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News > Latin America

Q&A: The Risk of Violence and Fraud in Colombia's Elections

  • Colombians will vote for their legislators on March 11.

    Colombians will vote for their legislators on March 11. | Photo: EFE

Published 7 March 2018

The relation between paramilitarism and elections is very strong in Colombia, an expert tells teleSUR.

Colombia is set to begin a crucial electoral cycle on Mar. 11 with legislative elections, followed by presidential elections in May.

teleSUR spoke to Jose Antonio Figueroa, a research professor at the Central University of Ecuador and PhD in Latin American Cultural Studies from Georgetown University about the Mar. 11 vote and the risk of electoral fraud.  


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teleSUR (TS): Colombia's electoral mission identifies a high electoral risk due to violence and fraud. It also deems paramilitary groups as an important risk factor. How have these groups acted in previous elections? Can we expect violent actions by paramilitary groups?

Jose Antonio Figuero (JAF):As a result of the peace agreements with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), FARC has left many places and paramilitary groups are taking possession of these places. This a signal of the fragility in Colombia. The relation between paramilitarism and elections is very strong in Colombia.

An important moment is the failed peace process with FARC under president Pastrana (1998-2002), after which paramilitary groups grew across the country supported by people like Alvaro Uribe, who was governor of Antioquia, mayor of Medellin and supporter of paramilitary groups like Convivir.

My research shows how different actions by paramilitary groups create an effective support for the extreme right in Colombia. Bribery, they buy votes, they steal votes, and when this doesn’t work they directly apply violent methods: executions, mass murders and all this occurred under Uribe’s presidency.

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The main reason why this happens is the isolation of rural areas and state abandonment. Campesinos and impoverished people have no employment opportunities, no economic activities and they so they dedicate themselves to coca leaf production and this is an important support for paramilitary groups.

Isolation means there are also regions where there is no electricity, no roads, no technology, and local power plays a strong role in these places. Traditional elites also play an important role in electoral fraud through pressure.

You can see that in some regions the only state presence is repressive, with an attitude of internal colonialism. The army acts like they don’t belong to these places, so this is a structural problem between the urban and rural areas.    

TS: What about Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN)?

JAF: The ELN declared a ceasefire for the electoral period, which for them it is not a goal but a means. The previous ceasefire ended in early January because, I think they were waiting to see how the peace agreement with FARC developed, and the situation is not good.

To this moment, 50 FARC members and over 200 members of social movements have been assassinated, and there are no good signs for the implementation of the Havana agreements.

At least until the next government, it is very difficult to say the ELN will sign an agreement. It will depend on the results of the presidential and legislative elections.

Another important thing is that the ELN is different from FARC. While FARC follows a central command, the ELN is more decentralized and they operate in a strong relation with local communities, which also has an impact on the implementation of the ceasefire.

TS: There is a high risk of fraud in some 20 percent of Colombia's municipalities, according to the commission that identifies risk based on factors such as participation, null votes, and unmarked card. Are there other, non-technical factors?

JAF: In Colombia, voting is not mandatory, which creates a type of vaccuum. Usually the elites take advantage of this situation because they forcibly take people from one electoral zone to vote for candidates supported by local elites in another area. A kind of migration of voters, constituents move form one place to another in order to solve the necessities of the local elites.

They pay a little amount of money. People who are unemployed say ok, give me 10 dollars and I will give you my vote, I give you my I.D., you go to the ballot and sign for me.

Now something weird is happening. In some small towns there are more voters registered than the local population. Immediately you say: this is fraud.

It is a structural problem, and the non-mandatory character of the vote generates more possibilities for fraud.

TS: Pre-candidate Gustavo Petro has denounced that the state is organizing fraud because the primary vote to determine his candidacy will not be digitized. What are the chances of fraud against Petro?

JAF: Thinking about these primaries, this will happen in two sectors. One is the extreme right with Marta Lucia Ramirez, Ivan Duque and Alejandro Ordoñez. It seems Duque is winning this internal consultation.

And the other is on the left, which Petro is going to win, definitely.

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On the possibility of fraud, I think that what has occurred to Petro these days is very bad news because he suffered an assassination attempt in Cucuta (currently under investigation). It’s a very bad time because it shows how the system attempts to exclude alternative political possibilities in the country.

There is not only a possibility of fraud, technical, social and political possibilities, but also we face the possibility of violence against candidates on the left. It occurred with Petro but also with Timochenko.

In every town he visited, immediately a crowd appeared and started insulting him, throwing eggs and it has been impossible for him to continue his campaign. This is a way to isolate him and if possible I think the extreme right will kill him.         

TS: The legislative elections have a lower profile. What is the relevance of these elections?

JAF: The extreme right is leading the polls, actually Alvaro Uribe is in the first place in the senate race. If the extreme right wins the senate, if Centro Democratico wins the 20 seats it is expected to win, they could obstruct a presidency by Gustavo Petro or Sergio Fajardo because they will be a strong opposition.  

This election is very important because the results will define the ability of the presidency to conclude the peace agreement with FARC. If Petro wins, something that would be incredible for Colombia, or Sergio Fajardo, or anyone in the coalition for the peace agreement with FARC, they will receive strong pressure from the legislature.

TS: Abstentionism could be up to 30 percent, according to polls. What do you make of this?

JAF: No. It’s more. Historic abstentionism in Colombia is around 50 percent. Usually 30 percent refers to the people who are going to vote but vote blank or have not decided who to vote for.

This is related to the skepticism of the population towards the traditional political parties, but is also related to the isolation of regions, with the non-mandatory character of the vote.

Usually people who vote are linked to political machineries, they receive employment benefits or other benefits. Not all the voters, but usually they are captured by the bosses who put money into voters. The common people are far from this.

Petro talks about the possibility to make voting mandatory and I think it would reduce the price of votes, and work as a type of democratization. 

TS: Analysts say polls are not sufficient to know who are the likely winners of the May 27 presidential elections, because they do not take into account electoral machines. Can the legislative elections reverse trends for the presidential race?

JAF: These results will not change the tendencies for the presidential elections as showed by the polls. In the legislative race, the most important role is that played by Alvaro Uribe himself as the main candidate for Senate. As such, he has been able to convene a number of voters, but that is not happening at the national level because he is forbidden from running for president.

This means the chances for the right-wing in the legislative elections are not exactly the same at the national, presidential level.

It is also important to consider that in many places where Uribe is going, he is facing a lot of rejection. People are saying “leave,” “we don’t want you here.” Which is kind of interesting because he has created a strong reaction from people in this moment and Duque, his candidate, is relatively unknown, he doesn’t have a strong political trajectory. That works against him.

TS: The peace agreement with FARC included a provision to ensure 10 FARC legislators. What effects can this have on the Colombian legislature?

JAF: Their participation in Congress can be a very positive sign for the country, because it could serve as political pedagogy.

The FARC has been described as demons, the worst thing in Colombia. If they are shown exercising a political role - to see them as human - it could be very good for the country.

Their presence is also important because they will put problems concerning the rural areas that don’t play a political role in other parties, on the agenda. I am thinking about the necessity of discussing agrarian reform in Colombia, a crucial issue for the coexistence of people in the country.

They could also include problems like the relationship between land and transnational companies, a very big problem under the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos who, as a neoliberal president, handed over a great deal of land to transnationals.

But the demonization of FARC has been largely created by the mass media, so they will have to be very careful because any error or problem will make the media go after them.

Still, it is going to be different because they are political actors, and the main strategy by right-wing politicians like Alvaro Uribe was to avoid that possibility by criminalizing them.  

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