Local Polls in Colombia Put Peace to the Test

On 27 October, Colombia will hold its first local elections since a 2016 peace agreement between the government and FARC rebels. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Elizabeth Dickinson explains what is at stake politically and why so much violence has accompanied the campaign.

What do these elections tell us about shifts in Colombian politics?

The run-up to this year’s local elections, which has been marked by an uptick in violence, offers a window onto the evolution of Colombian politics three years after the landmark 2016 accord between Bogotá and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

As a rule, Colombia’s state, city and municipal elections (held every four years) have attracted a high voter turnout. Big city voters tend to focus on urban preoccupations like public transportation and crime. Rural voters are likely to be more interested in issues like stalled progress on land reform and the persistence of armed groups and criminal gangs in their regions. Wealthy families with outsize influence in some parts of the country and illicit armed groups also have a major stake in local elections and often try to swing outcomes through campaign funding and coercion.

When compared to earlier local elections, the most significant change this year may be in the ideological diversity of candidates, who represent a far wider spectrum of views than in prior years – especially on the political left. Colombia’s left has long been one of Latin America’s weakest, in part because the public associated it with a violent insurgency that had Marxist-Leninist ideological origins. With the peace agreement starting to remove that taint, leftist candidates from the rebranded FARC, the Green Party, indigenous groups and grassroots organisations are standing for election this year. The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (a party born of the now disbanded FARC) is running more than 300 candidates for mayor, local councillor or regional assembly representative.

At the same time, on the other end of the political spectrum, the right-wing Democratic Centre party of President Iván Duque, which is just five years old, is seeking to consolidate its regional power bases. With its focus on security, the party is aiming to win state and municipal races in regions where it does not yet have a significant local presence, such as the Venezuelan border state of Arauca.

While the 2016 agreement has substantially changed the political landscape, some of the electoral reforms that it contemplated have stalled. In May, the government abandoned reforms that would have helped insulate political parties from the disproportionate influence of monied and powerful actors, including by increasing transparency around campaign financing, in the face of congressional resistance.

Nearly two dozen candidates have been killed over the course of the year leading up to these elections and 605 candidates have reported receiving threats. What is going on?

Violence has clouded nearly every Colombian election in the last four decades. Threats and assassinations, including of various presidential candidates, have waxed and waned with the intensity of armed conflict. In comparison to regional elections in 2015 and 2011 – both prior to the 2016 peace deal – this year’s campaign season has been relatively peaceful. But relative to the 2018 national vote, which was among the most peaceful in 40 years, trends look less positive. Authorities have already warned that municipalities appear to be at greater risk of violence and fraud in the present election than in 2018.

The resurgence of non-state armed groups vying for regional influence explains at least some of the violence attending this year’s elections. Over the last three years, new and evolving armed groups and criminal organisations have scrambled to move into areas the FARC gave up when it demobilised. Over twenty FARC dissident groups maintain dominion in areas of the Pacific coast, Venezuelan border regions and parts of the interior, such as Bajo Cauca, where they engage in illicit coca cultivation. The National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest remaining guerrilla movement, has consolidated control in its strongholds in Arauca and laid claim to some of the FARC’s former illicit markets and territories, such as in Chocó. (Talks between the ELN and the government broke down in early 2019, and so unlike in 2018, there will be no ceasefire in place for the vote.) ELN and FARC dissidents also compete with criminal organisations like the drug-trafficking Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces.

The election has made competition among these armed groups both more visible and more dangerous. The highest rates of pre-electoral violence are in regions where two or more armed elements are vying for control. These regions include Cauca and Nariño in the country’s south west and Catatumbo and Arauca along the Venezuelan border. In some areas, locals see the spike in violence as evidence that the 2016 deal failed to bring meaningful peace. As a community leader from Chocó described it, “the conflict never stopped”.

Candidates of all ideological leanings have faced intimidation, attacks and threats of assassination, often from actors with economic motives. Armed groups that have emerged from demobilised paramilitary forces and are involved in drug trafficking, illegal mining and other black-market activity have a strong incentive to silence candidates – territorial or indigenous leaders, for example – who might oppose their economic interests. In some parts of Cauca, Córdoba and elsewhere, groups have circulated pamphlets on social media telegraphing their threats against candidates. Government sources report that candidates who have resisted ELN demands – for example, members of the Democratic Centre party in Arauca – have faced threats and violent intimidation.

While part of this year’s violence is linked directly to armed groups, the wealthy families and individuals behind Colombia’s patronage politics also bear some responsibility. In areas such as the Atlantic coast, prosperous dynasties that straddle the business and political worlds have greater influence than political parties, and may use assassinations and threats in an effort to shift electoral outcomes. The masterminds of the violence, in these cases, tend to be candidates or their funders, even if they employ armed groups or contract killers to carry out their designs.

