Polo Democrático Takes Bogotá in Step towards the Presidential Palace

Despite far right President Álvaro Uribe’s attacks, Colombia’s left opposition Polo Democrático swept the elections for Bogotá’s Mayor — the second most important political position in the country.

The Polo candidate, Samuel Moreno, took 915,000 or 43.6% of the votes on a record turnout, while the president’s candidate, Enrique Peñalosa, could only manage 589,000 or 28.2%, despite support from the main Uribista parties, the supposedly opposition Liberals, and Colombia’s sole national daily newspaper, El Tiempo.

Continued Polo Democrático domination in the capital not only strengthens the left challenge in Colombia’s next presidential elections, but has also derailed the right’s intention to change the constitution to allow Uribe to run for a third term.

Had Peñalosa defeated the Polo, Uribe would have considered this an endorsement of his re-election. As it is, the president is now hoping for a ‘catastrophe’, as he himself put it, that will give him an excuse to remain in office after his second term ends in 2010.

‘These elections are a slap for all those who wanted impunity to continue in Colombia, for all those who wanted poverty and inequality to continue in Bogotá,’ said Ángela, a Polo activist celebrating Moreno’s victory in the Ciudad Bolívar barrio that rises on a steep mountain at the edge of the capital.

‘It has to be recognised that the President of the Republic contributed to this victory with his scheming,’ declared Carlos Gaviria Díaz, the Polo Democrático’s national leader, ‘The president led a campaign against us that was contrary to the Constitution — he lied and attacked the Polo but his attacks had the opposite effect. Take note, Mr President, there’s nothing that can be done to stop the left taking the Presidential Palace!’

Uribe had constantly interfered in the election, claiming that the Polo had bought votes and demanding that Colombians not vote for leftist candidates ‘associated with terrorists or communists’. Although this is illegal under Colombia’s Constitution, which prohibits public officials from intervening in election campaigns, as the president has appointed his far right supporters to the Prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court, there is little chance he will be investigated.

Lucho Garzón’s Bogotá

The rising left challenge to Colombia’s closed politics built on the Polo Democrático’s ability to organise in poor workers’ barrios and the achievements of Bogotá’s current mayor, Luis ‘Lucho’ Garzón, who first won the capital for the left in 2003. Garzón’s emphasis on the poor, workers and the displaced has reduced poverty from 38.9% to 23% in Bogotá, even while Colombia’s national poverty rate continues at almost 50 per cent.

Garzón’s Bogotá sin hambre (Bogotá without hunger) and Bogotá sin indiferencia (Bogotá without indifference) programs have helped to ensure that poor workers and the displaced have a chance to escape the desperate poverty that forces literally millions in Colombia to try to survive on less than 8,000 pesos, or 4 US dollars, a day.

These programs have established 281 community kitchens in the poorest barrios in the capital, and have built schools and colleges in the most marginalised zones, while subsidising medical care to prevent almost 2 million workers in Bogotá being excluded from health care by Colombia’s privatised hospitals.

As a result, the Polo Democrático increased its vote in the capital from 797,000 to 915,000, and became the largest single party on Bogotá’s asamblea, while defeating all the rightist parties in 17 of the city’s 20 zones to more than double its representation on the city’s local juntas. This success has positioned Garzón as the obvious choice to be the Polo’s candidate in the next presidential elections, although the party’s current national leader, Carlos Gaviria, has strong support amongst the activists.

Gaviria, a former Constitutional Court justice and Senator, was the Polo’s presidential candidate in the 2006 elections, when the left took more than 2.5 million votes and eclipsed the traditional Liberals to become Colombia’s second political force after the rightist Uribista coalition.

Gaviria is considered more radical than Garzón, and has the support of Colombia’s influential Communists, but workers organised in the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores union confederation lean towards former union president Garzón. Some Polo Congressional representatives also suggest that Garzón’s record in the capital makes him the best choice to overcome Colombians’ traditional cynicism and distrust and prove that it is possible to end poverty and inequity.

As the Polo Democrático has a strong democratic tradition, more than 500,000 activists voted in the internal elections to choose delegates to the party’s first Congress last year. The presidential candidate will be discussed in caucuses and chosen in primaries in 2009, or just before the actual presidential election the following year.

50 dollars a vote

Whoever the candidate is, Colombia’s local elections have shown that the Polo still has work to do. Despite the left’s success in Bogotá, the picture is more complicated in other parts of Colombia. Although the Polo doubled its national vote to elect local representatives across the country, it had to support independent candidates in Medellín, Cali and Cartagena to ensure rightist parties and corrupt caudillos were defeated in the big cities.

The elections proved that the far right paramilitaries, clientilism and the caudillos still have a strong hold on Colombia’s politics, although the violence that saw 30 candidates assassinated had more to do with rightist factions settling scores amongst each other than an organised campaign against the left.

