Colombia's socio-political outlook improves and holds further potential


The political landscape in Colombia is rather complex, a result of the convoluted evolution that gave rise to the system as it stands today. In addition, the violent conflicts that gripped the country for decades, while partially resolved, still continue to exercise a defining influence on national politics.

The country’s sub-national governments are divided into 32 departments alongside the Capital District of Bogotá. Each department has their own elected legislature and governor. Within each department are municipalities, with a total of 1123 throughout the whole country. The national legislature is elected every four years in the month of March, while the presidential elections are held in May. The legislature is bicameral, divided between the 172-seat House of Representatives (the lower house) and the 108-seat Senate (the upper House). The executive branch is headed by the president, who can serve a maximum of two terms and acts as the head of state. The legal branch is headed by the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, and also has departmental, regional and district courts. The National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) is an independent and autonomous body created following the introduction of the new constitution in 1991. The CNE oversees the transparency and conduct of all elections in the country, as well as political campaign funding.

Political Parties

After independence, Colombia initially had a two-party system, which has since morphed into a multi-party system. Throughout the 19th century, the country’s conflict was epitomised by the divisions between the Conservatives and Liberals. The former group was backed by the land-owning aristocracy and the clergy, and was dominant for much of the late-19th and early-20th century. The internationalist, federalist and free-trade orientated liberals were predominant during the 1930s and 1940s. The rivalry between the parties led to a number of existential crises for the country. One of these was the Thousand Days’ War from 1899 to 1902; another was the 10-year armed conflict known as La Violencia (the violence) that lasted from 1948 to 1958. After the conflict, the two parties agreed to end the violence through a pact known as the National Front, which created a power-sharing, alternating government agreement between them. This further consolidated the twoparty system, and arguably led to the formation of a number of illegal armed groups who felt excluded from the political discourse. The 1991 constitution laid the groundwork for the legitimisation of more political parties, which began to appear in earnest in the 21st century, facilitating the country’s transition from a two-party to a multi-party democracy.

21st-Century Presidents

Until the election of independent Álvaro Uribe in 2002, the vast majority of all previous presidents had come from either the Liberal or the Conservative parties. Uribe ruled as the head of the Colombia First party until 2010, when his two-term presidency ended, as dictated by the constitution and confirmed by the Supreme Court in February 2010. Later that year, Uribe’s former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos was elected president as leader of the Social Party of National Unity (also known as the U party), which had been created in 2005 as a split off from the Liberal Party and subsequently won the largest number of seats in Congress in the 2006 legislative elections. This switch away from Uribe’s political party led to an intense rivalry between the two, with Uribe forming his own political party in 2013, called the Democratic Centre. In contrast to its name, the party looked to continue the hard-line security-focused policies Uribe had advanced during his two terms as president. During his subsequent years out of office, he has been a vocal opponent of the peace process and consequently of Santos, with Uribe using his large following, particularly on social media, to criticise the then-president during the 2014 elections and 2016 peace deal referendum. Seen by many observers as a referendum on the peace talks, Santos narrowly won the 2014 elections, beating his rival, Uribe’s protégé Oscar Iván Zuluaga, with 50.9% of the vote. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his four-year efforts to end the country’s conflict with FARC. In 2018 Uribe, then a senator, accused British Intelligence agency MI6 of colluding with Santos to provide recordings that implicated him in certain crimes. He announced that he would resign from his post in order to combat Supreme Court investigations into his conduct while president, in particular his alleged involvement with death squads.

2018 Elections

The legislative elections in March 2018 brought a political stalemate with no clear majority in either chamber; however, Uribe’s party, Democratic Centre, took the most number of seats. The presidential election in May 2018 saw the victory of Uribe’s hand-picked successor, Iván Duque, in a second round that pitted him against the former leftist militant Gustavo Petro. Duque won with 53.9% of the votes, and Petro took 41.8%. Markets were generally positive about Duque’s election, given his business-friendly policies and his extensive career at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Notwithstanding President Duque’s centrist economic policies, like his ally Uribe he has been a critic of the country’s peace process, and has promised to revise key aspects of the agreement signed by Santos in 2016. His changes would sanction tougher sentences for rebels and more compensation for victims, among many other points of contention.

Peace Deal

Following the election of Santos in 2012, the government began a process of negotiation with Colombia’s main rebel group, FARC. A peace deal was reached in September 2016 and a referendum held on it in October of the same year, in which it was rejected by 50.21% of the population. A month later, a re-negotiated deal was put to Congress and passed. The Colombian accord is more comprehensive than certain other comparable agreements established around the world, such as the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. It integrates four aspects of the transitional justice process: the right to truth; justice; reparations; and guarantees of non-recurrence.

The central aim of the accord was to incorporate FARC into Colombia’s civilian and political spheres, in part by guaranteeing them at least five seats in both upper and lower chambers of Congress until 2026. In addition to this, the deal provided more socio-economic development assistance for rural areas, above all those that were affected by FARC’s presence during the best part of half a century.

Implementation of Peace

The conflict with FARC officially ended on August 15, 2017, after around 7000 FARC fighters and over 2000 FARC members handed in their weapons and began the process of assimilation into mainstream Colombian society through work, education and training. Each registered affiliate received COP2m ($684) once they had turned in their weapons. The UN verified that some 8000 weapons and 1.3m pieces of ammunition had been collected during the disarmament process. By 2018 FARC was a political party and participated in the 2018 elections, although it performed poorly at the polls. Nevertheless, evidence from across the country suggests that there is still a long way to go before a sustainable peace can be achieved. According to António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, as of January 1, 2019, 85 FARC rebels had been killed since the deal was signed in 2016. These were mainly in former FARC-held areas in which there is still a limited state presence. This is a reminder that there is a marginal but continued presence of illegal armed groups in some of the more remote areas of Colombian territory, many of whom have little interest in dialogue with the government.

The second-largest armed group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), killed 21 military cadets in a car bomb explosion at a military academy in Bogotá in January 2019. The ELN began peace talks with previous president Santos in 2017, but these were broken off by President Duque due to the ELN’s continued taking of hostages and ongoing attacks. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the purpose of the attack seems to have been to persuade President Duque to restart peace talks between the government and the ELN. The organisation demands land reform, and opposes oil and mining bodies.

With respect to the main peace deal, in 2017 the constitutional court ruled that there could be no substantial changes made to it for another 12 years, equivalent to three presidential terms. This ruling provides a long-standing institutional commitment to maintaining the peace. However, an absolute end to the armed conflict would require a more expansive solution that encompassed all remaining armed groups, as well as a coordinated response to the persistent challenge of drug production and trafficking.

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