – Peñalosa would almost certainly have won if the field of candidates had been narrower.

What does Petro´s victory mean for Colombian politics?

This will depend on how Petro governs, of course. For the time-being it is a blow to the Green Party which must now be set for a period of cool and calm reflection. It is also a shot across the bows of the establishment parties. Peñalosa lost, despite the support of three parties in the national government´s coalition, the Conservatives, the U and the Greens. Petro won as an independent. Gina Parody came third as an independent. This website reported last month on the phenonomen of personality over party politics…Petro´s election accelerates this trend.

It is bad news for former president Alvaro Uribe. Not only did his candidate lose, but Petro a bitter opponent won.

The most important aspect of Petro´s win, however is the potential for it to act as a catalyst for the peace process. Petro is a former guerrilla. Although it is thought no bullet was fired by him in anger, he was nevertheless part of the intellectual arm of M-19. He demobilised in the 90s and began his legitimate political career. President Santos has been quick to point to Petro as an example of how former militants can be re-cast, rejoin and make a useful contribution to society. The history of conflict resolution – particularly in my own country, the UK – shows us that offering combatants a routemap back to useful civilian life can be a powerful tool.

For now those on the right in Colombia will be licking their wounds, those in Bogotá will be waiting anxiously to see how Petro performs, and those in the world of political commentary will be speculating whether one day this former guerrilla could become president.

Bogotá needs change, for this website Enrique Peñalosa represented the best choice before the electorate. But Petro won with a clear mandate. There is no doubting that Petro is an intellectual, and that he has fought for years against corruption. His victory is historic,  time will tell whether his period in office will be looked upon in the same way.

Colombia’s personality politics and Bogota’s mayoral race

Peñalosa (r), Petro, and Parody.

It is impossible to predict who will become Bogota’s next mayor. With less than three weeks of campaigning left, opinion polls are still pointing to a three horse race. If they are to be believed we’re heading for a technical draw between Enrique Penalosa and Gustavo Petro – with Gina Parody following closely behind.

Colombia´s three big parties are the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Party of the U. Yet none of the three candidates is representing either one of these parties.

 This year´s mayoral race is proof that Colombia´s politics are becoming increasingly personalised – and increasingly independent. Traditional loyalties no longer exist and party machines are less effective. The platform now matters less than the person.

The birth of pluralism

The history of Colombian politics has been monopolised by the battle for power between the Conservative and the Liberal parties.

Changes to the constitution and ambitious politicians have – over the last decade – turned Colombia into a pluralist state. The Congress is now formed of, among others, the Party of the U, Cambio Radical, the Greens, the Polo Democrats, and of course the Conservatives and Liberals.

This proliferation of parties was stage one of the evolution of Colombia´s politics. We are now into stage two where the personality is appearing to replace the party.

The Uribisation of politics

Ex-president Alvaro Uribe is the most potent example of the personalisation of Colombian politics. Originally a member of the Liberals, Uribe left the party to run for president as an independent in 2002. He won under the Colombia First banner – a movement he created. And to support Uribe´s second mandate, a new party, the Party of the U was formed – taking members from the Conservative and Liberal parties. Many of the U´s politicians are fierce Uribistas. Although the U is supposed to stand for unity many commentators joke that is actually stands for Uribe.

The alphabet soup of candidates before the Bogota electorate owes much to Uribe´s trailblazing. The campaigns of the current runners and riders all rely more on their personalities than on their parties.

Candidates have had to strike political deals and or form alliances to stand a chance of winning – the unconditional support of the party machinery cannot be counted on.

The panorama

The election is a series of curiosities – the first is that none of the three main candidates, Penalosa, Parody or Petro is representing one of the major political forces in Colombia.


The second curiosity is Enrique Penalosa. Penalosa is an ex-mayor with an international profile. He is a personality in his own right. However, despite being the Green Party candidate he cannot count on the Green vote turning out for him. Many Greens are said to be with Parody or Petro. The Greens had – until they joined the coalition government last month – been an opposition party. They were the closest thing to a threat President Santos faced in the elections of 2010. So, it is odd that Penalosa is now seen as the candidate of the establishment. He is supported by the Party of the U, and ex-president Alvaro Uribe has become his most vocal cheerleader. The Green Party had in recent years become one of the fiercest critics of the Uribe government. When Uribe took to the streets with Penalosa, the Greens split.

Many of those who vote for Penalosa will do so often despite – not because of – his party platform.

Parody, Mockus

The Parody, Mockus alliance is a tale of two independents. Mockus left the Green Party earlier in the summer – as part of the fallout of Uribe´s support for Penalosa. After much speculation, he decided to stand, he was effectively an independent.  By the end of September it had become clear that he could not win on his own and (as reported on this website) formed an alliance with Gina Parody. Gina Parody is herself running as an independent. In 2009 she left the Party of the U citing ideological differences. It is worth remembering that the U was Uribe´s party and that Mockus is – alongside Petro – one of the ex-president´s bitterest opponents. An odd marriage, then.


