A Shift in Colombia’s electoral narrative

By Camila Pérez, MPP’2021, Pearson Fellow, former researcher at the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) in Colombia

On October 27th, Colombia just celebrated its first local elections after the Peace Accords with the FARC guerrillas. The elections in this country are still stained by violence: according to the Electoral Observation Mission 282 political leaders were assaulted since the beginning of the electoral process, and almost a third part of this group was murdered. Nevertheless, unlike former polls, neither the armed conflict nor the peace process defined the public debate. After an ongoing conflict of more than 50 years, the results of the elections show that Colombians are reinventing the electoral narrative of the country. 

Some examples: In Turbaco, a small municipality on the Caribbean coast, the first former FARC combatant was elected as a mayor. Two women were elected as the first indigenous mayors in the history of Colombia. And, as Felipe Salazar exposed in his last op-ed, the new mayor of Bogotá, the capital, is the first woman and openly gay person to occupy what is considered the second most important public elected office in the country. 

These results have not been for free. There are three elements that are worth highlighting because of their determinant role in this shift in narrative. 

The first one are the Peace Accords themselves. Ever since the Agreements were subjected to citizens’ approval through the 2016 Plebiscite, the country has faced a polarization process similar to those ones in the post-Brexit UK or the post-Trump USA. So, although it would be splitting hairs to argue that Colombians voted “in favor” of the Accords, these indeed changed the public agenda. On October 27th, both urban and rural territories voted for candidates who hold alternative flags as the defense of the environment, the fight against corruption, feminism, the defense of LGTBI rights, among others. 

The second one is the Opposition Statute. This was a debt of the 1991 Constitution, which safeguarded political opposition in Colombia but did not regulate it. As part of the reforms for the democratic aperture implemented by the Peace Agreements, the Statute came into force in July of 2018. Among other components, this norm concedes runner ups a sit in their election’s corresponding legislative body, as was explained in a former piece, which create incentives not only for political participation but for safe contestation. 

The third one is more circumstantial. As the most recent Gallup Poll revealed, the Colombian President, Ivan Duque, is facing historic disapproval that reaches almost 70%. This is the highest percentage for a president in the last 15 years. Furthermore, his party, the Democratic Center, was one of the biggest losers of the local elections after winning the national ones in 2018. Amid other negative outputs, the right-winged party lost three of its electoral strongholds (including Medellin, the second-largest city of Colombia) and barely managed to grow in terms of votes (0,31% in total). 

This punishment vote has been interpreted by Colombian and international analysts as a response to the undistinguished performance as the governing party, and above all, to its lack of political will to implement what was agreed three years ago. As the national agenda rotates to the social demands, the Democratic Center remains stagnant in a speech and actions that represent fewer and fewer Colombians.

 Sergio Jaramillo, Colombian High Commissioner for Peace between 2012-2016, stressed this issues in his talk on the Distinguished Speakers Series of The Pearson Institute last Monday 11th of November . As Mr. Jaramillo stated, the results of the local elections reflect that the country is moving forward and its society is choosing to process its interest through a more diverse array of political leaders. It is possible that Colombians are finally building a new path where democracy and violence do not necessarily go together. 

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