The Stakes in the Presidential Election in Colombia
The Stakes in the Presidential Election in Colombia
Table of Contents
  1. Overview

The Stakes in the Presidential Election in Colombia

This presidential election (first round on 26 May 2002; second round, if needed, on 16 June) will be crucial for the future of Colombia’s democracy and its struggle against insurgents and paramilitaries, drugs and widespread poverty.

I. Overview

This presidential election (first round on 26 May 2002;  second round, if needed, on 16 June) will be crucial for the future of Colombia’s democracy and its struggle against insurgents and paramilitaries, drugs and widespread poverty.[fn]If no candidate wins 50 per cent plus 1 of all valid votes, including blank ones, in the initial round, a runoff between the two top vote-getters will be held. On 27 February 2002, the National Electoral Council established that blank votes constitute valid votes. As such they form part of the total number of valid votes cast in parliamentary and presidential elections. The winner in the second round is the candidate who obtains a simple majority.Hide Footnote  Social and economic distress is now widespread. Public frustration with the ill-fated peace process of the Pastrana Administration over the past three years, its definitive rupture on 20 February 2002, and increased attacks by the main rebel group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) on civilians and infrastructure since mid-January have made “war/peace” and “violence” the key vote-determining issues.[fn]See Gran Encuesta Semana-El Tiempo-RCN, April 2002, in; see also Sections II & III below.Hide Footnote  The failure to negotiate a solution to the longstanding civil war over the past three years has polarised the electorate.

The atmosphere is apprehensive and tense. In recent elections the insurgent groups, particularly the FARC but also the Ejército de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), have challenged the legitimacy of the electoral process with intimidation and violence.[fn]Note that intimidation of voters and candidates on the departmental level by both the insurgents and the paramilitaries has been more common than attempts at imposing a violent boycott on elections.Hide Footnote  The escalation of fighting this month between FARC and paramilitary forces in the north-western department of Chocó, which killed more than 110 civilians and an unknown number of combatants, demonstrates again the disregard both groups of irregulars have for the population as they pursue territory and power.[fn]See “Sangrienta paradoja”, in Semana, 6-13 May 2002, pp. 38-40; and El Tiempo, 8 May 2002, pp. 1-2, 1-3 and 1-4. Most of the civilians, among them 45 children, were killed by a make-shift mortar impact on a church in the municipality of Bojayá in which they had sought refuge. On 7 May, the FARC publicly admitted responsibility for the massacre, “justifying” their action, however, by stating that the paramilitary forces had used the people of Bojayá as human shields. El Tiempo, 7 May 2002.Hide Footnote  It also puts into perspective the limitations of the government’s forces, which reached the scene only days later. All presidential candidates are under death threats. In mid-April, the front-runner, Álvaro Uribe, barely escaped the fate of candidates who were killed in earlier presidential races.[fn]On 14 April, Uribe’s armoured vehicle was severely damaged by a bomb blast in the Atlantic seaport of Barranquilla that killed three fishermen and the driver of one of the protecting cars and wounded several by-passers. The Liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán (1989), the UP’s Jaime Pardo (1987) and Bernardo Jaramillo (1989) and the AD M-19’s Carlos Pizarro (1990) were killed by drug-traffickers and paramilitary gunmen prior to the 1990 presidential elections.Hide Footnote Presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt and her vice presidential running mate, Clara Rojas, were kidnapped by the FARC a few months earlier and remain hostages.[fn]See ICG Latin America Report No. 1, Colombia’s Elusive Quest for Peace, 26 March 2002. Betancourt and Rojas were abducted when travelling to the former Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on 23 February 2002.Hide Footnote

Since at least September 2001, voters provoked by rising frustration with a deadlocked negotiation and a worsening conflict appear to have found the tougher rhetoric of “dissident Liberal” candidate Álvaro Uribe appealing. Far behind in the polls last year, Uribe emerged as the unrivalled leader by January 2002 and has essentially maintained his advantage over the past four months.[fn]Gran Encuesta Semana-El Tiempo-RCN, in Semana, 4-11 February 2002, pp. 29; Oscar Collazos, El poder para quién, Bogotá, 2001, pp. 242-245. Uribe was a staunch critic of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and negotiations in the midst of ongoing war, extortion and kidnappings. The DMZ was created by President Pastrana in October 1998. It encompassed five municipalities of approximately 42,000 square kilometres and was meant to serve as a location for peace negotiations with the FARC. On 20 February 2002, the president declared the end of the DMZ and the peace process. See ICG Report op. cit. When not stated otherwise, all pre-election results presented in this briefing are based on polls conducted by Napoleón Franco & Cia. These polls are characterized by a margin of error of between +/- 1.41 and +/- 3.6 per cent and 95.0 per cent reliability. Close to 2,000 men and women of voting age, resident in six regions of Colombia and from all socio-economic strata (1-6) are interviewed face to face and in their homes on the basis of a structured questionnaire. The information on voter intention is generated from interviews conducted exclusively with persons who declare that they will definitely or most probably vote. See For more detailed information on pre-election polls, see the tables in the appendix.Hide Footnote  The advocates of the primacy of a political settlement, including “official Liberal” candidate Horacio Serpa, were compelled to adjust their strategy. Serpa, who in mid-2001 still supported President Pastrana’s negotiating efforts, although he viewed them as flawed, shifted toward the harder Uribe line. It is unclear, however, whether this adjustment will regain him enough support to prevent a first-round Uribe victory.