Some local caudillo bosses were defeated by independent candidates on the Caribbean coast, most notably in César state where Cristian Moreno won supported by the Polo Democrático. Moreno had stood down as a candidate in the 2003 elections after receiving death threats, but the Uribista candidate who then ‘won’ that election unopposed is now in jail for his ties to the paramilitaries.

However, other corrupt political bosses maintained their control through traditional patronage and bought votes. In Chocó on the Pacific coast, where the poverty rate is an incredible 80 per cent, a vote cost 100,000 pesos, or about 50 dollars, according to election observer Victor Raúl Mosquera. Some voters ‘received wood, zinc sheets or paint,’ he reported, ‘and all the parties except the Polo did this.’

Uribistas disunited

Rightist paramilitary front parties and other parties in the president’s Uribista coalition continue to control several states, but even after the election results there were scores of instances of these parties’ supporters fighting each other, and even setting fire to candidates’ campaign buildings where it was perceived that one candidate had bought more votes than another.

This indiscipline has raised concerns amongst Colombia’s elite about the right’s ability to unite their disparate parties to challenge the Polo Democrático. Although the scattered rightist parties seem to have more support on paper if their votes and political positions are added together, Colombia’s tradition of personalist caudillos and proud, arrogant bosses might be too strong for the right to overcome in order to present a united candidate in the next presidential elections.

For this reason, there is much speculation in the rightist press to encourage Uribe to run for a third term. To do this, the Constitution would have to be changed again; it was already rewritten in 2005 to allow Uribe to run for reelection the first time, and although the Supreme Court has a rightist majority, the conservative Colombian elite are cautious about more changes to what they consider to be the country’s ‘institutional stability’. As such, a ‘second reelection’ may be a step too far for these traditionalists to make more changes to their Constitution, even for Uribe.

To counter this, one of the main Uribista parties intends to present to the right dominated Congress a proposal to put the Constitutional change to a referendum, calculating that a national vote, with limited turnout and opportunities for buying support and intimidating opposition, will allow them to circumvent the Supreme Court.

But some traditionalists are drawing unfavourable comparisons with Venezuelan President Chávez, and among others there is the concern that further revelations in the parapolítica scandal will at some point debilitate Uribe, contribute to the left’s advance, and culminate in a defeat for the right in the Congressional elections due to be held just 8 weeks before the next presidential elections.

Colombia’s business and financial elite, already nervous about losing the American free trade agreement, are concerned about the impression Uribe’s intemperance and arrogance is having in the US. Regardless of their political affinity with Uribe, their commercial interests come first, and comments in the financial press indicate this elite would prefer to support a fresh rightist candidate against the left in the next elections.

There is no guarantee that the right will agree on one, however. Uribistas are scattered amongst at least 6 political parties, with no particular reason for their separation other than the egos of the party leaders. None of these parties have clear, principled policies other than to support the president, and it is obvious that without this ‘Pole Star’ these parties would have nothing more than a support either based on personalist patronage or on votes that are bought, or gained through intimidation.

Without the president standing as a candidate, there are certain to be many opportunistic short term coalitions amongst the right, alliances based on personalities, and much disagreement and little coherence. In addition, none of these parties have the organisation and activists to sustain a committed and disciplined campaign or organised party for more than a short time.

In the recent local elections, it was common to see people paid by these parties to distribute leaflets and even attend meetings, while the Polo Democrático could count on a massive activists’ base — some 500,000 members — whose work on the campaign did not need to be paid for, but was instead voluntary, committed and engaged.

Tumultuous scenes and thousands of supporters greeted Polo candidates in the barrios, and some 25,000 attended the party’s closing rally in Bogotá, while the Uribista parties were reduced to paying people to give out leaflets at stoplights, and instead of taking to the streets or talking to Colombians, relied on press conferences and endorsements from columnists in newspapers and magazines that most people are too poor to even buy.

For this reason, bought votes became one of the main themes in the elections, and the successes the right had often came in states where politics continue to be controlled through a caudillo or political boss.

Traditional parties’ relevance questioned

The polarisation in the elections between left and right has also disorientated Colombia’s historic traditional parties, continuing the crisis about their relevance that Uribe precipitated when, although a Liberal, he became president in 2002 as an independent supported by the Conservatives.

In these elections, the Conservatives, now tired of being co-opted and marginalised by the far right, split from the Uribistas and ran a separate candidate in Bogotá, and have declared their intention to run their own candidate in the presidential elections, whether Uribe stands again or not.

The Liberals are split. The party that has given Colombia six of its last eight presidents lost half its representation throughout the country in the elections, and didn’t even stand a candidate in the capital, Bogotá, where their official position was to support the Uribistas, even though most party members actively campaigned for the Polo Democrático.