Although the dynamics behind much of Colombia’s pre-election violence seem fairly clear, finding the individual culprits behind threats and violent acts can be much more difficult. Many of those facing intimidation in this year’s campaign profess that they do not know who is threatening them or why. Partly as a result, election-related violence is rarely prosecuted, and impunity for recent acts of political violence stands at over 70 per cent.

To be sure, the police investigate in certain high-profile cases – for example, the harrowing 1 September assassination of Karina García, a Liberal Party candidate for mayor of Suárez in Cauca. In that case, initial reports indicate that a political rival may have paid FARC dissidents as hit men. Yet authorities are struggling to learn the origin of threats reported by at least 280 other mayoral aspirants across the country.

What has the government done to provide security for candidates standing for office and for voters on election day?

The government has recognised the resurgence of targeted political violence ahead of the elections and plans to send 60,000 soldiers to protect polling sites on election day. Bogotá has identified 315 high-risk municipalities where it should focus its efforts. In addition, the state has given more than 1,000 candidates some form of protection – ranging from bulletproof vests to armoured cars – though this is only about half of the number of political aspirants who requested help. As a final measure, Colombia will close its official border crossings with Venezuela from 24 October until election day in order to limit the threat from armed groups like the ELN that have a strong presence there.

As the record demonstrates, these efforts have thus far met with mixed success. The large number of potential targets, resource limitations and a somewhat fragmented response – with separate ministries assigned protection responsibilities for different groups of threatened individuals (eg, candidates, civil society leaders and ex-FARC members) and sometimes struggling to coordinate their efforts – have made an already difficult problem yet more challenging for the government.

How could the 2016 peace agreement influence the elections, and how could the election results affect the peace accord’s future?

Although an historic leap forward for peace in Colombia, the 2016 agreement accelerated the estrangement between Colombia’s relatively secure cities and the poorer countryside. In large cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, implementation of the peace agreement is not a major electoral issue compared to public transportation, the environment and crime. Yet in rural areas, where conflict persists, a growing sense of disbelief surrounds some of the accord’s more ambitious promises. Chief among these are land reforms and development initiatives aimed at eliminating the root causes of Colombia’s insurgencies. Community leaders in many rural areas say President Duque’s government has displayed only half-hearted commitment to these reforms.

Nevertheless, Colombians are unlikely to see the election as a referendum on the Duque government’s performance in implementing the peace deal. Local elections have historically favoured the country’s traditional establishment parties – ie, the Liberal and Conservative Parties that traded power in Colombia until the 1990s, together with their offshoots. That is likely to be the case on Sunday, regardless of whether or not the government-aligned Democratic Centre or the newly emerged left-leaning parties pick up seats.

The election of a new crop of leaders supported by traditional parties is likely to be both good and bad from the perspective of implementing the 2016 deal. On the positive side of the equation, many candidates support implementing key elements of the agreement that require a political push to make it happen – including land and other rural reforms as well as regionally focused development projects for conflict-affected areas, known locally by the Spanish acronym PDETs. A surge of effort from newly elected officials might generate momentum behind these reforms and projects, which are needed to wrest local economies away from the armed groups and drug traffickers that continue to wield great power in Colombia’s countryside.

But on the negative side, many of the traditional party candidates who are likely to prevail on Sunday are highly dependent on powerful interests – wealthy families, landowners and illicit actors – whose grip on the nation’s periphery constrains licit and broad-based economic development. This dependence in turn entrenches the lack of opportunity that drives people into the arms of armed groups. For this reason, Colombia’s external partners should maintain pressure for the reforms and support for the development projects – especially land tenure reforms and coca substitution programs – that can help create alternatives to the illicit markets that fuel conflict.

The FARC’s political successor is participating in local elections for the first time. What are their chances?

When the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (the FARC’s political successor) ran in national legislative elections in 2018, it campaigned hardest in large cities and won a miniscule 0.5 per cent of the vote. Its candidates seem to have absorbed a lesson from that disappointment, and are focusing their current efforts on rural municipalities where their insurgency formerly enjoyed support (whether real or coerced). They are aiming for offices below the level of gubernatorial and mayoral seats, in hopes that they can begin building public confidence in their ability to govern.

At least 60 former FARC members are also running for other political parties or in coalition with other parties. One of the most common connections appears to be with Colombia Humana, a left-leaning party founded by former Bogotá mayor and last year’s presidential runner-up, Gustavo Petro. Aligning itself with this highly popular national leader could be part of a strategy by some former FARC members to shed the organisation’s tarnished image and eventually appeal to an emerging leftist urban constituency.