Colombia: Independents Win Big in Congressional Elections
About half of Colombia's 24 million eligible voters went to the polls on March 10 to elect a new legislature. More than 8,000 candidates were running for 102 Senate seats and 166 lower-house seats. Results were disappointing for the traditional parties and pointed to a possible first-round victory for independent right-wing candidate Alvaro Uribe in the May 26 presidential elections.
Just over 40% of the country's 23 million registered voters went to the polls, down from 45% in the 1998 congressional elections. Despite threats of violence, one of the main reasons for the high abstention seemed to be voter apathy toward a Congress considered corrupt and inefficient.
Corruption scandals, including one in early 2000 in which members of Congress were found to have signed bogus multimillion-dollar contracts, have turned off voters.
Just before the elections, the government prosecutor's office reported that 100 of the 8,453 candidates have criminal records--which will automatically disqualify them for office if elected.
The opposition Partido Liberal lost space in the 102-seat Senate, winning 29 seats, 19 less than it took in the 1998 elections. The governing Partido Conservador also lost ground, dropping from 15 to 13 seats. Nearly 60% of the upper house will be controlled by independent coalitions, movements, or small parties, with 21 more seats than they had in 1998.
In the lower house, the Conservatives dropped from 43 to 21 seats, while the Liberals saw their numbers reduced from 84 to 53. The remaining 92 seats, 55.4% of the total, belong to independents, movements, or small parties.
Independent candidates obtained the most votes in the election. Taking the most votes in the Senate race was Luis Ramos, who split from the governing Partido Conservador to form part of an independent coalition backing Uribe, a Partido Liberal defector. Second was former M-19 rebel Antonio Navarro Wolff, followed by Former Liberal German Vargas, who also backs Uribe. Another top vote-getter was Carlos Gaviria, a former member of the Constitutional Court and a leader of Movimiento Frente Social y Politico (FSP), whose presidential candidate is former trade unionist Luis Eduardo Garzon.
Uribe allies are believed to now hold more than a quarter of the seats in both houses, a high total in Colombia where the Liberal and Conservative parties have long dominated politics. Uribe strongly opposes peace talks between the government of President Andres Pastrana and the two main rebel groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN).
Uribe remains the heavy favorite to win in the first round of the presidential elections, followed by Partido Liberal candidate Horacio Serpa, with independent Noemi Sanin and Garzon far behind.
"The elections definitely consolidated Uribe Velez's place. Horacio Serpa lost space and Noemi Sanin was defeated," said Fernando Giraldo, dean of political science at the Universidad Javeriana.
Conservatives and Liberals still enjoy an advantage, said Luis Valencia of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, because of practices like "vote-buying and clientelism"--trading votes for public-sector jobs, scholarships in private universities, and personal favors.
Senator-elect Navarro said, "Sunday's results show the need to think seriously about holding a referendum to implement in-depth political reforms, because the country cannot continue to have a Congress that is as clientelist as the one that was elected."
While the results show a rejection of traditional party politics, they also show an electorate not as easily defined as previously thought.
"People were worried that the electorate was far off to the right, advocating only law and order," said Alejo Vargas, Universidad Nacional political science professor. "But as much as law and order candidates did well, you could also say that center-left candidates made important strides. …