The mechanisms for political activity in Colombia are tortuous and far from what democracy really means. This writing briefly tries to explain the different ways in which democratic activity is constrained.
Legal status, a luxury for a few.
To register a political party for the Colombian elections is nearly an odyssey. A particular group of citizens can do it, but only if they register their party for the congressional elections (national circumscription), excluding de facto local or regional parties. It must obtain at least 3% of the total votes for Congress' upper house (the Senado de la República), if the party's votation is inferior to that threshold, the electoral registration (personería jurídica) is denied. That's how the political minorities (ethnical, religious, cultural and regional movements, as well as the left-wing parties) are completely banned from the political system.
In this way, during the last two congressional elections, at least four parties disappeared, leaving a restricted parliamentary system of five "big parties" (the traditional ones: Conservative and Liberal; and the "new ones": National Unity, Radical Change and the Democratic Center of Álvaro Uribe), all within a narrow political spectrum of extreme-right policy, neoliberal economics and U.S. dependence.
Vote-buying: an old tradition.
Behind the image of a solid democracy, created by the local oligarchy, in Colombia remains a generalized situation of vote-buying, a phenomenon which might result hard to understand for foreign readers, not directly linked with Colombian reality.
Politicians buy votes for their own campaign on a regular basis, although for many people in the world the very idea is hard to believe. In popular suburbs and rural regions, caciques electorales (1) offer registered voters a certain amount of money if they vote for a specific candidate during the elections.
Using different mechanisms, from complicity with corrupt functionaries of the Electoral Registry to the use of mobile phones with in-build cameras and other electronic devices, the caciques electorales are able to verify the effective vote. Once they confirm that the citizen really voted for their candidate, they proceed with the payment.
Prizes? Usually 30 and 40 dollars for one vote, in the poorest communities. But, free market after all, in close elections, the prices increase. For instance, in the two rounds of the last presidential elections the amount of money for one vote ranged between 200 and 230 dollars.
The high rates of political clientelism.
Political clientelism is another old tradition, deeply rooted in the Colombian political culture. From the lowest level of local administration, to the national higher positions, political support is conditional to the distribution of public offices and contracts for public works or state investments. That's how a local or regional elected politician, a congressman or the President himself define which people will occupy the most important charges of the nation, based on political favors.
With this hidden form of corruption, the State administration and the destiny of the nation are usurped. Now we can understand the worrying statistics on how people in Colombia perceive corruption (2).
The "mermelada", Santos' version of political clientelism.
President Juan Manuel Santos has taken traditional clientelism to new levels. In search of his reelection, he desperately distributed public charges within all the State institutions, with the goal of obtaining support of the regional caciques for his campaign. In Colombian slang, this practice became known as untar mermelada, spread marmalade.
The second round of the last presidential elections was a real marmalade carnival: distributing jobs in embassies, consulships, ministries, offices and agencies, and desperately buying votes with favors and contracts, Santos ensured his victory.
Armed force against the elector.
Besides the already mentioned deformations of democracy, in Colombia also exists a systematic practice of state terrorism, expressed in the elimination of political alternatives, different from traditional politicking. Since the banana workers massacre in 1928 (3), to the extermination of the legal leftist parties by the end of the XXth Century (political genocide of the Unión Patriótica (4), A Luchar (5) and Frente Popular (6), without omitting the extermination of the leaders of the opposition (Jorge Eliecer Gaitán (7), Jaime Pardo Leal (8), Bernardo Jaramillo (9), Carlos Pizarro (10), Luis Carlos Galán (11)); Colombian history has been marked by the denial of democratic participation to ordinary people.
(4) Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union): political party founded by the FARC-EP during the peace process with the Betancur administration (1985). More than 5.000 militants were killed by state terrorism.
(5) A Luchar (Let's Fight): political and social movement founded in the mid 1980?s. It was the expression of diverse sectors of trade unions, student movements and radical militants. Many of its cadres were killed or exiled.
(6) Frente Popular (Popular Front): political party promoted by the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Colombia and its People's Liberation Army within the peace process of the Betancur administration. Many of its cadres were killed or exiled.
(10) Carlos Pizarro (1951-1990): Political leader. Former comandante of the M-19 guerrilla; he led its demobilization and transformation into a legal political party: Alternativa Democrática M-19. He was killed on the 26th of April, 1990, during a flight, being the presidential candidate of AD M-19.
(11) Luis Carlos Galán (1943-1989): Political leader of the Liberal Party. He led the movement Nuevo Liberalismo, the renovation tendency of the party. He was the most optionated presidential candidate for the 1990 elections, but in the middle of the campaign he was killed in Bogotá, on August 19th, 1989.