They’re coming for your vote

Political parties in Colombia
Political parties in Colombia

If a week is a long time in politics, then the 52 that make up 2013 will feel like an eternity.

There is little doubt that this will be a pivotal period for Colombian politics and for Colombian society as peace talks conclude and pre-election fever grows. But as much as the coming months have the potential to bring real change, they will also be a time of excruciating déjà vu. From now on, we should expect campaign pledges, slogans, and brutal attacks on broken promises to be parroted with nauseating regularity.

I suspect you might already be bored of the president versus ex-president phony war, the steady drumbeat of which began within months of the Santos administration’s inauguration.

Well, prepare for the real ennui to set in. It has been all but confirmed that Uribe will head up a list of candidates for the senate, and that Uribismo, his signature political brand, will fight to return to the Capitol. The warring tribes have gathered. So, if you thought the Santos vs. Uribe fight had already polarized a nation, the best and worst is not yet upon us.

In a sign of things to come, rumors suggest that the president will bring forward a political reform bill when Congress returns in March. The sole purpose of this reform, as La Silla Vacia puts it, is to “put a break on Uribe’s aspirations (for power in 2014).”

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Unfortunately for Uribe this is an asymmetrical war. He has very little bureaucratic armoury at his disposal to defend against the Santos’ incursions, and he will have to rely on his hyperactive Twitter account for much of the attack work.

Away from Uribe and Santos, the steady attrition of government ministers will continue as key figures like Bogotá’s own Germán Vargas Lleras (the nation’s Housing Minister), Gina Parody (Santos’ top adviser for the capital), and David Luna (vice-minister in the Labour Department) resign to fight for senate seats.

Colombia’s constitution ensures the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature (at least on paper) by preventing ministers from “politicking” or campaigning while in office (or within a year of being so). As a result, those wishing to seek parliamentary spots must get out of government in good time.

With each new resignation, speculation grows about new alliances, mergers, and party separations. Colombia’s institutionally weak political parties means there are plenty who will jump sinking ships.  The truth is that the lack of serious party organization means voters are often left with little idea as to either what their politicians stand for, or for which grouping they are running. Farcical? Perhaps a little.

New presidential candidates will also emerge. On the right, we already know that former Defence Minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez is keen to represent the Conservatives – possibly in alliance with Uribe’s Centro Democratico movement.

On the left, former interim mayor of Bogotá, Clara López will stand for the Polo Democratic Alternative, but it is unclear whether an alliance can be forged with (unlikely) or against (marginally more likely) Navarro Wolff’s centre-left block (Pedimos la Palabra).

As the peace talks draw – hopefully – to a positive conclusion, how will the demobilized FARC be incorporated in the political arena? Will they join Piedad Córdoba´s Marcha Patriotica? Will there be FARC endorsed candidates for the congress?

Endless speculation, like moves around a chessboard, is sometimes enthralling for political commentators, but for the public it’s usually an entirely unedifying spectacle. All this speaks to total voter turn off by the time of the elections next year.

Part of the problem with Colombia´s democracy is that the politicians themselves often fail to communicate or – even worse – to establish a policy platform from which to do battle for votes. The idea of a detailed election manifesto so common in more participative democracies appears almost alien here. Instead, we’re reduced to a game of personality politics played out in a policy vacuum.

The result is that during election and pre-election cycles in particular, the media concentrates on the superficial, the flotsam and jetsam, as King Lear sniffed, “who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out.” If telenovela politics is not your thing, 2013 should be a year of hibernation because try as you might, you will not be able to switch it off.


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