Gustavo Petro is an old member of the guerrilla group M19. But , since leaving the group, he has become an influential and important figure on the left.  He fought the 2010 presidential elections as the candidate of the left-wing Polo Democrats. But like Mockus he fell out with his old party and left them in the summer to run for mayor, as an independent. Petro´s base, however, is those who ordinarily vote for the Polo Democrats. The Polo do have an official candidate, Aurelio Suarez, but he barely registers in polls.

The also rans

The Conservatives, the Liberals and the Party of the U are the three biggest parties in Congress. Yet none has a candidate with a hope of winning.

Conservative Party candidate, Dionisio Araujo retired from the race as he was polling less than 1 per cent of the vote. He himself has joined the Parody camp. But Araujo is at odds with Conservative leader, Jose Dario Salazar, who has said the party is yet to decide who to support. Most expect the Conservatives to turn out for Penalosa.

Liberal supporters have their own candidate David Luna still in the race – but he has only five per cent of the vote. The rest of the natural Liberal vote is split, but it is thought that over a third will go for Penalosa.

Who will win?

Bogota is in desperate need of strong leadership. Voters have a difficult choice before them – with nine candidates still on the register. The candidate who wins will – between now and voting day – need to pick up votes currently with the also-rans. The winner will also look to convince the 16 per cent of voters who are yet to make up their mind.

The uncertainty in Bogota is on one level healthy for democracy. But if the trend continues there is a danger that policies become increasingly crowded out or ignored in favour of discussion on the plots and subplots of who´s supporting whom, who´s standing and who´s not. This would be regrettable. For now, however, we should enjoy what´s left of a hugely intriguing battle.

Mockus/Parody pact – a new politics for Bogota?

The Mockus Parody pact, photo Terra

The future of Bogota is at stake on 30 October 2011. Outgoing Mayor Samuel Moreno is in jail as he faces trial for corruption on a monumental scale. He leaves behind him a city in desperate need of strong political leadership, and drastic change. Bogotanos know they must choose wisely.

Whoever wins needs a clear mandate. But polls show that the electorate are hopelessly divided. There is a bewildering number of candidates to choose from and votes are spread relatively evenly, and consequently thinly. Worryingly, neither of the two front runners – Gustavo Petro and Enrique Penalosa – are polling above even 20%. What Bogota desperately doesn’t need is a mayor who’s scraped to victory.

Welcome news today then that former mayor Antanas Mockus and Gina Parody have joined forces and will now stand on the same platform. This narrows the field, offering a chance to vote both for experience and a fresh state at the same time – an always intoxicating political cocktail.

Two days ago, this website reported on Penalosa’s bid, and Uribe’s support – this story eclipses that.

Why is this year’s race so important?

There are four million Bogotanos eligible to vote; and they have five weeks to decide for whom. Before today there were 11 candidates in the race.

Amid the understandable voter confusion, one thing is clear – Bogota needs a leader committed to, and capable of, undoing the legacy of the last few years. Public fiances are deep in the red, long-overdue infrastructure works remain incomplete, or un-started, while corruption and day-to-day security appear to have worsened, rather than improved.

For the most part Bogota remains a hugely successful city, but public confidence in its governance has nose-dived. Only three in ten Bogotanos believes the city is on the right track.

In 2003 Mockus and Penalosa handed over a city transformed. Infamously toxic unsafe and chaotic, Bogota was shunned by investors and tourists in the 80s and early 90s. But Bogota is now a modern city, the financial heart of the fourth largest economy in the region, a tourist mecca and one of Latin America’s greenest and most live-able cities.

Recent bad government has not ruined the city (as some more alarmist commentators appear to suggest) – but it has failed in its duty to continue its improvement. Mockus and Penalosa’s work must be built on, not undone.

Bogota must elect a politician who can restore public confidence in the office and recapture the spirit of the Mockus and Penalosa years. The Mockus/Parody union will attract voters tempted by the experience and success of Mockus’ previous time in office but who are also looking for a different type of politics – that offered by the independent voice of a new generation of politicians.

Does today’s news change the race?

Yes – but it’s too early to tell whether this move has blown it wide open. How will the other candidates respond?

Parties and candidates have until Friday to decide what to do. After that, no further changes can be made to the ballot paper. Two questions remain to be answered between now and then. Will there be any further alliances, and which of the Mockus/Parody pact will be chosen to lead the movement?

Listening to interviews with both Parody and Mockus today, it’s clear both are being coy about whose name will appear before voters on October 30. The calculation must be whether voters on balance want the hope of the new or the voice of experience. We’ll find out what their advisers conclude on/by Friday.

