FARC isn’t the biggest threat to Colombia’s political establishment

FARC isn’t the biggest threat to Colombia’s political establishment

A new political force is set to hijack post-conflict politics in Colombia, and it’s not going to be the FARC. Will an outsider candidate take the 2018 Colombian elections?

Informally, the presidential electoral cycle starts unusually early in Colombia, a country with a strong democratic tradition and stable electoral institutions.  In November 2015 — 30 months before the presidential elections — there were already rumblings by the political elite about a potential list of presidential candidates from the major political parties.

The 2018 elections are particularly important because a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) guerrilla group will most probably be agreed on and ratified this year, which will allow certain former combatants to compete politically.

Many anticipate that this incoming leftist class of politicians will fill the political vacuum formed by a post-conflict political scenario. However, the surprise might very well be that this vacuum could be filled not by ex-FARC members but by an aggressive anti-establishment and independent political force set on shocking the status quo.  

Politics as usual in Colombia

Below are the current formal political stakeholders on the political spectrum:

The chart above is not meant to illustrate the complex stances and allegiances of political parties on single issues but rather provide a general impression of the ideological composition of Colombia’s legislature. The three parties in the bottom of the graph (Partido de Unidad Nacional, Cambio Radical, and Alianza Verde) have loose ideologies, meaning they are more politically malleable. The four parties on the upper side of the graph (Polo Democratico, Partido Liberal, Partido Conservador, and Centro Democratico) have stricter ideologies, making them disciplined and politically coherent. Polo Democratico and Centro Democratico, the two parties at each end of the spectrum, have even higher levels of political discipline and coherence.

The Colombian legislative establishment in the two Santos administrations (2010–2018) has become radically politicized. Although many parties overlap ideologically on each end of the political spectrum, they remain politically divided. Centro Democratico, the most radical political opponent of the ruling coalition led by Partido de Unidad Nacional, has some technical ideological overlap with the government. Both parties prioritize the liberalization of trade and investment, maintaining the size of the military, close diplomatic relations with the United States and Europe, and continuing the subsidy regime for strategic industries such as coffee and sugar.

However, they irreconcilably and unvaryingly diverge on narrow but deep seeded topics, specifically the peace process with the FARC. This inter-party incongruence between ideology and politics has created a paradoxical situation: the most threatening political belligerent of the ruling party is attacking from the same side of the political spectrum (right of center).

The peace process and politics

A post-conflict scenario will introduce variables that may displace all current political assumptions. The issue of peace will remain on the legislative agenda — a second guerrilla group is still active — although it will not be as polarizing as it is now. Parties both on the right and the left will have to realign their stances based on socioeconomic issues related to the post-conflict agenda such as entitlement benefits, social reintegration, and access to the formal economy.

Funding the new and extremely expensive national development agenda will be a hot-button issue, further polarizing political stakeholders. The political debate over the Colombian peace process has been contained mostly to the ethics of the agreement while the debate over the post-conflict will be centered on the finances and implementation of peace.

Economics will also be an important variable in post-conflict politics. Colombia will continue contracting economically in 2016, with dominant extractive industries suffering from low international demand and low prices. Inflation hit 7.45% in January 2016 and overall unemployment remains too high at 9% (with youth unemployment at 19%), leading the central bank to increase interest rates to 6% and pledge to gradually increase interest rates throughout 2016.  The Colombian Peso is weaker than it has ever been against the U.S. dollar, causing imports to decrease dramatically.   

Under this pessimistic economic context for 2016, the governing coalition led by Partido de Unidad Nacional is expected to face headwinds receiving public approval for its costly public programs.  The governing party’s emphasis on expensive public housing projects during times of fiscal duress; its inability to curve inflation and reboot the export oriented sector; and its hands off approach to the currency crisis may convince voters that the ruling party is mismanaging state resources, thus increasing the popularity of the opposing Partido Conservador and Centro Democratico parties.  

If the peace process materializes and the economic situation continues deteriorating with no proactive effort by the state to create stability, Partido de Unidad Nacional may be prone to transfuguismo politico. Transfuguismo politico is a 21st century phenomenon unique to Latin American democracies in which backbenchers in both the lower and upper legislative chambers defect to parties enjoying political momentum or parties that have the capacity to bribe opposing lawmakers.Such a scenario would eventually trigger a complete restructuring of the political establishment.

This situation is plausible. In the past decade, Colombian parties have weakened as they have prioritized political malleability over ideological consistency.

The 2018 elections

Below are the potential political stakeholders in 2018 on the political spectrum:

The chart above depicts two new political forces (bolded)—Ex-FARC, embedded into an existing but unidentified political party; and an anti-establishment outsider movement that forms as a result from broad public discontent with the political class.

Ex-FARC politicians will appeal to far left voters, competing for votes with the Polo Democratico and the Alianza Verde. On the other hand, the anti-establishment candidate will have a broad-based appeal and will focus on targeting young and first time voters.  

The outsider candidate

Weakened parties, public discontent over mismanagement of public resources, and an opposition bloc that was unable to stop the peace process, creates an opening for an independent outsider candidate not publicly aligned to any political force to run for the presidency.

This candidate would create a personalistic political party or movement to be able to run, a common practice in Colombian politics.  He or she could very well have no history in politics, which would allow the campaign to boast about the candidate’s clean slate coming into the elections. Instead of the candidate’s political achievements, the campaign would focus on his or her achievements in the private sector or in media, two sectors which Colombians tend to respect and trust more than politics.

The campaign platform could be based on purifying the political and military establishments of corruption and mismanagement, providing public services to marginalized rural communities, fiscal adjustment (but not necessarily austerity), and restoring a sense of national pride. The candidate could also have an ambiguous opinion about the FARC peace process outcome and instead focus on moving forward, which could be appealing to younger voters.

Colombia’s low voter turnout rate — an indicator of widespread discontent — demonstrates an already existing political opportunity that has not been tapped. In a country in which the political caste is so well-defined, and for the most part untrusted, a charismatic outsider candidate in particular could be the catalyst to attract dissatisfied voters to the polls.

As the Colombian political class begins to prepare for the 2018 elections, they should see the outsider anti-establishment candidate, not an ex-FARC combatant, as their biggest threat.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Daniel Lemaitre

Daniel is a GRI Senior Analyst. He has worked in policy research centered on the political economy of the Andean region in the public, NGO, and private sectors. Daniel holds an MSc in Comparative Political Economy from the London School of Economics, concentrating on Latin American markets.