Colombia: Legislative, Party Elections Bode Ill for Presidential Balloting

Article excerpt

By Andres Gaudin

On March 14, more than 25 million Colombians elected congressional deputies and senators and, in internal party elections, chose the Partido Conservador (PC) and Partido Verde (PV) presidential candidates for the May 30 elections. However, only preliminary results are available, and electoral authorities said that official results on the makeup of the legislative chambers would not be released until the first or second week in May. It took a week to learn the names of the candidates of the PC and PV, the two most important parties apart from the governing Partido de la U. The Organization of American States (OAS) Electoral Oversight Mission (EOM) and a 22-person International Pre-Electoral Observation Mission, led by Global Exchange, reported serious irregularities, and even the administration of President Alvaro Uribe complained about the performance of the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE).

No one referred to it by name, but the idea of fraud hovered over the international observers' reports, local political commentators' analyses, media coverage, and comments from opposition-party leaders. Given a series of anomalies detected on March 14, various prominent personalities and major political leaders said that guarantees of transparency do not exist for the presidential election to choose Uribe's successor.

Only hours after the election, the OAS released a blunt report in which, among other things, it denounced "the lack of guarantees for the secrecy of the ballot box," and "vote buying" in at least six of the 32 departments in the country, which it called a "mockery" of basic electoral norms of any democracy.

Buy a vote for a sandwich and US$10

Enrique Correa, head of the OAS mission, said that the 70 international observers who came to the country ascertained that votes were bought not only with cash but also with offers of various perks, such as scholarships, food, or state subsidies. "The members of the mission verified, as well, that in some places, by taking advantage of the extreme poverty that exists in various areas of the country, groups bought votes for the price of a sandwich and 20,000 pesos [US$10]," said Correa.

The report released on March 15 in Bogota cited six serious irregularities and stressed to authorities the urgent need to correct the problems to ensure transparency in the May presidential elections.

Correa said that OAS missions in other countries had not found problems as serious as those in Colombia, which included:

1) The fundamental principle of a secret ballot was not protected.

2) The OAS, which had verified vote buying in the 2007 municipal elections, found this practice repeated in the March 14 balloting.

3) Training of election officials at the polling places was seriously deficient.

4) Parties did not have equal opportunities to observe the final vote counting.

5) The complexity of the voting system meant that some citizens did not know how to vote, especially less-educated voters.

6) The telephonic data transmission of the department counts and problems with verification mechanisms meant that "the preliminary information could have been distorted."

The findings of the OAS observers coincide with those provided a month earlier by the International Pre-Electoral Observation Mission, made up of experts invited by Global Exchange, who concluded on Feb. 19 that conditions in Colombia "impede free and fair elections," including the widespread practice of pressuring beneficiaries of government assistance programs to vote for the ruling party.

In an interview with Radio Nederland, Laura Carlsen, Americas Policy Program director at the Center for International Policy (CIP), said, "The practice is serious because of the alarming poverty in Colombia, and various persons said that [government] officials told them openly that, if they did not vote for the party in power, their subsidies would be cut. …