Two and a half months after the parliamentary election,[fn]See ICG Latin America Briefing, The 10 March 2002 Parliamentary Elections in Colombia, 17 April 2002.Hide Footnote  eleven tickets are competing to lead the executive branch.[fn]The candidates, in the order in which they appear on the ballot, are: Luis Garzón/Vera Grabe (Polo Democrático); Noemi Sanín/Fabio Villegas (Movimiento Sí Colombia); Harold Bedoya/Marino Jaramillo (Fuerza Colombia) ; Álvaro Uribe/Francisco Santos (Primero Colombia); Francisco Tovar/Ricardo Diaz (Defensa Ciudadana); Guillermo Cardona/Hernán Cuervo (Movimiento Comunal y Comunitario de Colombia); Augusto Lora/Germán Rojas (Movimiento M-19); Horacio Serpa/José Hernández (Partido Liberal Colombiana); Álvaro Cristancho/Manuel Delgado (Movimiento de Participación Comunitaria); Íngrid Betancourt/Clara Rojas (Partido Verde Oxígeno); and Rodolfo Rincón/Donaldo Jinete (Movimiento de Participación Comunitaria).Hide Footnote Since the 1991 constitution introduced a second round, no president has been elected in the first round. However, the latest polls suggest that this trend might be broken. Although there have been slight fluctuations during the spring, Uribe stood at 49.3 per cent a week before the 26 May vote. His main contender, Horacio Serpa, who had 27.4 per cent in April, was at an unprecedented low of 23 per cent.[fn]El Tiempo, 28 April 2002, pp. 1-14/1-15; El Tiempo, 19 May 2002, p. 1-1.Hide Footnote  In a projected run-off, Uribe outdistances Serpa, 54.9 percent to 32.8 per cent. The top candidates are both from the Liberal Party, one of the two traditional parties (although Uribe is running as a “dissident” Liberal). For the first time in Colombia’s history, the Conservative Party, the other traditional power centre, has not fielded a presidential candidate.

Since September 2001, the standing of each of the four main contenders – Luis Garzón, Noemi Sanín, Horacio Serpa and Álvaro Uribe – has fluctuated between 5 per cent and 36.1 per cent.[fn]See tables in the appendix.Hide Footnote  The relatively steady trend lines suggest both a significant degree of voter realignment over the past nine months and a firming up of present preferences. Thus, in September 2001, 61 per cent of interviewees stated that they would not reconsider their choice of candidate; in January 2002, that number had grown to 68 per cent and in February 2002 to 79 per cent.[fn]Gran Encuesta Semana-El Tiempo-RCN, 4-11 March 2002, in encuesta_5/.Hide Footnote  The penultimate poll (April 2002) reported that 86 per cent of those inclined towards Uribe were certain to vote for him, while 81 per cent, 69 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively, of those expressing a preference for Serpa, Garzón or Sanín called themselves definite.[fn]Ibid., in Footnote  Furthermore, Uribe has a favourable image with 73 per cent of voters, followed by Sanín (58 per cent), Serpa (52 per cent) and Garzón (38 per cent). While 31.2 per cent of interviewees stated that they would never vote for Serpa, only 18.02 per cent said this regarding Uribe, 16.64 per cent regarding Sanín and 14.09 per cent regarding Garzón.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  In sum, the available pre-election data suggests that the basic question is not who will be Colombia’s next president but whether Uribe wins in the first or second round.[fn]The latest poll (May 2002) by Centro Nacional de Consultoría Ltda. e Invamer S.A. indicates that 55 per cent of young people (between 18 and 24), will vote for Uribe, only 22 per cent for Serpa. Uribe’s support is broken down between 53 per cent of all male voters and 44 per cent of all female voters. Serpa’s gender support is apparently more even: 30 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively. See El Espectador, 19 May 2002, p. 4A.Hide Footnote

Bogotá/Brussels, 22 May 2002

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