Posted by: Maher | August 30, 2007

Political Parties in Colombia, my thoughts/questions

Does it not worry anybody else that Colombia, a country with local elections occurring this Fall seems to have very strong independent candidates running for the top spots in several major cities, including the capital city.  For me it is slightly worrisome because I guess as a typical gringo I like to see relative parity between the parties in the system.  It is kind of one of those things that gives you a warm fuzzy feeling in your stomach when you’re into electoral politics and the analysis of electoral politics.

That said, from a comparative politics vantage point it appears to me that the trend to the “left” in Latin America is something that has stirred up a lot of talk, and not only in the global North but even within a lot of Latin America.  A good example of those who choose to focus on Populism is the ODCA (Christian Democratic Organization of the Americas), which is an organization that, although it contains some parties considered pretty far right…depending on the nation, has some very strong centrist and well represented parties within it (i.e. el PAN in Mexico, PSDB in Brazil, and the Encuentro Progresista-Frente Amplio in Uruguay to name a few).  That said, many do not understand neither the nature of Latin American politics nor the variety of lefts and rights within them.  This is unfortunate because at a time when it should be easier to access information and gather experience in the region, many people outside of the continent continue to lump all political actors into the LEFT-RIGHT dichotomy which is just plain bad analysis.

Regardless, taking this rant back to the point of political parties in Colombia, there seems to be a genuine need for creating better rules of the game.  I say this because Populism is not something that is necessarily limited to the political “Left” as many people seem to believe.  It is a style of politics that relies more on personalistic qualities, charisma, rhetorical approaches that focus on large social demographics (working class/unions and/or urban poor or rural agro sector) usually varying from country to country.  Many times there are specific regions of the country that tend to be a bastion of power and support for a populist leader where he/she can be certain to find refuge in the case of any sort of breakdown in the regime.  Getting the limited definition of Populism out of the way we can move on to why I believe that the lack of optimum electoral rules in Colombia have and continue to modify the behavior of political actors in such a way that political parties are moving away from there intended function (which is to produce basic ideological platforms familiar to the electorate AND to produce candidates for public office that will run, more or less, on those platforms).

The frequency of very popular independent candidates has multiple reasons and explanations, of which I will likely get on here and explain in more detail later, but the bottom line is that it is leading to a situation where there is a tendency for populist style leadership.  Some would say it already there with current President Uribe.  I will stop short of saying that only because I refuse to oversimplify in order to make the point that people must question all countries in the region regardless of their relationship with the United States.  The level of corruption that exists in every country in the world, including the rich, must not be overlooked but, at the end of the day what I believe is more interesting (and more fixable in the medium-term) is reforming electoral rules in order to modify the behavior of political actors (likely resulting in changes in the products of elections, which can be good or bad).

Changes have led to positive developments in Mexico with greater amounts of women participating in the political arena (something that they have been performing very well at least in the PAN), in Colombia (increased numbers of Afro-Colombians in public office), and in other countries where it has guaranteed representation for under-represented groups.  Often, not always, this has led to breaking long held paradigms of discrimination against these groups and has allowed an institutionalization of tolerance and co-existence to occur helping heal old wounds and begin the consolidation of democracy in some nations of the region.  Where this is clearly a possibility for Colombia (democratic consolidation) it has a long long way to go.  Chiefly in fighting corruption and the undermining power of a very potent black market (not just the cocaine trade pays dividends when you have a well developed banking sector, swathes of uncontrolled territory, are awash in arms and other contraband and have …interesting neighbors and shipping lanes expanding in all directions.

Perhaps in light of Colombia’s greater challenges many are forgetting the little things that can be done to improve the political arena.  If the Liberal and Conservative parties truly want to recapture the bipartisan parity that they once held, they must push to reform the national, departamento, municipio rules and equally strengthen internal party rules when it comes to party discipline and formation.  Without this, there will continue to be last minute candidates entering the fray under banner “x” with a million promises, flowery rhetoric and flashy populist-esque political delivery in order to win the short-term hearts and minds of the electorate without having to undergo the grueling process of winning a party nomination in primaries.

Some of the parties in Colombia have the “grueling process” but an issue for the other side of the coin is that the populous doesn’t seem to put a whole lot of emphasis on choosing from one of the two tradition parties and, in fact, may prefer change to what they have known– resulting in a stigma of sorts of coming from the PCC or the PL.  Perhaps this is why many former Liberals and Conservatives are choosing to run as independents although holding together coalitions that will keep them loosely affiliated and with electoral force.  That said, the best coalition building party in Colombia right now is the Polo Democratico Alternativo.  The likely outcome of the Bogota elections this October will be a victory by Samuel Moreno Rojas, not because he is necessarily the candidate with the best campaign strategy but because his party has done much more to build coalitions with fringe voting blocs coming from other smaller parties involved in the election.  There are too many candidates and as they bow out one-by-one, they tend to endorse one of either Peñalosa or Moreno Rojas.

Only time will tell but it is worth taking a look at the data and coming to your own conclusions on these subtle opinions.  To be honest it’s just too late in the day (past midnight) for me to be going into too much more detail or data analysis.  That said, nighty night.  Enjoy the coming polls that will cover the raw data and polling analysis of some public opinion firms.   -MRM


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