COLOMBIA: Electoral campaign kicks off

December 14, 2017

Latin News

Colombia’s electoral season is officially underway with the deadline for candidates to register for congressional elections on 11 March next year passing on 11 December. The main political parties presented lists of candidates for the 102-seat senate and the 166-seat chamber of deputies. Candidates also registered to take part in the election of the 16 new congressional seats reserved for victims of the country’s internal armed conflict, one of the provisions of the peace accord that the outgoing government led by President Juan Manuel Santos signed with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) last year. The future of the peace deal is the main issue at stake in the election campaign.

The remnants of the centre-right Unidad Nacional coalition, that has supported the Santos government for the past seven years, and the political Left are seeking to secure the future of the peace accord. Those on the Right that staunchly opposed negotiating a peace deal with the Farc from the outset, and former Unidad Nacional members who have become disenchanted with the final agreement reached by the Santos government, want to turn it into a dead letter. These two groups will vie for control of the legislature in order either to ensure the implementation of the peace accord, or to amend it.

Against this backdrop political parties have been striving to find the best possible candidates to field, candidates who are strongly backed by the electorate. This is evidenced by the fact that all the main parties have registered open lists of candidates. This allows voters to choose precisely which candidates on a party list they want to vote for rather than forcing them to vote for a set party list and hope for their preferred candidate to become elected.

The parties that chose to register open lists of candidates included the Unidad Nacional parties, Partido de la U (PU), Partido Liberal (PL), and Opción Ciudadana; the former Unidad Nacional parties, Partido Conservador (PC) and Cambio Radical (CR); and the leftist opposition parties, Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA) and Alianza Verde (AV).

More significantly, the main right-wing opposition Centro Democrático (CD) party also presented an open list. The CD was founded in 2014 by former president and incumbent senator Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) as a new political vehicle for his PU supporters (Uribistas) and all those opposed to negotiating a peace deal with the Farc. The party is viewed as a personalist project in which Uribe calls all the shots and it was widely expected that he would handpick the CD’s candidates. However, the CD opted to follow the lead of all the other major parties and allow the electorate to vote for its preferred candidates (Uribe, who is seeking re-election as a senator, is nonetheless the first name on the CD list of senate candidates).

Meanwhile the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común, the newly formed Farc political party, registered a closed list of legislative candidates. As per the peace deal, the Farc party will automatically receive five seats in the senate and the chamber of deputies in these elections. However, the new party is aiming higher and submitted a list with 23 names.

Farc list

The list of candidates fielded by the new Farc political party includes the names of some of the former guerrilla group’s most senior (and most reviled) leaders such as ‘Iván Márquez’ (Luciano Marín Arango), ‘Pablo Catatumbo’ (Jorge Torres Victoria), ‘Jesús Santrich’ (Seusis Pausivas Hernández), and ‘Carlos Antonio Losada’ (Julián Gallo Cubillos). All of them top the list of candidates for the senate or the chamber of deputies, which makes them virtual winners who will enjoy immunity from prosecution once they are sworn-in. This has not been lost on opponents of the peace deal who have long complained that it offers far too many political and judicial concessions to the Farc.

Presidential race starts to take shape

Independent candidates seeking to register for the presidential election next May also submitted their applications and supporting signatures, which must be verified by the electoral authorities, on 11 December. Among these were the former mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro (2012-2015), of the leftist Movimiento Progresistas party; and the former vice president and CR leader, Germán Vargas Lleras (2014-March 2017). Independent candidates are required to submit at least 382,148 signatures in support of their candidacies. Petro submitted 846,000 signatures, while Vargas Lleras submitted a whopping 5.5m. Yet a voting intention poll by local pollster Invamer, released on 7 December, puts Petro ahead of Vargas Lleras.

The Invamer poll gives Petro 14.3% of voting intentions to 12% for Vargas Lleras. They both trail Sergio Fajardo, the former governor of the northern department of Antioquia (2012-2016) and presidential candidate of the Coalición Colombia leftist coalition comprising the PDA, AV, and other smaller parties. The poll gives Fajardo a clear lead with 18.7% of voting intentions.

Other candidates featuring in the poll include Humberto de la Calle, the head of the government’s peace negotiating team with the Farc and PL presidential candidate, who is on 9.1%; and ‘Timochenko’ (Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri), the Farc’s maximum leader and official presidential candidate, who is on 2.1%. It is still early to make much of such polls, but they suggest that the centrist pro-peace vote will be split.

‘Seats for peace’ still up in the air

The creation of new electoral districts in areas of the country most affected by the internal armed conflict, which will return 16 additional representatives to the chamber of deputies, was included in the peace accord with the Farc as a way of increasing the representation of victims of the conflict in congress.

The constitutional reform bill creating these so-called ‘seats for peace’ (not to be confused with the legislative seats reserved for the Farc), was given final approval by the senate on 30 November before the expiry of the ‘fast-track’ mechanism employed to approve legislation related to the peace deal. However, the approval of the bill has been questioned by some senators, who argue that it did not receive the requisite majority of votes by the chamber’s plenary. The bill received 50 votes from the 99 active senators (three senators are currently suspended pending corruption investigations).

The (PC) senate president, Efraín Cepeda, adjudged that senate rules are clear that the bill should have been approved by a majority of the 102 senators and that consequently the votes in favour of the bill had fallen short. This has been challenged by the Santos executive, which asked the council of state, Colombia’s top administrative court, to intervene. On 7 December the council of state issued a resolution agreeing with the Santos executive but Cepeda has so far refused to send the bill to Santos for promulgation.

CD presidential candidate

On 10 December, the right-wing Centro Democrático (CD) announced the selection of Senator Iván Duque as its candidate in next May’s presidential election. Duque was selected from a field of five pre-candidates – which included the party’s 2014 presidential candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who forced President Santos to a second round – after a series of public opinion polls commissioned by the CD found that he was the most supported pre-candidate. Following his selection, Duque thanked CD party leader Senator Alvaro Uribe for placing his confidence in him and called on all CD party members, including his rival pre-candidates, to unite behind his candidacy.

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Latin American Newsletters (LatinNews) was founded in London in 1967 to provide expert political, economic, and security analysis on Latin America and the Caribbean. For nearly 50 years, it has been acknowledged as the foremost authority on the region.

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