Colombia: New high for left in presidential contest

Writing the headline, “Uribe wins second term” would simply be too boring. That was never in doubt, and, as I expected, he outperformed slightly his recent polling estimates by getting 62% of the vote.

However, the big news is that Carlos Gaviria, of the newly formed alliance of the Colombian left, the Polo Democrático Alternativo, easily set an all-time high for the left in a presidential election in Colombia. Gaviria came in a distant second, with 22%, but this total is nearly double the previous high: 12.5% by Antonio Navarro Wolff of the M-19 in 1990 shortly after it demobilized its guerrilla forces; Navarro Wolff remains part of the PDA and lost the nomination to Gaviria in an open primary in March. Gaviria’s share comes close to the left’s all-time high of 26% achieved by the M-19 in the election for the assembly that wrote Colombia’s new constitution in 1991. Perhaps even more remarkably, it more than doubles the 10% obtained by the PDA itself in the Senate election (and 8.2% for the House) in March.

The Liberal party’s old-time candidate, Horacio Serpa, fell to an embarrassing third place, with not even 12%–the first time in the long history of Colombian elections that a Liberal did not finish first or second. (The other party of the traditional bipartism, the Conservative, endorsed Uribe, both in 2002 and in this election.) Despite its poor showing, the Liberal party is in no way dead.

The Liberal party performed much better in the legislative elections in March than in this weekend’s presidential election, and it is sure to be back. However, like the Conservatives, it will probably need to engage in coalitions with new parties to influence the selection of a future president. (I have no proof for this, but it is hard to look at the results of the two elections and not assume that some Liberal voters chose Gaviria–and probably not because they thought he was their ex-president, César. Could this be the seed of a future alliance?)

While Uribe’s near-tripling of the votes of his closest challenger would seem to bode ill for the opposition, the March elections resulted in a congress that contains at least five distinct parties officially affiliated with Uribe, rather than a single Uribista vehicle. While some of these parties may merge, and others may be able to retain separate yet aligned identity, it is likely that at least some of them will be looking for ways to differentiate themselves and participate in new alliances before the end of Uribe’s term. Besides, not all of them are right wing or small-c ‘conservative,’* despite the ease with which such labels are being tossed around in coverage of this election (and emphasizing the “angle” of Colombia’s standing against an alleged leftist tide elsewhere in the region).

The complex realignment of parties underway in Colombia underscores the extent to which Uribe is in no way a “populist,” as he was described in a recent Christian Science Monitor story. While it is easy to compare him to Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Argentina’s Carlos Menem as presidents who sought and won second consecutive terms despite having been elected under constitutions that banned immediate reelection, the situations have little in common. Colombia during Uribe’s first term alraedy had far stronger democratic institutions and traditions (the insurgency and drug violence notwithstanding) than Peru had in the early 1990s (or now) and arguably also more so than Argentina in the mid nineties.** In fact, Uribe’s ability to obtain a constitutional amendment allowing him a second consecutive term has far more in common with the case of Brazil under former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso than it has with Fujimori or Menem.

The Monitor article also quoted a scholar of Colombian politics claiming that Uribe had not established “an effective political party that would allow the country to continue to function democratically after he leaves office.” This formulation assumes that democracy can only be institutionalized from the top, by presidents building parties. In fact the democratic legacies of such ‘presidentialist’-‘populist’ parties are far from reassuring. The more promising path, in presidential systems, is instead for parties to build themselves in support of or opposition to the president. In that sense, Colombian democracy has advanced under Uribe, as an existing and, in 2002, seriously de-institutionalizing party system has realigned–including the emergence of a stronger democratic left, which could be a potential alliance partner of the Liberals in the future. It is even possible that Colombia could join Brazil in seeing a reelected center-right president followed by a center-left one.

* Americans or Brits would not really recognize even the big-c Conservative party of Colombia as typically conservative in many respects.

** Fujimori staged a coup to overthrow the old constitution and close the legislature and supreme court. Menem threatened an unconstitutional referendum until the opposition agreed to call a constituent assembly to allow for reelection (though in some other respects that new constitution sought to restrain executive power). In Colombia, on the other hand, a constitutional amendment to allow Uribe’s second term was passed through the regular procedures and upheld by the Constitutional Court. Uribe had even lost a previous referendum on political reform, and the new congressional electoral law that has done as much as Uribe’s emergence to push the realignment of the party system was passed by congress against Uribe’s stated wishes.

0 thoughts on “Colombia: New high for left in presidential contest

  1. You argue that Uribe is not a populist because Colombia has stronger democratic institutions, but does the latter preclude the former? Is it not possible to have a “conservative populist” whose efforts to expand his own power are at times blocked by a democratic opposition?

  2. If one were to say that Uribe is a populist by intent, but that the institutions restrain him, I might be able to accept that formulation.

    I am not sure if Uribe is a “populist by intent,” but I am certain that his government is not “populist by result.”

    I have to add that the notion of “conservative populism” strikes me as a complete oxymoron. I would think that to the extent that any of Uribe’s policy promises or political style might be meaningfully called “populist” he probably is not a “conservative.” I say that because I understand conservatism, by definition, to be a doctrine that emphasizes the “natural” and “proper” dominance of established hierarchies (family, religious, military, business, landowners, traditional parties, etc.), whereas populism is all about a leader setting himself up as the “voice” of the people against hierarchies and the institutions that sustain them. I don’t see how one can be one and also the other.

  3. Good points. What I was thinking was that it is possible to be an anti-left populist. The term “conservative” confused the matter. But shoot, anything is possible in Latin America–after all, the PRI institutionalized the revolution…

  4. Fujimori is an excellent example of an anti-left populist. He was clearly a populist–no party (just a personalist vehicle), no respect for liberal institutions like legislatures, parties, and courts. He blamed all of them for ruining the economy and allowing the Maoists to flourish and basically said that only he could save Peru.

    He was a liberal in his economics (essentially adopting Vargas Llosa’s economic reforms), but not in his politics. And he was not particularly conservative in any sense.

    In fact, “anti-left populist” is about as good a label as any for him.

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