December 5, 2010 § 3 Comments
Who lives there?: Around 46 million people. You will have heard of Gabriel García Márquez, Shakira and Juan Pablo Montoya. Apparently the name for a person from Colombia is “Neogranadine”. The population largely live on the Caribbean coast and the Andean highlands – the south-eastern 50% of the country contains only 3% of the country. Colombia has the world’s largest population of internally displaced people – 4.5 million of them.
Roughly 60% of the population claim Mestizo ancestry and 30% largely European ancestry. About 30% have some African ancestry. About 2% of the population are of largely indigenous descent but, as these people largely live in the sparsely populated jungle areas, over 30% of the country is nominally part of an indigenous reserve.
How does the system work? (the theory): Colombia has a powerful executive president. They are elected by two round first past the post for four year terms. There is a two term limit.
There is a bicameral legislative. The lower house is arguably the more powerful although the upper house has traditionally been conferred the greater status. It has 166 members elected for a four year term a month before the president is elected. D’Hondt PR is used; each of the provinces counts as a constituency and there are four special constituencies: for indigenous voters, for Afro-Colombian voters, for overseas voters and for ethnic minority voters.
Whilst the Senate is traditionally the less powerful house it has some specific reserved powers: to approve or reject all promotions in the military, to deal with matters relating to the resignation of the president, to appoint the judiciary, and to declare war. There are 102 senators elected for four year terms at the same time as the house. 100 are elected by d’Hondt PR with the entire nation acting as one constituency, the other two are elected by the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.
Colombia is divided into 32 provinces or departments, each of which has a reasonably powerful governor (directly elected) and departmental assembly (elected by d’Hondt). The provinces are further subdivided into municipalities with a directly elected mayor and council.
How does the system work? (the practice): Until recently large areas of Colombia were under the control of left wing guerrillas whilst other large areas were under the control of right wing paramilitaries. Whilst the areas under the control of these groups have been drastically reduced by concerted military action, they are still thought to exert considerable influence through intimidation of voters. In addition recent elections have been marred by irregularity and accusations of bribery. For all that elections are thought to be reasonably representative – broadly speaking the fraud cancels itself out.
How did we get here?: The Spanish arrived in 1499 and united – by conquest – all the indigenous civilisations of the area into one colony called Gran Colombia. Simón Bolívar led the colony to independence in 1819 and became its first president. However the colony was fragmented and proved hard to govern. Bolivar assumed dictatorial powers in order to try and keep it together – the most controversial thing he ever did – but even this was ineffective and the colony fragmented: the east declaring independence as Venezuela in 1829, and the south doing likewise as Ecuador (part of the area subsequently joined Peru) in 1830. What was left formed the nation of Colombia – although its size was further reduced when, in 1903, as a result of American agitation, Panama broke away.
Colombia quickly established itself as a presidential republic with frequent, and often violent, clashes between the left wing Liberal and right wing Conservative parties. The first major clash was between 1899 and 1903 and was known as the thousand days war. The Liberals, convinced that the Conservatives had stolen the election of 1899, started a civil war, which they lost.
The second major clash took place between 1948 and 1958 but lasts arguably to this day; it is known as La Violencia. Millitas formed by the Liberal and the Conservative parties clashed over Conservative attempts to seize land owned by Liberal supporting peasants, and the Liberals assassination of the Conservative President – many thousands died in sporadic violence. In 1958 there was a coup d’etat and, whilst the military junta only kept power for a matter of months, this was to have a lasting effect on the political scene. The Liberals and Conservatives decided to bound together in the national interest – forming a National Unity government for 16 years with the presidency alternating between the Liberals and the Conservatives every four years. The groups that felt excluded from this took to the hills, forming the left wing and right wing guerilla movements that outlasted the National Unity deal and exist to this day.
Colombia can be considered to have been in a state of civil war ever since. Aside from the occasional spectacular terrorist attack (such as M19’s 1985 attack on the supreme court which left 11 supreme court justices dead) this in many ways resembled a conventional war: the left wing FARC and the ELN controlled up to 40% of the country (mostly in the south and east whilst the Government had to control not only them, but a right wing paramilitary insurgency in the cities. Each side had drugs cartels associated with them, and financed their insurgency through the cocaine trade.
Some Cocaine cartels became powerful enough to be considered almost a fourth force in their own right: until he was shot by the Colombian police in 1993 the most powerful cartel head – Pablo Escobar – virtually ran Colombia’s second city Medellín. Escobar was at times thought to control 80% of the world’s cocaine, and may have had a personal fortune of as much as $8 billion; making him the world’s seventh richest man. It is said that whilst on the run he burnt $2 million just to keep warm.
The situation is murky and it is not entirely clear which drugs cartels, rebel groups, and mainstream politicians are in league with which – but such linkages do happen.
There were renewed peace talks between 1998 and 2002 which led to a period of relative peace. However in 2002 it became clear that FARC were flouting the terms of the agreement and war resumed. The government had more success than ever before, and the power of both the left wing militias and the right wing paramilitaries has never been weaker: however neither have been completely defeated.
Álvaro Uribe was elected president in 2002. A former Liberal, he ran as an independent but with Liberal backing. This was the first real departure from Colombia’s two party system, and whilst initially it was a departure in name only, it led directly to what followed. He was popular but autocratic and the Liberal party is deeply split on the question of weather or not they support him. This became clear as Uribe attempted to amend the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term in 2o10: he was ultimately unsuccessful.
