Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Susan Abad, "The left’s loss is a win," Latinamerica Press, Jul 13, 2006.

Following historic voter support, Colombia’s leftists set their sights on regional elections. Even though President Álvaro Uribe coasted to a second term in Colombia’s May 28 presidential election, Carlos Gaviria and followers of his Alternative Democratic Pole party celebrated the historic results that rendered Colombian leftists the second-largest political force in the country.

Despite ideological and personal differences, some of Colombia’s various leftist movements and political parties united only three years ago, and have now become a formidable opposition force to Uribe’s conservative government.

In 2003 leftist candidates won gubernatorial and mayoral posts, including Luis Garzón’s key win as Bogota mayor, considered the second-most important political position in the country after the presidency.

"Never has the left obtained such a high number of votes," said defeated presidential candidate Gaviria, who won 23 percent of the vote, trailing significantly behind Uribe’s 62 percent. "We have quadrupled the votes that [Garzón] received as mayor-elect."

But also striking was that the Alternative Democratic Pole, known as PDA, knocked the Liberal Party into third place with just 12 percent of the vote. The Liberal Party ruled the country for most of the last 100 years and had never been so harshly defeated.

Besides, "we sent a message to the insurgency that there are ways other than armed fighting to get to power," said Otty Patiño, president of the Peace Observatory and former member of the demobilized guerilla group M-19 — one of the movements on the PDA’s list of congressional candidates.

The FARC connection

Even though the PDA’s criticisms of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been unconvincing to many, the party did successfully distance itself ideologically from the guerilla group. During his campaign, Gaviria said, "In my government the FARC will not take power," and defended a peaceful solution to the more than 40-year-old internal conflict.

The country’s entire political landscape changed following the May 28 vote. From the existing bipartisanism — conservatives and liberals — Colombia is now divided into pro-Uribe politicians and the left, though Uribe firmly stands for the right wing.

Uribe, who was first elected in 2002 as a dissident of the Liberal Party, developed a government more in line with the Conservative Party. The pro-Uribe bloc also includes the Social Unity Party, the Citizen’s Convergence movement, the Advanced Social Liberal Alternative Team, and the Democratic Colombia and Colombia Viva parties.

"In this election, the [PDA] won the right to head the forces that would challenge the government of President Uribe, but they have to search for a coalition with the Liberal Party, and forge agreements on the legislative agenda," said analyst León Valencia in regard to the opposition role the PDA will play in the Senate, where pro-Uribe lawmakers will hold 60 of the 100 seats, while Liberal Party and PDA legislators together will have 28 seats.

Going against the traditional political grain, Gaviria, whose Senate term ends in July, has emphasized that "we will not accept any position in the government."

"We will be the opposition. We are going to establish a ‘cabinet in the shadows,’ a team that will follow up on the government’s proposals in every area to make counterproposals," Gaviria said.

The PDA’s role will be crucial over the next four years, when Uribe — who begins his new term Aug. 7 — will have grave problems to address such as an economic policy that has not produced growth as expected, a poverty level that has surpassed 50 percent, the congressional approval for a free trade agreement with the United States, as well as reevaluate his policy toward the internal guerrilla and paramilitary conflict.

Regional elections on the horizon

The PDA will have to focus on its performance in Congress and ensuring a strong showing in the 2007 regional elections.

"The more than 2.6 million votes that we received serve as a catalyst to continue this process and we cannot let it diminish, but instead, step it up," Gaviria said.

It will be an enormous challenge for the PDA to maintain unity in the various parties if it wants to be able to forge a political program capable of being, as Patiño says, "an alliance that can become a real alternative party."

The PDA must also be able to give Colombians a favorable image of the left-wing, deciding which type of left they would adhere to — either the Hugo Chávez-Evo Morales pole or that of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or Michelle Bachelet.

Gaviria says that the political pendulum has continued to swing to the left in Colombia, despite Uribe’s two consecutive wins, and "the results lends the possibility of a victory in 2010."
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