Colombia elections: The banalisation of electoral politics

In Colombia electoral campaigns have focused on scandals and media theatrics rather than solid political platforms.

In his electoral campaign, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has focused on the ongoing peace talks with FARC [AFP/Getty Images]

Colombia is at a crossroads. Many analysts suggest that this is the time for Colombia to transit from war to peace, after 50 years of insurgency led by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The recent agreement on combating illicit drugs, reached at the peace talks between President Juan Manuel Santos’ adminstration and FARC in Havana, has reinforced the idea that Colombia is getting closer to ending the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere. This agreement along with accords on Comprehensive Rural Reform and Political Participation demonstrates that the parties have made much progress in less than two years.

This is not a minor achievement. However, many Colombians have disregarded the dimension of the illicit drugs agreement because of the timing. 2014 is an electoral year, and the peace process has become politicised. Thus, in a country with a habit of falling into a uniform and apathetic public opinion, electoral campaigns have decided to oversimplify the issue of peace for political gains.

In line with this, staunch critic of the peace process former President Alvaro Uribe and his followers have arguedthat the agreement on illicit drugs was conveniently planned by President Santos to increase his chances of being reelected on May 25. He made the same argument to explain the release of a video in which his political ally and presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga (Centre Democratic Party) meets with a hacker who was illegally tapping into the emails of the peace negotiators in Havana.

The national media has positioned Santos and Zuluaga as the main contenders, and their campaigns push slogans to enchant the electorate. Santos is selling the idea to Colombian public opinion that in this election there is only one choice: to vote for or against peace. Therefore he asks Colombians to “give peace a chance”, borrowing the words of John Lennon. Zuluaga asks them to vote for “peace without impunity”.

Two very different models of peace lie behind this simplistic dichotomy. On the one hand, Zuluaga is pushing for penal justice model to prosecute FARC leaders  and hide away the responsibility of the state in gross human rights violations in the same line as the previous Uribe administration. On the other hand, Santos is promoting a post-conflict society in which transitional justice and the modernisation of the state syncs the country with global developments in the neoliberal international system.

Scandals and accusations

Colombian media has paid excessive attention to the Santos-Zuluaga standoff, just as it did to the habitual clashes between Santos and Uribe, which were themselves an extension of differences former president Cesar Gaviria and Uribe had. All this is a symptom of the “banalisation” of politics, in which the proposals of the other presidential candidates, namely, Clara Lopez of leftist Polo Party, Martha Lucia Ramirez of the Conservative Party, and Enrique Penalosa of the Green Aliance Party, are marginalised.

Scandals overshadow Colombia polls

So far, the Colombian electorate has not had the chance to see a presidential debate between all the candidates. The lack of a public and engaging political discussion about the 2014-2018 presidential programmes is reinforcing skepticism and disillusionment among broad sectors of Colombian society. This feeds into the banalisation of politics, for democratic participation is reduced to voting in election-day or abstention.

In this context, the fact that the peace process has produced unprecedented results is eclipsed by fantasies circulated by Zuluaga and the right-wing sectors of Colombian society supportive of his candidacy, who suggest that the country is being sold out to Castro-Chavismo. Thus, while in global politics the cold war is a matter of the past, in Colombia the spectre of communism continues to haunt a growing sector of Colombians who are not willing to see the introduction of reforms to the anachronistic economic, political, and social structures of inequality that continue to help reproduce political violence.

This imagined threat of communism has polarised Colombian society to the extent that neo-Nazis narratives circulate among youth. This is fuelling the emergence of street gangs that spread hatred against those associated with leftist ideologies and attempt to impose territorial control in different areas of Colombia’s most important cities. Behind this dangerous simplification of identity politics lies a major challenge for Colombia: the dismantling of the instutionalisation of corruption at every level of the state and society.

The fight against corruption is at the centre of Lopez’s and Penaloza’s campaigns. Both candidates chose as vice-presidents women who are recognised for their ethical approach. For example, former president of the Patriotic Union party Aida Avella returned to Colombia after 18 years in exile and has joined forces with Lopez to denounce the corruption practices that keep a large chunk of Colombia in poverty.

At the same time, corruption scandals are being used to manipulate public opinion. Uribe claimed that JJ Rendon, the former political marketing strategist for Santos’ campaign, had illegally paid $2m in 2010 to his political campaign. The General Prosecutor’s Office asked Uribe to provide evidence of the charges, but so far he has not done so. Instead he has used this request to question the independence of the Prosecutor’s Office and denounce an alleged alliance between the prosecutor and the president.

Uribe’s strategy of making claims without evidence has been useful for him in the past. By doing so he not only manages to determine the national political agenda due to the publicity that the media gives to his statements, but also to rewrite history pushing a discourse that denies the corruption scandals that proliferated during his presidency, such as granting subsidies to the rich landowners.

A electorate can easily buy into political strategies full of misrepresentations and lies. It is common for Colombians to say that all the candidates are the same, and equally incompetent to solve the problems of the county.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Lopez, Penalosa, Ramirez, Zuluaga, and Santos have all demonstrated that they are good administrators and hard workers. If the presidential campaign had been centred on debating plans for improving education, security, and infrastructure, or dealing with corruption, poverty, and the armed conflict, the Colombian public would probably have a better idea of who to vote for.

They would be a bit more motivated not to stay at home watching the votes roll in on the news channels, like spectators of a banal race, in which the content – and responsible democratic participation – is irrelevant. This is how the banalisation of politics is reproduced.

Andrei Gomez-Suarez is an Associate Researcher at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.