Most of Colombia's estimated 4.9 million displaced people have been forced
from their homes by violence and hunger [EPA]
Many of the between 3.3 and 4.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Colombia - as estimated by the government and a local human rights NGO called the Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (Codhes) respectively - are said to be facing exploitation of their vote in Sunday's presidential poll in return for crucial welfare provision.
The election will bring an end to incumbent Alvaro Uribe's eight year reign. Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe's former defence minister and party ally, and Antanas Mockus, the Green party candidate, are level in the pre-vote polls.
But, Noemi Sanin, the presidential candidate for the Conservative party, who is currently third in the polls, has criticised Santos' campaign for allegedly threatening displaced and poor people with the removal of welfare subsidies if they do not vote for him.
Santos has said that there is no evidence behind the allegations.
However, the claims are not without precedent in a country with the second highest number of IDPs in the world. Groups monitoring legislative polls in March this year say they uncovered the same issues.
The Washington Office on Latin America (Wola), a human rights group, found misuse of the Presidential Agency for Social Action, the government entity which funds national social investment programmes providing subsidies for shelter, education and economic support.
In particular, Familias en Accion, one of the programmes under the Presidential Agency for Social Action - which provides about three million poor and displaced families with subsidies - was seen to have been misappropriated in the provinces of Valle del Cauca, Antioquia and Santander.
"We were informed of Accion Social manipulating benefits so that IDPs will vote for one party or another," Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, a senior associate for Colombia and the Andes at the Wola, said.
Wola said that the programme's resources were used to secure votes for candidates from parties supporting the Uribe administration.
Locals told the monitors that programme representatives had meetings with them before polling to inform them that they were only receiving benefits - of as little as tens of dollars a month - due to the benevolence of the president.
Colombia's four decades-long civil war and its cocaine industry - the world's largest - are not only the cause of displacement but also exacerbate abuse of IDPs.
Sanchez-Garzoli said: "These are desperate persons ... IDPs are also susceptible to vote buying, manipulation and other forms of coercion by illegal armed groups."
Paramilitaries, leftist movements such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), which remains the most prominent anti-government group, and drug cartels continue to threaten democratic rights in Colombia with impunity.
Where such groups maintain control vulnerable populations have often been pressured to vote in a particular way, according to research by the Americas Policy Programme.
Even without vote manipulation, IDPs - who represent between eight to 10 per cent of Colombia's 45 million people - typically find it difficult to exercise their democratic rights.
The government gave IDPs a two week period in which to register to vote outside of their home communities.
But Wola found that for many this period was too short, precluding IDPs from taking up their voting right.
Additionally, as many displaced people have lost their identity documents, it is difficult for them to vote.
While Colombia has comprehensive legislation in place to protect and assist displaced people, the growing number of IDPs have made it difficult for state agencies to meet these standards.
In 2004, Colombia's constitutional court ruled that neglect of IDP's rights was unconstitutional and orders were made to end such infringements. However, relevant policies have not emerged and a gap between legislation and the reality on the ground remains.
This has led to criticism of Uribe's democratic security policy, which while claiming significant military successes against the Farc and other left-wing groups, is viewed as having ignored IDPs.
During Uribe's rule about 2.4 million people have been displaced - typically due to cyclical struggles for political and economic control of areas, according to Codhes.
Rural communities are often also faced with pressure from the state to assume their strategies against guerrillas, Edwin Tapia, a public policy analyst at Codhes, said.
Displaced households are disproportionately headed by already vulnerable groups, such as Afro-Caribbean, indigenous and poor rural people.
According to official statistics, about 40 per cent of displaced households are headed by women.
Additionally, many of the people suffering abuse do not report it.
|Santos said there is no evidence behind claims of attempts to influence voting [AFP]
Laura Carlson, of the Americas Policy Programme which carried out monitoring before the March polls, said: "Everywhere we went people reported a lot of fear. We found that even the institutions responsible for electoral crimes recognised that there were widespread crimes going on and yet they were receiving very few complaints.
"And when we talked to organisations of poor people as to why that was, they said of course this is going on and the reason why people were not filing official complains was because they had no faith in the official organisations to follow through with those complaints.
"In fact, there was a possibility that they could be targeted were they to file formal complaints with the official organisations. Because there is a degree of collusion between in many cases the police and military organisations at least within the perception of the people."
Presidential campaigns have also generally overlooked the IDP issue.
A key problem is that IDPs are stigmatised and discriminated against in Colombia rather than being treated as victims of violence and armed conflict. Thus their situation is not seen by many politicians as a political issue.
The successor to Uribe needs to fulfill legislation and the orders of the constitutional court, without a view to benefiting politically, Sanchez-Garzoli said.
Dealing with the IDP crisis would mean attending to Colombia's other major problems. This includes rampant inequality, dismantling right-wing para-military groups, negotiating with the left-wing guerillas and re-analysing the government's democratic security policies.
As Sanchez-Garzoli said: "Addressing the internal displacement crisis and its root causes will also help Colombian society in addressing the major structural issues that have kept the armed conflict alive for so many decades."