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Colombia: from the streets to ballot boxes

The 13M legislative elections ratified Colombia’s gradual shift toward the center left since the 2016 Peace Agreement. Five and a half years after the end of the process that reincorporated the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America into civilian life, the country celebrates this year the first national elections in which the ex-guerrilla is no longer the dominant issue. In fact, four years ago their meager support crystallized in 52,532 votes. This time, they dropped to 31,116 in the whole country, despite the change of franchise to Partido Comunes (Common Party). Nevertheless, in Havana, 5 seats in the Senate were agreed upon between 2018 and 2026.  

As a consequence of the fact that the problem of political violence became secondary, although it persists in the form of systematic assassinations of social leaders and ex-combatants, the political system has been strained by a social conflict whose escape valve was the massive demonstrations of 2019, 2020 and 2021. Although these demonstrations did not produce a social explosion (estallido social as the phenomenon is known in Spanish) as in Chile, they are generating some rebound changes in the electoral agenda and in the emerging leadership. All this in a gradual way, within the inveterate Colombian mediocrity.

Traditional politics and signs of renewal: the composition of the next Congress

On Sunday 13, the game between traditional politics and renovation was tied. On the one hand, the two traditional political parties showed that they are dead in good health, especially due to the regional mobilization of their arrangements. And, as usual, some future country’s fathers are the bishops of people condemned by justice or themselves have been sanctioned or are under investigation. 

On the other hand, as has been the case since the 1991 Constitution, the traditional liberal-conservative bipartisanship was once again challenged by a chaotic multiparty system. The Colombian system is a Frankenstein in which 22 parties and movements are recognized by the National Electoral Council. In this scenario, it seems obvious to say: that electoral micro-businesses stand out and ideologies are conspicuous by their absence. 

Consequently, the composition of the legislature will be quite plural, which means that the next executive will have a hard job of negotiating, in a presidential regime in which the collegiate body has been characterized by scarce political control and by exercising the role of “notary” of the initiatives of the incumbent government. In addition, the representation will be fragmented: there will be 11 political forces in the Senate and 30 in the House of Representatives (between parties and coalitions). 

The composition of the 2022-2026 Congress will also be pluralistic in terms of ideological tendencies. Although in both chambers the Liberal and Conservative parties obtained the largest number of seats -58 and 43 respectively-, the Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact), a movement led by Gustavo Petro, obtained 44 seats, a historic vote for the left: 16 in the Senate, where it became the most representative force on a par with the Conservatives, and 28 in the House, second only to the Liberals. 

However, although it will be a more plural congress than the current one, its ideological sign will only be known until July 20. The Statute of the Opposition brings the curious requirement that the parties must decide within the month following the beginning of the new government whether they will be pro-government, independent, or opposition. It is likely to be closer to an eventual right-wing government than to a left-wing or center-wing one. In Colombia, there is more conservatism than Conservative Party.

From blue to pink: the slow ideological change of direction 

Although the legislative elections had a turnout of 46% of the electorate (2 points less than in 2018), the greatest attention on the election day was received by the consultations of the three coalitions that will nominate candidates for the presidency on May 29. The Pacto Historico obtained the highest vote and anointed Gustavo Petro with a resounding endorsement of 4,487,551 votes. The right-wing coalition called Equipo por Colombia (Team for Colombia) elected the former mayor of Medellín Federico Gutiérrez with 2,160,329 votes, while the Centro Esperanza coalition collapsed and Sergio Fajardo only obtained 723,084 citizen support.

Paradoxically, President Iván Duque is an Uribist (the term means related to Álvaro Uribe) and the Democratic Center has the largest Senate bench (19), the electoral decline of Uribism was formalized on March 13. The reason is obvious: Álvaro Uribe left the electoral scene after resigning his seat in the Senate in 2021 in the middle of the investigation of the Supreme Court of Justice against him for witness tampering. Thus, without its biggest voter, the Democratic Center lost 5 seats in the Senate and on Monday 14 its candidate resigned his presidential aspiration, precipitating the transition towards Uribism without Uribe. 

Some data show the gradual change that is taking place in Colombian politics: out of 294 seats in Congress, 83 will be occupied by women, 8.5% more than in the current Congress. Sixteen seats reserved for victims from the regions hardest hit by the armed conflict and provided for in the Peace Agreement were also elected. As the winners of several of them have been questioned, the prognosis on the effective representation that victims will have is, for now, reserved. More women, more social leaders, more activists, more environmental leaders, a Palenque leader, and several influencers will outline the profiles of the new legislators. 

In any case, the electoral phenomenon of 13M was the historic vote obtained by Francia Márquez in the Pacto Histórico consultation – 783,160 votes -, an Afro environmental leader who embodies the discourse of change that radically questions the status quo and traditional politics. Her vote should be read as a call for the Afro, indigenous and alternative minorities -whom she calls “the nobodies”- to be included. With a discourse framed in identity and postmodern categories, she expresses demands for structural changes, and her proposal around the concept of “dignified life” has the potential to put prose to the reforms that women, students, and rural communities demand in the form of poetry: “until dignity becomes customary”, “I am because we are”. Therein lies the germ of a change of generation and epoch in Colombian politics.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Profesor investigador senior en la Universidad Autónoma de Chile. Doctor en Ciencias Políticas de la Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina (Buenos Aires). Abogado por la Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (Medellín).


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