When I first came to Colombia Alvaro Uribe was president, and Juan Manuel Santos was his right-hand man and Defence Minister. By the summer of 2010 Santos had been elected to continue Uribe’s hard-line policies against the FARC. Today the two men are enemies, with Uribe the official opposition to his former protégé.
A week is always a long time in politics, but in Colombia it is an eternity. I have worked in and around the UK Parliament for close on 10 years, but in my two years in Colombia I have witnessed a whirlwind of change and covered a barrage of stories that would keep even the hardiest of political commentators on his toes.
Life is never dull in Colombia, and even if politics are not your thing, this country’s own peculiar brand of government cannot fail but to enrage, entertain, exalt, or dismay you; as it has done me.
In Colombia politics really matter. The issues are of war and peace, of mind-blowing corruption, wire-taps, and other very serious matters. It is of course about nobler pursuits like the fight against poverty and a fairer education for all.
So how do Colombia’s politics work?
Colombia has the longest running democracy in Latin America. Unlike her neighbours, she has not had to put up with tin-pot dictators. However, the fragility of the state and her inability to govern large parts of the country, has allowed the formation both of the right-wing paramilitaries AUC and the communist-guerrillas the FARC and the ELN.
The FARC is the longest-running terrorist group in Latin America – its war against the Colombian state has lasted for over half a century. The paramilitaries grew out of the self-defence militias that formed when the government was unable to protect its citizens, or their land.
Violence and criminality have shaped not only the nation but also the political class. Pablo Escobar was famously elected to congress in the 80s, while just a few years ago dozens of leading politicians were found to have links with paramilitaries and were promptly sent to jail.
Colombia is a presidential system which places significant power in the executive (the president and his cabinet). The legislature is formed of the congress which is split into two houses, the senate and the ‘house of representatives’. The third arm of the state is the judiciary.
The president is elected every four years and, thanks to a change to the constitution made during Uribe’s period in office (2002-2010), the nation’s head of state can be re-elected (once). There is much speculation as to whether current President Juan Manuel Santos will seek a second term in 2014.
Congress is elected in the same year as the president, while city mayors and councillors as well as departmental governors are elected a year later. Bogota’s Mayor, Gustavo Petro was elected in 2011 and is considered to be the second most important politician in the country.
Santos runs the country with a coalition government that controls over 90% of the congress, allowing him to push through virtually any law he wishes. Santos is considered to be a centre-right politician, and is a former member of the Liberal Party. His government has taken the country in a different direction from the right-wing Uribe, concentrating more on social issues, and seeking a peaceful end to Colombia’s conflict.
Uribe represents the country’s right while the Polo Democratic Alternative is the official party of the left. Unfortunately for them, the left in Colombia is split from head to toe, reducing its electoral power. Unlike most other countries in Latin America, Colombia tends to the right while the left plays a largely peripheral role in the nation’s political life.
Colombia’s political parties are complicated and fractured. Although the Constitution of 1991 allowed the formation of new political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals governed the country as a two-party state until the arrival of Uribe in 2002.
Uribe entered the presidential palace as an independent, elected on the Colombia First platform he created when he split from the Liberals. The Uribe years spawned the arrival of a series of new parties like Radical Change, the Greens, Polo, and the party of the U, President Santos’ party. The majority of these parties are now under the coalition umbrella of Santos’ government.
Colombians understandably have trouble keeping up with the changes in their political parties and it is often difficult for them to perceive a clear ideological message from those who seek their vote. This, and the outrage at the level of corruption, has meant that voter-turnout in elections has been low, and Colombia’s democracy has failed so far to develop into a fully participative system.
It’s complicated and highly personalised, but Colombian politics are entertaining and breathless. Despite the justifiable criticisms of her people, decisions taken in the Casa de Nariño (the presidential palace) have ensured that in two decades Colombia has shaken off its ‘failing state’ label and is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
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Kevin Howlett is owner of Colombia-Politics.com and is a political consultant from the UK.