Voto en blanco: Change or defiance?

File photo for the vote en blanco.

In José Saramago’s political parable “Seeing,” the Nobel Prize-wining author presents a nameless country in which 83 percent of voters cast blank ballots during a presidential election. Bewildered bureaucrats respond by invoking a state of siege, but their attempts to demonize the citizenry and incite violence prove futile: the people overthrow their government by democratic and peaceful means.

Colombians fed up with corruption, clientelism and inequality are likewise keen to rid their nation of its traditional elite. “Express your indignation: Vote Blank,” read red block letters on white brick at Bogotá’s National University. Headless politicians adorn the murals, their faces replaced by dollar signs.

When the Constitutional Court approved a political reform law in 2011, it clarified that a blank vote constitutes a “political expression of dissent, abstention, or dissatisfaction with political effects”. Should the blank ballot receive an absolute majority (over 50 percent) in an election, the voting process will be repeated for a second time only, but with a brand new batch of candidates.

That same year, local elections set precedent in Bello, the second largest city in the Antioquia Department after Medellín. The blank ballot beat out the sole contender, German Londoño of the Conservative Party, with nearly 57 percent of the vote. Just two months later, the public returned to the voting booths and successfully chose among six different competitors.

A handful of polls in February 2014 have left the Santos administration troubled about the presidential elections in late May. The incumbent maintains a strong lead over the other candidates, with roughly 27 percent of the electorate backing a second term. Nevertheless, the blank vote, hovering between 26 and 30 percent, is a continuous thorn in his campaign.

In the majority of nations, a blank vote refers to either an empty envelope or a ballot paper with no candidate selected. The term is a misnomer in Colombia, where citizens are required to mark a ‘None of the Above’ option. In fact, the recent political reform allows them to vote for a “promoter” of the blank vote movement, who is registered like a typical candidate.

Although there is still no official leader of the blank vote, at least two Colombians lend a face to the phenomenon. Gustavo Bolívar, an award-winning novelist, has led the “Colombia Votes Blank” group alongside his Clean Hands Foundation, which focuses on anticorruption efforts. Despite his wish to “discredit the political class,” he has publicly recognized that rotating one set of candidates for another of the same parties will have little effect on the ingrained flaws of Colombia’s political system.

Jaime Araújo, a former magistrate of the Constitutional Court, is another informal spokesperson. “For the first time, Colombians hold in their hands a peaceful instrument to change our political customs,” he has stated. He has even suggested that a successful blank vote movement could lead to a Constituent Assembly in order to rewrite parts of the Constitution.

Further still, Araújo has claimed that the National Civil Registry and the heads of Colombian political parties are “completely wrong” when they assert that an absolutely majority is required to clean the political slate. He contends that a simple majority is enough to require a repeated election with new candidates, and that confusion about the law stems from a misinformation campaign.

Amid the latest barrage of illegal wire-tapping and military contract scandals, it is no surprise that the Colombia populace is disillusioned by its government. Yet, while the specter of the blank vote still looms over national polls, it has not formed a cohesive movement that poses a real threat to traditional politics.

Should the electoral landscape remain stable, the sitting President will likely beat out his rivals by at least 20 points in run-off elections this June. Indeed, the latest February electoral statistics did not factor in the official selection by Santos of Germán Vargas Lleras as his Vice President, a decision expected to garner a substantial sum of votes.

Nevertheless, the rise of the blank ballot should send a powerful message to Colombia’s current political class. In Saramago’s allegorical tale, the government attempts to wave off the movement as a “dissolute use of the vote”. Let us hope that in Colombia it spurs change among the candidates themselves.


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