Who’s in charge?: Whilst the Liberal and Conservative parties have traditionally dominated, Colombia’s PR system makes it easy for disaffected former members of both parties to make it into parliament on their own. This expectation is what allowed the recent sea change in Colombian politics to happen. The Liberal party were deeply factionalised over whether or not to support Uribe; moreover the Conservatives had formed a governing coalition with those liberals who did support Uribe – and that had caused a huge amount of disquiet their traditional supporters. The 2010 elections were the first elections in a long time where the Liberals and Conservatives did not have the result sown up.
The 2010 presidential election was dominated by two new political parties. There was the Social Party of National Unity (party of U) which was a party created to support Uribe in response to the fact that the anti-Uribe faction had gained control of the Liberal Party. And there was the Green Party – an ecological party which had expected to be tiny but which received a huge upswelling in popular support – particularly from moderates and former Conservative voters who had been cut loose from their traditional part bases by their parties attitude to Uribe.
With the traditional power blocks split, the Greens and U went through to the second round: the U’s Juan Manuel Santos winning with 70% of the vote to the Green candidate’s very respectable 30%. Santos declared that he wished to work with all the political parties, and only the Alternative Democratic Pole party make a point of explicitly saying they do not support Santos’ presidency
The pro-Uribe/Santos parties also won a majority in both houses. In the House of Representatives the party of U won 47 seats and the Conservatives 38. The right wing National Integration party – who also support Uribe/Santos – won 12 seats and the liberal Radical Change party (also pro Uribe) 15. So in total the Uribe/Santos bloc had 112 of the 164 seats – even before they reached out to everyone else.
As for the opposition: the Liberals (now dominated by anti-Uribeists) won 37 seats. The radical opposition Alternative Democratic Pole won 4. The Independent Absolute Renovation Movement won 3 seats – they espouse a doctrine called Miraism which consists of centrist economic policy and ideas about social responsibility. The Green party demonstrated that they were better at presidential elections than parliamentary ones by only winning 3 seats. The indigenous people’s pressure group (with links to the Green party) the Indigenous Social Alliance won one seat. Liberal Party splinter groups won four seats: Liberal Opening 2, Liberal Alternative 1, and Regional Integration 1 (Regional Integration – or ALAS – only got 5000 votes, but gained a seat as all 5000 were in the department of Cesar).
It was a similar story in the senate. The Uribe bloc got 67 seats (U 28, Conservatives 22, National Integration 9, Radical Change 8). The Liberals picked up 17, the Alternative Democratic Pole 8, the Greens 5, and the Independent Absolute Renovation movement 3. The two senate seats allocated to the indigenous community are perhaps the most keenly fought elections of all as it is here where one can win a seat with the fewest votes. The National Integration Party were the only mainstream party to stand but they just missed out on a seat – the two seats going one each to two progressive indigenous parties: the Indigenous Social Alliance (who also have members in the house) and the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia.
Meanwhile much of the country is still in the hands of paramilitraies. Whilst many of the groups (including M19 and the AFC) have disbanded following the 1998-2002 peace there are still active groups on both sides. Still going on the left wing side there is the notorious FARC, the Catholic Marxist ELN, and the indigenous based IRAP. Still going on the right wing side are the Black Eagles.
What does it look like?: In the west you have the Andes mountains, in the east the Amazon Rainforest. In between you have highland savannah where some people live, however most live in the north, on the plains surrounding the Caribbean coast.
What are the issues?: Until the war and the drugs trade stop killing people, conventional politics has been put on the back burner. There is a deep ideological left-right divide in Colombia but this has been parked by the mainstream parties until the conflict is over. As a result the main decide is now between people who see this as a betrayal of politics and want a left or right wing platform, and those like Santos and Uribe who favour national unity over ideology.
A good source of impartial information is: Whilst Colombia has a free press the presence of armed groups make telling the truth a dangerous game. I believe more journalists have been killed or kidnapped in Colombia than in any other country in the world. The Colombian press is Spanish language and partisan. The Liberal party’s Tiempo and the Conservative Party’s Nuevo Sigolo dominate. Semana is a weekly that strives for objectivity, although it is quite soft on the government.
A good book is: Interestingly, whilst Gabriel García Márquez is obsessed with politics and Colombia he rarely overtly addresses contemporary Colombian politics in his books. Whilst it is certainly a theme that runs throughout his work, when he has written about issues in contemporary politics head on (in the ’70s and ’80s) it tends to have more relevance to Chile and Márquez’s hatred of Pinochet than Colombia. However his books have a lot to say about Colombia’s political history. In particular In Evil Hour which tells the story of La Voilenca, and One Hundred Years of Solitude which tells the story of Colombia from the Thousand Days War to (almost) the present day. One Hundred Years of Solitude is regarded by many (particularly on the Colombian left) as the national book of Colombia, and the key to understanding the national psyche.
A brand new book on FARC has just come out: Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP. For more on the background to the conflict and the controversial role played by the USA try Francisco Cuellar and Aviva Chomsky’s (Noam’s daughter) The Profits of Extermination
The academy hasn’t quite caught up with Uribe yet, but Showing Teeth to the Dragons: State-building by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez, 2002-2006 is an investigation of his first term from the viewpoint of a critical supporter.
When are the next elections?: 2014
An example of a gratuitous Shakira video would be:
A totally unnecessary shot of Shakira holding a large basket of clams whilst standing next to a confused man in a lay who looks like Michael Sheen would look like: