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Colombia’s Democratic Lesson

Colombia’s March 14 legislative elections felt more like November 4 in the United States -- cold, quiet and calculating.

Marcela Sánchez

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Voting in Colombia has gone decaf. The big Election Day street party, the fiesta democratica is gone, and with it the t-shirt clad partisans, the colorful political caravans and the boom of amped up campaign songs.

Colombia’s March 14 legislative elections felt more like November 4 in the United States -- cold, quiet and calculating. Colombian law now forbids anything that smacks of proselytizing at voting centers. No music, no electioneering. Now Colombians simply vote  – free of pressure and festivity.

This sign of democratic maturation in one of the oldest democracies in Latin America followed another, far more significant indicator. Late last month the country’s Constitutional Court put an end to President Alvaro Uribe's aspirations of continuing his rule. It concluded that altering the constitution to allow him to run a third consecutive time would represent “substantial violations to democratic principles.”

Uribe --  one of the most popular Colombian politicians ever -- probably would have won had he run. But with a third term, his power would have grown even beyond his outsized confidence, allowing him to influence the selection of all magistrates to the Supreme Court, for instance. Colombia's system of checks and balances would have been compromised.

In Washington many breathed a collective sigh of relief. Despite deep admiration for Uribe and for helping build what may be the U.S.’s most fruitful relationship in the region, practically nobody in the city supported his third term. President Obama, in a private meeting with Uribe in June, echoed that discomfort and just happened to mention to him that in the United States two terms are sufficient.

So it was not surprising to learn that Obama was pleased with the Court’s decision. In a letter sent to Uribe on March 10, the U.S. President praised Uribe’s acceptance of it, saying he provided "an invaluable example that all citizens, even presidents, must be subject to the law and accept the outcomes of … democratic institutions."

It may seem strange praise for an outgoing president who was simply obeying the law. But Obama’s letter writers tend to suspect, as others do, that internal challenges to democracy are equivalent to weak democratic institutions. This is an incorrect assumption in regards to Colombia where a strong democratic tradition has in fact helped the country overcome many tribulations.

With the exception of a short-lived military junta from 1953 to 1957, Colombians have enjoyed civilian governments for more than a century. In terms of voter participation, the March 14 legislative election saw the greatest turnout in history, nearly 45 percent. That is five percentage points higher than in recent midterm elections in the United States.

Also significant is the quality of the candidates running in the May 30 presidential election. Among them are two former professors cum popular and effective city mayors, Sergio Fajardo in Medellin and Antanas Mockus in Bogota and three politicians with distinguished Senate careers: Rafael Pardo with the traditional Liberal Party, Gustavo Petro with the leftist Polo Democratico Alternativo, and German Vargas Lleras, of Cambio Radical.

Other candidates are trying to ride Uribe’s coattails into office. Uribe’s former Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who led the military during the daring and successful release of long time, high profile hostages in 2008, is among them. Another one is Uribe’s former agricultural minister, Andres Felipe Arias, also known as “Uribito,” or little Uribe.

Of course, Colombia’s democracy has still many failings and this electoral season has already shown evidence of that. The 37-year-old Arias may still win the Conservative Party nomination in spite of being ensnared in a farm subsidy scandal where millions of dollars were handed out to wealthy families for political favors.

The ugliest outcome from the latest legislative vote was the strong showing by a new party accused of having links to right-wing death squads and drug trafficking. After years of independent government investigations to purge criminal influence of the political class, the new Party of National Integration, got nine spots in the 102-seat Senate.

Curiously, without Uribe in the running, this campaign is still very much about him. The two parties more closely tied to the president got half of the seats in Congress. And while the presidential candidates struggle to distinguish themselves, they realize they can’t be too anti-Uribe if they expect to win.

Platforms of change would be less welcome than pledges to do things even better. Beyond campaign promises, there is no reason to believe that with any of the top contenders as president the country would backtrack – especially in detriment to U.S. interests.

Elections in Colombia may not be what they used to be, but there is plenty to celebrate.

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