Colombia’s Election Tests Its Democracy — and Its Peace
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these elections could seal or rip apart the country’s historic peace deal.
By John Paul Rathbone
When Colombia struck a peace deal two years ago, the formula to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest civil conflict seemed simple: In return for handing in their weapons, leaders of the Marxist FARC guerrilla group would be able to run for office in elections this year.
But nothing has proved simple when it comes to resolving a conflict that has claimed 200,000 lives, displaced millions and still inflames raw emotions.
Although the fighting has not restarted, both the peace formula and Colombia’s democratic credentials are being severely tested ahead of presidential elections in May, thanks to a particularly poisonous campaign.
Last week, FARC suspended campaigning after Rodrigo Londoño, a top commander running for president, and his colleagues were pelted with rocks. In a statement, FARC said it would stop campaigning because of such attacks, some violent and some virtual, such as social media threats and circulated photographs of the homes of FARC activists.
“There’s a feeling of panic, of imminent conflagration,” says Jorge Restrepo, director of CERAC, a Bogotá think tank. “The left is hitting out at the right, the right is hitting out at the left . … Many candidates are still framing the election in terms of fighting, of war versus peace.”
We run the risk of becoming digital tribes and returning to the Middle Ages via the back door.
Alejandro Santos, journalist
Colombians have good reason to feel on edge. According to the U.N., almost 40 FARC members have been killed since the 2016 peace deal. At the same time, a bomb attack last month by rival guerrilla group the ELN killed five and wounded 42 on the coast.
Mostly, though, the attacks take place on social media, where a siege mentality continues as fake news or gossip circulates on messaging groups such as WhatsApp, and virulent abuse is launched against politicians across the political spectrum. “It is as if Colombia does not know how to turn the page,” says Ricardo Silva Romero, a leading columnist.
Álvaro Uribe, a two-time former president who opposed the peace deal and is a standard-bearer for Colombia’s political right, has faced allegations of sexual abuse and a rehashing of his supposed links to deadly right-wing paramilitary groups — claims he has denied but that are greeted with glee on social media by his foes.
Meanwhile, Gustavo Petro, a leftist former mayor of Bogotá who is running for president, says he has been slandered by claims that he would expropriate Colombian businesses if elected. “I am waiting for the attorney general to reveal who authored the fake news on social channels,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
“We run the risk of becoming digital tribes and returning to the Middle Ages via the back door,” says Alejandro Santos, director of leading newsweekly Semana, which this month published an electoral poll that showed Petro in the lead — only to see the results inverted and republished on social media with Uribe’s preferred presidential candidate on top.
Many reasons exist for the febrile and grumpy mood in Colombia, the hemisphere’s oldest democracy, which has an economy the same size as South Africa’s and is the closest U.S. ally in the region.
As well as the controversial peace process, more than half a million refugees from Venezuela have fled into Colombia as its socialist neighbor collapses into hyperinflation and authoritarian repression. “No to a second Venezuela [here],” says Uribe, who claims that leftist candidates will drive Colombia into a “Castro-Chavista” abyss.
The Colombian economy is also just emerging from recession. President Juan Manuel Santos is limping toward the end of a second term. Adding to the sense of drift, cocaine production has soared as disbanded guerrillas have left their jungle redoubts and ceded the territory to criminal gangs.
Lastly, there is FARC itself. Its presence in the campaign irks the majority of Colombians, who despise the Marxist group, especially following reports that rebel leaders forced female combatants to have abortions. Their candidacies for congressional elections on March 11, and for the presidency on May 27, only buttress popular fears that Colombia could swing to the extreme left.
“My advice to the FARC would have been: Consolidate your influence in areas you already know; otherwise keep a low profile,” says Malcolm Deas, an authority on Colombia and a former Oxford don. “Instead [before they canceled campaigning], they waved a red rag at many bulls.”
Those bulls are still raging as Colombia seeks to turn a page on a bloody conflict and a mafia-riddled economy but without any candidate yet articulating a vision of what might come instead. More clarity may come when the deadline for formal candidacies is reached in March and the full slate of candidates is fixed. In the meantime, though, the combative mood illustrates how hard it is for old ways, habits and fears to change.
“The departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow,” says Deas. “It is unnerving.”
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