Uribe & Peñalosa – the politics of Bogota’s mayoral election

For eight years Colombian politics were dominated by one man – ex-president Alvaro Uribe. Yesterday he was back on the campaign trail – not for himself but for his old friend and would-be mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa.
Until recently, Green Party candidate Penalosa was a dead cert to become Bogota’s mayor. But with a month to go to polling day, it’s now a tight, two or three horse race. Penalosa is hoping Uribe’s support will nudge him across the finishing line – will it?
Bogota is one of Latin America’s major cities. It’s the financial heart of the fourth largest economy in the region, and is home to around 8 million people. The Mayor of Bogota is the second most important political job in Colombia. No surprise then that the battle to occupy this post is fiercely fought.
The campaign so far.
This year’s race threatened until the summer to be a dull affair. Penalosa appeared to be walking it as he faced a field of inexperienced and relatively unknown opponents. That changed with the arrival on the scene of two of Colombia’s most maverick, and popular politicians – Antanas Mockus, and Gustavo Petro.
Both Mockus and Petro stood in the presidential elections last year. Mockus was the surprise package – at times threatening to win these elections with his message of a new politics, independent from the political elite. Starting from nowhere, Mockus overtook the Liberal and Conservative candidates eventually to come second in the race. Like Penalosa, Mockus is a former mayor of Bogota, and a successful one too. Gustavo Petro is something of a left-wing firebrand. A former member of the political arm of the old guerrilla group M-19, Petro has long been a vocal opponent of the old Uribe government. His straight talking is popular among certain Colombians who feel he – like Mockus – offers an alternative to the elites that run Colombian politics. He came fourth in the presidential elections.
Politically, Bogota is a very different city to the rest of Colombia. It is known as the Athens of the Americas – the home of intellectual thought in Colombia. While right-wing politicians enjoy the greatest success in Colombia as a whole, in Bogota the left-wing candidates often do better. A fact Mockus and Petro are playing to their advantage.
Recent polls suggest a technical draw between Petro and Penalosa. Mockus has slipped into fourth, behind Carlos Galan (of the Radical Change party – and who many see as a rising star). It is too close to call. This might help explain Uribe’s sudden appearance.
Penalosa’s candidature
At the start of the last decade, Penalosa left office as one of the most popular mayors in the city’s history. Considered the ‘urban planner’ mayor, Penalosa is credited with having delivered a Bogotano renaissance, transforming the city from ‘a snarled, toxic, and crime-ridden mess’ (NYTimes) into a modern and inclusive city.
Penalosa brought about cultural change in Bogota, reclaiming the streets for cyclists and for pedestrians, and opening new parks and cultural centres across the city. He also introduced the Transmillenium guided bus which remains the main public transport option for most Bogotanos. Penalosa’s critically acclaimed vision of a modern, green and healthy city, took him on leaving office to the international lecture circuit, converting his model for urban development into international ‘best practice’.
It was surprising, then, given his success and popularity that Penalosa was defeated by left-winger Samuel Moreno in the mayoral elections of October 2007. Stranger too given Penalosa had started the campaign with an extremely healthy lead over his rivals. He had been virtually guaranteed the win. But, Moreno ran a better campaign than Penalosa, and he lost.
Some fear history is repeating itself – that Penalosa is about to throw away the mayoralty again. The problem for Penalosa is that many see him as being an excellent politician once in power, but a lousy one at campaigning to get there. For this website this is unfair.
Uribe could be just the ticket then. The former president is a consummate campaigner, a charismatic figure able to press the flesh and get out the vote like no other in the country. Although Uribe first lent his support to Penalosa months ago, yesterday marked the first occasion when he actively joined in the campaign. Penalosa’s supporters will hope this will help push their man into the lead.
So will Uribe swing it for Penalosa?
Well, it’s unclear. Uribe was once Colombia’s most popular president. There was a time when Uribe’s candidates were virtually guaranteed victory. But, following a series of scandals affecting his old government, Uribe is now more of a divisive figure than he once was. Some in the Green Party itself – who as a body had voiced opposition to Uribe’s government – opposed the involvement of Uribe in the campaign.
Perhaps it is true that on the downside Uribe helps to reminds voters of the alternative – ie Mockus and Petro both of whom have been among the fiercest critics of the Uribe regime. But Uribe is still popular, and he’s undoubtedly charismatic.
The race, though, remains in the balance, all eyes are on the next set of polls to see what effect Uribe’s appearance has had.
Perhaps we will see more of Uribe on the campaign trail between now and the end of October as he fights to keep his old foe, Petro, out of power.
A final thought – Uribe argues that Penalosa – because of his success as mayor last time – deserves another go. For this website, Uribe is dead right.