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Colombian elections

Marc Koch / re March 9, 2014

Colombians are voting Sunday (09.03.2014) for a new congress, in an election generally seen as a referendum on ongoing peace talks with the FARC. The biggest obstacle to the peace process now is the former president.

Juan Manuel Santos (Foto: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

Nothing is impossible. "We're in the process of reconciling with a guerrilla movement. Why would I not reconcile with Uribe?" asked Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos at a trade fair in Madrid. The audience's laughter failed to disguise the fact that his predecessor and political mentor Alvaro Uribe Vélez is in fact his biggest problem in the current election campaign.

Referendum on a life's work

Uribe is in a position to endanger Santos' life's work: the project he hopes will immortalize him in Colombia's history books. For a year and a half now he has been negotiating a peace agreement with the guerrilla organization FARC, which terrorized Colombia for decades. More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict.

Former president Uribe is one of the few people in Colombia who oppose talks with the FARC. And Uribe, who is standing for a seat in Congress, seldom misses an opportunity to voice his concerns.

The parliamentary elections held on Sunday (09.03.2014) are being seen as a national referendum on the peace process and the negotiations with the guerrillas. It would strengthen Santos' position in the negotiations with the rebel group if he and his liberal three-party alliance, National Unity, could secure a convincing majority in the parliament. And that, in turn, would be a perfect starting point for Santos' next project: his re-election as Colombia's president in May.

Three man in military uniforms and guns stand in a road in the jungle (Foto: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images)
The FARC guerrilla group terrorized Colombia for nearly four decadesImage: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Testing the water

For weeks now, experts have been discussing whether the parliamentary elections can be seen as a test for the presidential elections in two-and-a-half months' time. For Alejandra Barrios, director of the independent election observer mission Misión de Observación Electoral (MOE), there is no doubt that they are. "The results will obviously influence the voters in the presidential elections," she says. "They will be able to adjust to the possible winner."

However, the constitutional expert Juan Manuel Charry warns that the effect could go in both directions: "The parliamentary elections will redefine the ranking of the presidential candidates. It may even be possible that electors will vote differently than they originally intended, voting for the most likely candidate, whereas their original favorite doesn't have a chance."

And analyst Ancízar Marroquin sees no link at all between the two elections. "Colombia has transformed from a rural society to an urban society," he says. "That also means that the citizens are more independent of their politicians."

Criticized, but still favorites

According to polls, Santos and his party are the favorites in both elections, with the alliance set to win 32 percent of the vote. The left-wing parties, which also support the peace agreement, are estimated to come in at 18 percent. Because many conservative representatives also support the accord, this means that more than 50 percent are behind the project. The hardliner and former president Uribe won't be able to prevent the peace agreement. But his newly founded Centro Democrático party is set to become the second-biggest force in the parliament, with an estimated 23 percent of the vote.

Alvaro Uribe (Foto: Mauricio Duenas/AFP/Getty Images)
Former president Uribe opposes a peace agreement with the FARCImage: MAURICIO DUENAS/AFP/Getty Images

Santos was widely criticized during his first term. He brought in troops to deal with protests by farmers which paralyzed the country last year. Critics accused him of having no clear strategy on social issues, and his liberal economic policy wasn't appreciated by all. But there is no question that his government has improved things in Colombia: Poverty has decreased, and the unemployment rate is at 8.5 percent and falling.

The country is now a member of the Pacific Alliance, a trade alliance which successfully rivals the chronically inefficient South American Mercosur group. It is hoping to attract new foreign investors through infrastructure projects.

Two men in business suits walk past election campaign posters (Foto: Fernando Vergara/AP Photo)
Colombians as a whole are better-off, and unemployment is fallingImage: picture-alliance/AP

Fears of vote-rigging

But there are still many problems that need to be solved - foremost among them those of drugs and violence. The latter is also an issue in the elections: Alejandra Barrios from MOE expects that illegally-armed groups will manipulate results in 260 communities, mainly in the southeast of the country. The Organization of American States (OAS) has already registered more than 300 infringements of free and fair elections, including exertion of political influence, corruption, forged identity cards and vote-buying. International observers will be present at the elections.

And for the smaller parties, there's also a lot at stake. A new electoral law has increased the election threshold from two to three percent. Many groups from the left-wing social movement and minority parties may fall below the threshold and find themselves barred from parliament.