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Sunday, May 28, 2006
The Rise of the Colombian Left (but How Far?)
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 3:11 pm

As noted in the previous post, Justin Delacour points to a piece by Gary Leech at the Colombia Post Online entitled The Rise of the Colombian Left. The piece notes:

While it is true that Uribe will likely be re-elected on May 28—although it no longer appears guaranteed that he will win outright in the first round of voting—his nearest competitor is no longer a candidate from one of Colombia’s traditional political parties. Instead, the center-left Democratic Pole’s candidate Carlos Gaviria is running second in three recent polls. This unprecedented support for a leftist Colombian presidential candidate follows on the heels of the Democratic Pole’s successes in March’s congressional elections. The recent rise of the electoral Left in Colombia has primarily come at the expense of the centrist Liberal party as the country has become increasingly polarized between Right and Left.

Even given Gaviria’s recent movement in the polls, I think it highly, highly unlikely that there will be a second round. Indeed, I think that the piece is reading too much into the recent movement, which is probably at least in part a reflection of the fact that polls in Colombia tend to over-sample urban areas where candidates like Gaviria are likely to do well (in a relative sense). It will not shock me in the least if Serpa still ends up in second place. Although I do think that it is probably in Colombia’s best interest, democratically speaking, for Gaviria to come in second-not because he represents the democratic left (or for any other ideological reason) but because he represents the ability of new parties to form and to be successful in a system that needs new blood in its party system.

Still, there is no doubt that the Democratic Pole’s success in the March elections and the fact that their presidential candidates may come in a distant second in the first round are both very positive signs for the party, I would caution Mr. Leech over reading too much into any of it at this stage-there simply isn’t enough data.

Further, those who know Colombia have been down this road before: similar prognostications were made about the AD/M-19 (a political party that emerged from the M-19 guerrilla groups demobilization in that lat 1980s). The AD/M-19 was initially quite successful and looked poised to be a third force in Colombian politics behind the Liberal and Conservative Parties. However, the party largely self-destructed in the 1990s and the structural conditions of the electoral system also continued to favor large parties, especially the PL.

Still, the main trouble for the party was internal-indeed, the electoral rules under the 1991 Constitution, at least for the Senate, provided ample opportunity for the AD/M-19 to build a niche in Colombian politics. However, strategic errors in the 1994 elections, which were a reflection of the the lack of cohesion amongst its membership, made that impossible.

The previous attempt at a leftward political party was the Unión Patriótica, or Patriot Union, which was conceived of as a non-violent, electoral arm of the FARC. The UP had some minor electoral success in the 1980s, although their prospects of becoming a major electoral force was always slim. More significantly, however, is the fact that in the mid-1980s, even after the UP severed ties with FARC, paramilitary groups (and likely the military itself in cases) assassinated hundreds of members of the UP so that by the late 1980s, the party had almost ceased to exist and by 2002 had wholly faded from the scene.

(As a side note, I would point out the UP was more radically left than either the AD/M-19 or the PDA.)

The slaughter of the UP is one of the more tragic chapters in the long and bloody history of Colombian politics. There is little doubt that the attacks on the UP created a very difficult political climate for those wishing to run from the left in Colombia and also has made, to this day, negotiations with the FARC extremely difficult.

Along these lines, Leech’s piece makes an irresponsible linkage between the current era and events of twenty years ago:

Of course, whether or not the Left achieves such an unprecedented success in 2010 may well depend on whether or not the Uribe administration’s dirty war excesses contribute to a repeat of the slaughter of the leftist Patriotic Union in the late-1980s. Hopefully, the Democratic Pole will be spared the fate that befell its leftist predecessor and Colombia can show that it has finally moved beyond such barbaric electoral practices.

While there continue to be serious questions about linkages between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups, there is no evidence to suggest anything akin to the targeting of the UP has taken place during the Uribe administration. Certainly there is nothing to suggest that the Alternative Democratic Pole is the target of systematic violence. Further, I do not think that the appellation “Dirty War” (given its connotations when connected to the actions of the Argentine, Brazilian and Chilean authoritarian governments of the 70s and 80s) is appropriate in this case. There are clear and troubling violations of human rights in the ongoing political conflict in Colombia (on all sides), but I would argue that it isn’t fair (or accurate) to tag it with that label.

Filed under: Colombia, 2006 Presidential Elections | |Send TrackBack


  1. I thought, too, that Gaviria would do worse and Serpa better than the polling numbers. But the opposite happened. Gaviria well outperformed his late polls and Serpa totally collapsed. This suggests to me that many Liberal voters might be ope to a center-left alliance in the future.

    Those “strategic errors” you refer to that the M-19 made were endogenous to the electoral system then in use. The M-19 got thoroughly socialized, and I do not mean in the ideological sense. I mean, they got co-opted by the personalizing and factionalizing incentives of the system.

    That isn’t likely to happen to the PDA, partly because the change of the electoral system and the absence of the old bipartism create lots of new alliance opportunities for programmatic parties.

    You are right about the Dirty War parallel. very sloppy journalism there.

    Comment by Matthew Shugart — Monday, May 29, 2006 @ 2:08 pm

  2. True about the “socialization” of the AD/M-19 and also true that new rules make that move unlikely.

    I still think that the AD/M-19 did not have to dissolve as it did had it better assessed how a party of its size should have behaved under the old rules.

    They were never, however, going to match the zenith of their popularity in the ANC elections.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Monday, May 29, 2006 @ 2:17 pm

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