Former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe (R), leader for the Democratic Centre party, shakes hands with the presidential candidate of the Democratic Centre party for the May 25 presidential elections, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, after winning his senate candidate in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on March 9, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Raul ARBOLEDARAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is guest post from Syracuse University political scientist Abbey Steele on the recent Colombian legislative elections.


Last Sunday, Colombia held congressional elections. All seats – 102 senators and 166 representatives – were up for grabs, for four-year terms. Colombia is peculiar because competitive elections coexist with a decades-old insurgency. (Only the Philippines is similar.) The FARC, formed in the early 1960s, is the oldest insurgent group in the hemisphere. Over 200,000 are estimated to have been killed as a result of its war with the state, which has also featured many other illegal armed actors. More than 5 million have been displaced by the violence, abandoning 17 million acres of land (an area larger than the state of West Virginia). The government is currently in serious talks with the FARC, the first since the last attempt failed in 2002. So what impact, if any, do the elections have on the prospects for peace?

To answer the question, we need to turn our attention to one senator-elect in particular: Álvaro Uribe. The former two-term president took a puzzling professional turn when he formed a new political party and ran for senate against his former allies and chosen successor in last Sunday’s elections. This was a striking step down for the man who loved the presidency so much that he changed the constitution to run for reelection, and even tried to change it again to run for a third term (to no avail).

So why bother with the senate? Because he wants to have a direct influence on peace talks, his efforts to influence them from the sidelines having so far been unsuccessful. Juan Manuel Santos, the current president and Uribe’s former Minister of Defense, began negotiations with the FARC in 2012. Uribe was incensed, using Twitter to lambast the government, as he had when relations with Venezuela were repaired and a Victims Law was approved. The talks convinced Uribe that he needed to return to electoral politics to steer the country in the his preferred direction again – back towards military defeat of the FARC.

Announced in October 2012, negotiators from the government and the FARC have achieved agreements on the first 2 of 6 points on the agenda – land and political participation. Talks on drug policy are underway now. Uribistas are against the talks altogether, because they have “converted the terrorists into political actors” who will gain impunity. (Uribe faced similar criticism when he adopted the Justice and Peace Law, which provided for lenient sentences if paramilitary leaders demobilized.)

Last Sunday’s congressional elections will not end the talks outright. Uribe won the most votes of any candidate, and with 20 seats in the Senate, the uribistas are the largest opposition. Santos’s alliance, National Unity, kept the majority. (In what was potentially confusing for voters and beneficial for Santos, the government’s coalition comprises parties that once supported Uribe: la U, Cambio Radical, and Liberals.) Members of the Conservative Party might also ally with Santos, and the 10 Senators from left-leaning parties Polo Democrático and the Green Alliance support the peace talks. So, if Santos wins reelection in May, as he is projected to do, the talks should be secure.

Yet any accords will eventually require new legislation in Congress, where Uribe’s opposition and dissident Conservatives could mount obstacle. Still, the true challenge will be implementation, on two fronts.

First, state institutions have an uneven presence across the country. This is problematic for enforcing the rule of law and for overcoming the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles to, for example, legalizing land titles and ensuring the safety of the beneficiaries of land restitution. The government is trying to address these issues with USAID support, but the results are mixed so far.

Second, related to the first, is that powerful actors – many of whom are allied with Uribe – will actively try to undermine the peace accords because they will require compromise. The Victims and Land Restitution Law is a harbinger. It calls for reparations for victims and land restitution to internally displaced people. The descendants of the paramilitaries – originally formed by regional elites – have helped to thwart its implementation by threatening and attacking victims’ leaders. As of November 2013, less than 2% of the 46,000 registered cases have been adjudicated, and 46 leaders have been killed.

The peace talks similarly upend the uneasy alliance between regional and central elites that shapes governance in Colombia, as James Robinson has noted. The regional elites, represented by Uribe, support the central government in exchange for latitude in ruling the regions. When that provincial power is challenged, as it will be if the peace accords are adopted, the powerful resort to violence and corruption. (Allies in the military already caused a scandal by wire-tapping government negotiators’ phones.) Not a good prospect for ending the violence, even if there is peace.


Other Monkey Cage Election Reports can be found here.