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Analysis: Why leftists don't win in Colombia

Despite deep inequality and South America's leftward tilt, Colombia's voters consistently favour conservatives.

Last updated: 26 May 2014 10:23
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Turnout in Colombia's presidential election was its lowest in four decades [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]
Bogota, Colombia - After an unusually nasty campaign marked by high-level hacking scandals and alleged multi-million-dollar bribes from drug dealers, two right-wing politicians will face off again in a June runoff for the prize of Colombia's presidency.
 
The first round of voting on Sunday saw Oscar Zuluaga, a far-right economist, win 29 percent of the vote against 25 percent for current president and conservative former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos.     
 
Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's hardline president between 2002-10, was arguably the campaign's biggest winner. His support transformed Zuluaga, a former finance minister, into the frontrunner.
 
Santos and Zuluaga share similar views on economics, but opposing perspectives on how to end 50 years of civil conflict. More than 215,000 people have died and 5.7 million left as refugees in their own country in a battle between leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and security forces.
 
Santos has backed negotiations with FARC rebels, the largest insurgent group, while Zuluaga favours a return to the military campaign initiated by Uribe.
 
"Vote for a free country, not the Castro-Chavez tyranny supported by the current government," Uribe said at a campaign rally for Zuluaga, taking a swipe at Santos by comparing the conservative to leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela.
 
Colombia's elections threaten peace talks with rebels
Low turnout

The campaign's biggest surprise was its arguably low turnout - 60 percent of possible voters didn't bother to cast ballots, the lowest rate of participation in four decades.
 
Most polls predicted that Santos and Zuluaga would advance to the second round, and some voters likely considered the result a foregone conclusion. When questioned about voter apathy, many Colombians cited a distrust of politicians, the prevalence of corruption and the widespread belief that things simply won't change.
 
"Colombian democracy has gotten weaker in the last 12 years," Nelly Osorio Duarte, a lawyer voting in a middle-class neighbourhood of the capital, told Al Jazeera. "Corruption is the biggest issue facing us. There needs to be a better dispersal of power - too much is concentrated in the hands of the presidency and the elite."
 
As other South American countries including Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil elect social democrats or socialists, the prospect of two conservatives battling for the presidency makes Colombia an outlier in the region.
 
With some of the highest rates of inequality in the world, a large number of poor rural farmers and urban workers, and a lack of public trust in the traditional elite who have been linked to grave human rights abuses, analysts are split on why Colombia's left doesn't perform better at the ballot box.
 
"Leftist political parties don't [properly] differentiate themselves in their statements and propaganda from the armed leftist groups," Carlos Florez Lopez, author of Right and Left in Colombia 1920-1936, told Al Jazeera. "This is because some of them believe in the theory of diversity of tactics."

'Emissaries for the guerrillas'
 
Following decades of bloodshed, armed, ostensibly left-wing rebels - including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and April 19 Movement (M19) - are loathed by much of the population. They've been linked to drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and the forcible recruitment of child soldiers.
 
Eleazar Rodriguez, a butcher in Medellin, is angry with the traditional elite, concerned about inequality and comes from the working class. He would seem to be the sort of person who would support the political left. But he doesn't. "We don't elect left parties because we were hurt by the things the left [guerrillas] did to us," he told Al Jazeera. 
 
Clara Lopez from the left-wing Polo Democratic party won more than 15 percent of the vote, a better-than-expected showing. Some supporters hope she will back Santos in the runoff for the sake of the peace process.
 
However, other key leftist politicians, including Bogota's embattled Mayor Gustavo Petro, who once fought alongside guerrilla groups, and many voters associate the entire leftist movement with deadly bomb attacks and drug trafficking.
 
"Carlos Gaviria, the progressives, Navarro Wolf - these political leaders can say 'we aren't FARC, we are social democratic like the European Greens', but regular citizens don't see a difference between them and the FARC," John Fernando Restrepo Tamayo, a professor at the University of Medellin, told Al Jazeera. "People in the cities believe the left parties are emissaries for the guerrillas and the armed struggle."
 
Nazih Richani, a political science professor at Kean University, believes that "sheer violence" - rather than image problems or alleged links to guerrillas - explains the left's weakness. "Many leftist leaders, union leaders, student leaders, peasant leaders, and women's leaders have been assassinated," Richani told Al Jazeera. "Right-wing regimes are killing massively the left-wing opposition. [Under these circumstances] how can they organise or advocate for political power?"  
 
Between 1986-2013, more than 2,800 union activists were killed in Colombia, the Pulitzer Center reported, some of the highest levels of violence against labour movements on earth. 
 
This is part of a campaign of "political genocide" against leftist social movements orchestrated by the "landed elite", Richani said.

Deep inequalities
 
Just one percent of rural landowners control more than half of Colombia's arable land, according to a United Nations Development Programme study, meaning that a group of near-feudal conservatives has vast access to wealth and power. "Even in 2014, peasant leaders are being killed on a weekly basis," Richani said.
 
Uribe hails from this constituency and, according to human rights groups, researchers and his political rivals, has links to right-wing paramilitary groups who terrorised peasant activists and other social movements. Santos has accused Uribe of being "very good friends" with paramilitaries. 
 
Paulo Hernan Sierra, a jailed paramilitary boss, said he was paid to organise an illegal armed group operating on a ranch owned by Uribe's family in Antioquia state in the 1990s. Uribe denies having paramilitary links. Colombian prosecutors estimate that paramilitary groups like Sierra's have been responsible for more than 50,000 killings.
 
Despite his family's wealth, Uribe successfully portrayed himself as a tough populist, willing to take on the Bogota elite in order to improve security for the common man. Uribe's father was killed by guerrillas in 1983, giving his tough talk personal validity in the eyes of some voters.
 
Amid questions of legitimacy and threats of violence, Colombia's hasn't produced a leftist politician with Uribe's acumen or marketing skills.
 
"People felt close to him," Juan Vargas, a political analyst at the University of Rosario, told Al Jazeera of the former president who won a Senate set in March. "He had a personal style of governing," Vargas said, which helped him leave the presidential palace with an approval rating of around 80 percent in 2010. Security improved significantly on his watch, particularly in urban areas.
 
"The right in the region is a minority, although Colombia isn't the only outlier," Vargas said. "[Colombia's divergent status] has to do with the history of Uribe."
 
If Zuluaga wins on June 15, that history will continue.
 
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @chrisarsenaul

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Al Jazeera
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