Colombia’s Democracy Under Threat? Legislative Elections End in Chaos

Colombia’s Democracy Under Threat? Legislative Elections End in Chaos

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Colombia’s governing right was defeated in March’s legislative elections. However, significant discrepancies between the preliminary and the final vote count have led to allegations of fraud and calls for a nation-wide recount. Ahead of crucial presidential elections this month, this crisis is likely to foster further distrust and popular disenchantment with Colombian politicians and the state more generally.

Colombia – A Stable Democracy?

Colombia is nominally one of the oldest democracies on the American continent. Contrary to most other South American countries, Colombia has never been ruled by military dictatorships and regular elections have been maintained even amidst a decades-long armed conflict. Developed with strong popular input, the 1991 Constitution defines Colombia as a participatory democracy. Since 2015, presidents can no longer seek re-election. Yet, numerous deficiencies remain. As such, democracy in Colombia co-exists with a woebegone history of violence and serious human rights abuses. Particularly outside of major urban areas, the limited state presence and the absence of guarantees severely limits political rights and civil liberties until recently. Tellingly, the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerrilla (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) includes an entire chapter aiming at the guarantee of political participation for ex-combatants and Colombia’s civil society more generally. Meanwhile, even elections are not without their problems. Apart from violence-related risks, the Colombian Electoral Observation Mission further identified several risk factors associated with electoral fraud, institutional weakness, transparency and security of the electoral process, communication as well as participatory limitations. Ahead of the 2022 national elections, it therefore classified approximately one third of Colombia’s municipalities as “at risk”, including the majority of municipalities in the regions most affected by the armed conflict.

Legislative Elections 2022: Contestation and Recount

Against this background, Colombians went to the polls on March 13 to elect the new Congress and some parties’ candidates for presidency. In addition, victims of the Colombian armed conflict were called for the first time ever to directly send 16 representatives into Congress for the so-called peace seats. Ahead of the hotly-contested first round of the presidential elections this month, these legislative elections not only determined the space of manoeuvre for the incoming president but were widely regarded as an important barometer of the prospects of the candidates running for presidency. Yet, while a recent spike in violence as well as allegations of intimidation had already sparked criticisms before election Sunday, the actual events escalated into what some observers qualify as the worst crisis of Colombia’s democracy in decades. 

What happened?

The preliminary count published in the evening of the election day indicated a narrow win of the leftist opposition: While the Historical Pact was projected to have obtained 2.3 million votes, the Conservative Party coming in second place was projected to have gained 2.21 million votes. However, after scrutinising 29,000 ballot boxes, seemingly without a single vote for the opposition, electoral judges found that nearly five hundred thousand legally validated votes for the Historical Pact had not been included in the preliminary result. That is, the lead of the left had been much larger than initially anticipated. Colombia’s governing right, including the current President Duque, therefore denounced the elections as stolen. Former hardliner president Álvaro Uribe thereby stated that the judicial review of the preliminary vote count “can’t be accepted”. Under heavy criticism from all political parties, chief electoral registrar Alexander Vega proposed a recount of all Senate votes to the National Electoral Commission due to “the myriad inconsistencies”. Leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro denounced this recount as an attempted “coup d’état” by Colombia’s right, arguing that conservatives’ fraud allegations lacked any evidence. On March 23, the proposed recount was discarded as illegal under Colombian law. Besides, a majority of Colombia’s political parties rejected the proposal as substance-less, democracy-weakening move of Colombia’s right motivated by its fear of losing further influence in the upcoming presidential elections as well.

Outlook Ahead of Presidential Elections

In the run up to the presidential elections, it thus appears possible that traditionally right-leaning Colombia chooses for the first time ever a leftist president. This is greatly facilitated by astonishingly high disapproval rates of current President Duque who had defeated the current favourite Gustavo Petro in 2018. Criticised as a weak puppet of still omnipotent former president Uribe, Duque will hand over a highly polarised,  more violent and more unequal country to his successor. As such, it appears questionable at best whether conservative warnings of the “Venezuelanisation” of Colombia will persuade an angry electorate to vote for the conservative candidate Fico Gutiérrez or to vote at all. Tired of clientelism and rampant corruption, political disenchantment and distrust in a discredited political elite have been further nurtured by these legislative elections. This is highly unlikely to change in the short and medium term. On the contrary, given the important role of the president in Colombia’s presidential political system, a further intensification is very likely. In this sense, the events unfolding in the wake of the legislative elections have already given a first hunch of what might happen should Petro win the presidency. With the political centre largely marginalised, Colombia is likely to emerge more polarised than ever before from the presidential vote.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

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