Colombian legislative elections and presidential primaries today

UPDATE: Polls are closed, and El Tiempo is providing results as they come in.

Continuing the series on the elections of March

Today Colombia holds elections for both chambers of its legislature, and two major parties are also conducting presidential primaries. In May, President Alvaro Uribe is likely to be reelected (the previous ban on reelection having been lifted). The only real suspense in the ongoing presidential campaign is whether Uribe will win in one round or there will be a runoff, and who will oppose him in the runoff if there is one. In this light, today’s elections are important not only because they will determine the composition of the congress that Uribe will face in this second term, but also because of the impact they are likely to have on the balance of forces within the loosely assembled uribista coalition, and in the opposition.

There are seven major parties or “movements” that are openly pro-Uribe, but that are running separately. In some respects, they are competing to define themselves as the uribismo más antiguo (in the case of Colombia Democrática, led by the president’s cousin), or as being more uribista, or more authentically so, than any other party (as with Cambio Radical and Partido de la ‘U’).

The absence of a single pro-Uribe list is largely a result of Uribe’s own decision to run as an independent (as he did when elected four years ago). The battle within uribismo is also a contest over the division of spoils in the second term, and an early jockeying over a successor to Uribe himself. A poll taken just over a week before the election suggests that the uribistas are likely to win a majority in the senate. (There is no polling on the lower house, which as my post on list construction indicated, is being contested by numerous regional parties as well as the main national forces).*

The main opposition consists of the Liberal party–formerly Colombia’s dominant party and now aiming for a recovery–and the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), which is an alliance of most of Colombia’s diverse leftist forces. Both parties are holding presidential primaries concurrent with the congressional elections. Primaries in Colombia are optional and open–any voter, regardless of party affiliation, may vote in any one party’s presidential primary.

The poll suggests that over 20% of voters would cast a vote in the primary of the PDA. However, the PDA is likely to obtain just ten senate seats. Given that the senate is elected in a single national district of 100 seats, these polling results suggest that about twice as many voters will participate in selecting the PDA’s presidential candidate as will vote for its senate list today.

The PDA’s two candidates are Antonio Navarro Wolff and Carlos Gaviria. The poll shows Navarro leading, 52-40%. In the Liberal party, the certain winner is Horacio Serpa, who has about 57% support.

As I noted in the post on list construction, this election shows the consolidation of national political forces that was the intended effect of the switch from SNTV to list PR is indeed taking place–in spite of the continued fragmentation of uribista forces. A second aspect of Colombia’s significant political reform will take effect in October: the requirement that legislators elected under a given label form caucuses (bancadas) in congress that will govern themselves and discipline their members.

On 7 March, El Tiempo ran a very interesting article about the different ways in which parties are implementing the Ley de Bancadas. Each party must pass its own internal statute, which will have the force of law. Nonetheless, it is left to each party to decide exactly what constitutes a matter of “conscience” on which individual members may dissent, and what disciplinary procedures it will engage in.

The Liberal party–historically divided–has not defined what a matter of conscience is, but it has determined that its caucus will decide by majority vote which issues will be matters subject to discipline. The PDA has set up a Commission on Ethics and Guarantees that will have the final say on matters of conscience and disciplinary measures.

The implementation of these internal regulations by each party will be something to watch closely. For those parties that develop clear ideological profiles (the PDA, for example), the intent of the law, to generate more party disicpline, may succeed in spite of the continuation of intraparty competition through the open list. However, many of the other parties, at least initially, may remain mere labels of convenience for some time, whereby politicians have joined under a common organization simply because they could not win independently, as they could have under the former electoral system. These parties are likely to maintain loose discipline because their rank and file will have little interest in enforcing party statutes that might infringe on their ability to continue cultivating a “personal” or regional vote.

* All references to “the poll” are to this linked El Tiempo report, unless otherwise indicated by a different link. The poll was conducted in 43 municipalities throughout the country with 1200 respondents (margin of error not indicated). I would be somewhat skeptical of the poll’s specific estimates, given that it is probably not picking up the significant voto cautivo that still exists in rural areas, where old-time political bosses deliver their clients’ votes in favor of whichever national leader they are linked to. Nonetheless, I would expect the poll to be indicative of very general trends.

0 thoughts on “Colombian legislative elections and presidential primaries today

  1. the requirement that legislators elected under a given label form caucuses (bancadas) in congress that will govern themselves and discipline their members.

    I must confess: I’ll believe it when I see it–the “discipline” part anyway…

  2. (I’m Wilf’s Peruvian correspondent.)

    Looks to me like that poll was not very accurate, particularly in regard to primaries. Serpa is certainly ahead, but nearly by as much as the poll indicated; while Gaviria has a reasonable lead over Navarro Wolf. Of course, that’s with only about a quarter of the votes counted.

    You might find the following links useful:

    Radio Caracol:


    The Registraduría’s systems are obviously overloaded, but the information is quite complete if you can get at it. Radio Caracol’s information leaves out the d’Hondt computation, and is about half an hour behind.

    By the way, I didn’t count the open and closed lists for the Congress, but my random sample shows that about 3/4 are open, which is what El Tiempo said. Why is there such a difference from your statistics?

    [MSS here: The answer is simple. I was wrong. Please see

  3. Each bancada will be as disciplined as its members want. In some cases, that could prove significant (tied fates of members now running on a single list bearing a common label in competition with other labels). In other cases, we could see rather rampant indiscipline (given open lists, in which some candidates have joined lists for convenience and their parties have accepted them only because they bring votes and name recognition). There is likely to be a lot of sorting out in the first years of any new system. I don’t expect (or wish for) a sudden emergence of tightly disciplined parties in Colombia, but we are likely to see some improvements in the clarity of party labels over time, brought on by the move from SNTV to party-list PR.

    Rici, on the open vs. closed lists, we’ll double check our data.

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