Latin America’s electoral super-cycle faced its second major test last week, as voters headed to the polls in Colombia for legislative elections. The election was a prelude to the upcoming presidential election, which will be contested in late May, and the first major election held since a peace agreement in 2016 ended Colombia’s decades-long internal armed conflict.
One of the biggest winners in Sunday’s election was former president Álvaro Uribe. Since leaving office in 2010, Uribe has emerged as one of the current president’s most vocal opponents. He still holds outsize influence in Colombia’s political landscape as the head of the Centro Democrático party and the leader of the 2016 “No” vote against the peace accord signed with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
As projected, Uribe’s party won the most votes in the Senate, picking up 19 out of 102 seats. It also increased its power in the House of Representatives by claiming 32 seats, up from 19 in the last elections in 2014.
The Centro Democrático’s gains were reinforced by a strong showing from Colombia’s other right wing party – the Cambio Radical party – and a win by Uribe’s chosen presidential candidate – Iván Duque – in his primary.
Meanwhile, in his own race for the Senate, Uribe overcame the looming spectre of recent sexual assault and witness tampering allegations – coupled with declining approval ratings – to emerge as the candidate with the most votes in this year’s election.
The biggest surprise, however, came from the left. The Alianza Verde doubled its share of seats in the Senate, shepherded by its leader, Antanas Mockus, who received the second highest number of votes behind Uribe.
The former mayor of Bogotá and one-time presidential candidate, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, made few public appearances in the run-up to the election. But support for him shows that Colombians still appreciate his eccentric, anti-corruption, anti-establishment brand of politics.
The results can be read as a round rejection of President Juan Manuel Santos and the status quo. Santos’s party, known as the Party of the “U”, lost 19 seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, forfeiting its position as the largest bloc in the legislature. The result is yet another gut punch for Santos, whose approval ratings have fallen to one of the lowest levels of any Colombian president.
A large number of voters seemed to reject Colombia’s political system more broadly. As many blank or null ballots were cast as for the third-most-popular party in the Senate election.
Nearly three million did the same in the legislative elections. The movement reflects Colombians’ disillusionment with a political system that has been wracked by corruption scandals and extreme polarisation.
Perhaps the most underwhelming performance of Sunday’s election was the Fuerza Alternative Revolucionaria Común (FARC), the party formed by the demobilised Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia guerrillas (also known by the FARC acronym). After trading their bullets for the ballot box and turning in their weapons last year, the FARC political party flopped in its electoral debut.
Despite the party’s dreams of wining over 2 million or more voters, FARC candidates barely received 85,000 total votes, falling short of the 1 percent of the electorate needed to qualify for representation in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.
Even in the department of Caquetá, the FARC’s historic base of power, the party won just 1,674 votes. To put this into context, that number was only around 100 more than the number of demobilised guerrillas registered in the department.
FARC candidates will occupy five seats in each branch of the legislature, as provided for by the 2016 peace agreement. However, the results will undermine any claim that former guerrillas may make to represent the will of the people.
What the results mean for the peace process
While the right’s resurgence at the polls reflects the lingering power and cohesion afforded by the “No” vote in the 2016 referendum, the legislative results may not necessarily have an outsize effect on the accord’s implementation. In the Senate, representatives from parties that supported the peace accord in 2016 still hold a slight majority over its opponents,
FARC got just 52,000 votes in yesterday’s Colombian congressional elections – .34% of total. Highlights the absurdity of claims that peace process would turn the political system over to socialism 1/
— Robert A. Karl (@RAKarl) March 12, 2018
Furthermore, the current Congress has already approved most of the legislation outlined in the peace plan, and the Constitutional Court ruled last year the legislative framework of the accord cannot be modified until 2029 at the earliest.
The fate of peace in Colombia depends more on the upcoming presidential election scheduled for May 27, as the next president will set the tone for both the implementation of peace with the FARC and the ongoing peace talks with the country’s other remaining guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Looking ahead to May
Sunday’s elections also featured two presidential primaries, which confirmed Uribe’s Iván Duque and the former guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá – and current senator – Gustavo Petro, as the candidates for their respective coalitions.
The strong turnout by the Centro Democrático is good news for Duque. However, some voters on the right may opt for former Vice-President Germán Vargas Lleras, whose Cambio Radical party revived his campaign dreams by performing well in the legislative election.
Vargas Lleras, nonetheless, has trailed far behind Duque in recent polls, indicating that he has work to do before posing a real threat to Duque’s presidential aspirations.
Meanwhile, the primary on the left drew a larger than expected number of voters, bolstering Gustavo Petro’s campaign. But former Medellín mayor and centrist candidate, Sergio Fajardo’s supporters also performed unexpectedly well. This has supporters of the left worried that voters may split between the two candidates, paving the way for a victory by Duque.
Colombia’s political commentators have been quick to conduct arithmetic gymnastics based on voter turnout and the primary results, but much can change between now and the presidential elections May.
Alliances will no doubt shift in the coming weeks, as Colombia waits with baited breath for the first round of voting on May 27.