‘These elections dramatically demonstrated the terminal crisis of the traditional two party system that for a century and a half has dominated our politics,’ wrote Álvaro Vásquez in the Partido Comunista Colombiano newspaper, Voz. ‘In Bogotá, the Conservative candidate couldn’t even achieve one per cent of the vote, and the Liberals supported the Uribista, Peñalosa, showing that these old parties no longer have a place in Colombia.’

The Liberal’s opportunism and schizophrenia, (a celebrated victory was a Liberal win over a notorious caudillo boss in Atlantico state on the Caribbean coast, while in states where the resurgent paramilitaries dominate, the caudillo bosses often are the Liberals), suggest the party, desperate to regain power after three successive presidential election defeats, is likely to support whoever it perceives as having the strongest chance to take the presidency next time, whether the Polo or the right.

The Liberals could still be important in this respect, because although the Polo’s strength as a united, coherent and independent party is feared. Even the rightist press were impressed how the Polo took Bogotá with almost a million votes without making alliances, while Peñalosa lost despite the support of the two strongest Uribista parties and the Liberals. In much of Colombia it may prove difficult to break the traditional caudillo bosses hold over some states in the time before the next elections.

Towards the presidential elections

This has led some in the Polo to suggest that an alliance with the more progressive and principled Liberal activists in these states might be necessary, and cite the fact that there is still a residue of traditional support, especially from workers, for the Liberals. Colombia’s most progressive president, Alfonso López Pumarejo, who governed in the Thirties and Forties and is often compared to US President Franklin Roosevelt, and also Colombia’s most radical leftist, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had to be assassinated in 1948 to stop him becoming president and taking Colombia to the left for the first time, were in the Liberal Party and are still remembered and celebrated.

Across Colombia, the Liberals still took more votes than the Polo in these elections, (although in the 2006 presidential elections the Polo had eclipsed the Liberals), demonstrating that the traditional party still has an organisation in states where the Polo has little presence, further encouraging some on the left to believe an alliance is necessary.

Others in the Polo believe its strength is precisely in the fact that the left is not associated with the traditional clientilist patronage that the Liberals still represent. Although the only alliance with another party in these elections was with the Liberals in Santander state, where the Polo supported perennial presidential candidate and proven Uribe critic, Horacio Serpa, to victory over a rightist paramilitary front party candidate, some Polo members question why the Liberals should receive any support at all, especially when their leaders campaigned against the Polo in Bogotá.

Instead, cited as an inspiration is President Chávez’s success in Venezuela, where he has mobilised unorganised workers and the poor in the barrios who had never voted or even supported a political party before, instead of trying to win over those who are already involved in politics.

In Colombia this constituency is huge — more than 50 per cent never vote in elections, millions are displaced and most workers are unorganised. Instead of attempting to win over those supporting the traditional parties or caudillo bosses, the Polo should organise in the barrios and among these workers, and organise vote registration campaigns to involve the displaced and the poorest.

That the left has already had some success pursuing this strategy was evidenced by opinion polls that disastrously underestimated the Polo’s support, due to the indifference the press had in the poor or the desterrados displaced in the barrios where Polo activists had been campaigning and organising. Right to the end of the election campaign in Bogotá, some polls undercut the Polo’s vote by more than ten points, underestimating the party’s actual vote by about 250,000.

The elections have given further indications that Colombians are perhaps not as conservative as thought. Chávista revolutionary parties, such as the Corriente Bolivariana and Movimiento Bolivariano de Colombia, took almost 12,000 votes in 6 states — enough, according to political analysts, to elect a Chávista representative to Congress should that figure be repeated in the congressional elections.

The Partido Comunista Colombiano, standing candidates as part of the Polo Democrático, won more than 20 positions throughout the country, including local mayors, state assembly representatives and consejo positions on Bogotá’s assembly. The Polo has even organised chapters among Colombian immigrants in the United States, Spain and Venezuela, registering migrant workers to vote and making sure the Polo’s message is brought back into these workers’ home communities.

The Polo has proved that Colombians have a strong identification with the party. In the elections, its supporters didn’t split their vote, voting the party list all down the ballot, and even the elite press constantly counter poses the left coalition’s organisation to the Uribista coalition’s ‘indiscipline.’

Columnists and political commentators take it as obvious that in the next elections it will be the Polo’s presidential candidate that the right will have to beat, and although there is much work still to be done, the Polo’s continuing election successes, and its ability to organise the other Colombia — the poor, workers and the displaced — show that Colombia has a strong chance to leave its isolation and soon join the rest of Latin America on the left.

Paul Haste is a union organizer from London who is currently living in Bogotá to improve his Spanish. He can be reached at: paul.jisv@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.