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  March 13, 2018

Colombia's Conservatives Make Gains in Congress Vote Amid Fraud Allegations

Low turnout and fraud allegations mar Colombia's congressional vote, which gave conservatives a greater control over the legislature. If right-wing Ivan Duque also wins the presidency in May, it would spell the end of Colombia's peace process explains Mario Murillo
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Mario A. Murillo is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Radio, Television, Film department at Hofstra University. He is also co-director of Hofstra's Center for Civic Engagement.

In 2008-2009, Mario spent six months in Colombia, as a Fulbright Scholar, working in the Communication Department of the Universidad Pontif'cia La Javeriana in Bogot', alongside its radio station Javeriana Estereo. His research work was carried out in close collaboration with the Communication Committee of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, and focused on the strategic uses of communication of the indigenous movement. He is currently finishing a book about ACIN's role in the broader indigenous movement of Colombia, which is expected to be published in 2012.

He is the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories, 2004), and Islands of Resistance: Puerto Rico, Vieques and U.S. Policy (Seven Stories, 2001). Mario has studied and written about community radio, both in the United States and Latin America for many years, his articles and essays published in academic journals and collected essays in the U.S. and abroad.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Colombians elected a new Congress on Sunday. Conservatives and right-wing parties, which already dominate Colombian politics, increased their share of seats in both chambers of Congress. The former Colombian rebel group known as Farc, which is now a political party, participated in its first elections ever, but did not win any seats through the election. But the Farc will still send 10 representatives to Congress as a result of the peace agreement they signed with the government in late 2016.

However, now that the right expanded its control over Congress, this peace agreement will be in greater danger of unraveling. In addition, Sunday's voting was marked with widespread accusations of fraud. Fraud allegations involve vote buying, lack of secret ballots, and insufficient availability of ballots, among other incidences that were reported.

Joining me now to analyze the Colombian congressional vote is Mario Murillo. He is Professor of Communications and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Hofstra University. He is also the author of the book “Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization.” Thanks for joining me.

MARIO MURILLO: Thank you for having me. It's always a pleasure to work with you guys at Real News.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, let's begin, Mario, with the results of this election and the implications it has on the upcoming presidential elections.

MARIO MURILLO: It's important to point out for viewers of Real News, because it's really complicated. What the elections on Sunday were were congressional elections for both the Senate and the House of Representatives, as you pointed out. But there was also a set of primaries for the different parties and configurations that are considering, still, their candidates for the presidency. So you had the right-wing candidates of the Centro Democratico, the Democratic Center. And you had the left parties also positioning for their candidate to run.

It was a measuring stick as to see what would happen come the May 27 elections. And as you pointed out, from the congressional standpoint, the right-wing, particularly the Democratic Center and also the Radical Change, another party, they seem to gain some ground both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. But at the same time we see a duplication and a multiplication of votes for the Green Alliance and the Democratic Pole, two sectors that are part of an alliance with a third force that are more center-left. And they also made gains, and we see that they're going to have a bigger presence in the Congress than they did over the last four years.

We can fine tooth comb the results. There's so many different ways of looking at it. Anyways, it wasn't that surprising. Now it's more interesting to see what's going to happen, how new alliances are going to build as a result of these elections, particularly as we lead up to the next two months going into the May 27 first round of the presidential elections.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, I did mention off the top that Farc participated for the first time but gained a minimal number of votes, less than the one percent that's required. What does this mean for Farc and their political viability as a political organization?

MARIO MURILLO: It was sort of a rude awakening for them. I think a lot of people weren't too surprised at their poor turnout. Actually, some analysts were predicting even a better presence than they actually did, certainly to make over a 150,000 votes overall. I don't think they even reached that number. Maybe when they have the final tally they might have. But they did pretty bad, and under normal circumstances they would not be having any representation in the Congress as a result of these elections. And this is what breads some of the resentment, particularly from the Right, because as a result of the peace accords that were signed by the government, Juan Manuel Santos, and the Farc in 2016, and that has begun to get implemented slowly over the last year, year and a half, they will automatically, for the next 10 years, from now until 2026, have guaranteed seats in the Congress. Ten representatives. After that, in 2026 they will be forced to compete competitively, be part of an open process.

And so, now the question is, will they have a voice? They will have a space in the Congress. How will that voice resonate given their poor showing in the electorate? But that's, again, subject to a lot of alliances, a lot of other things that are right now, hard to tell.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, I understand from reports we saw, that there were widespread allegations of fraud, even with video evidence of what appears as vote buying and hiding of ballots, and so on. How serious are these allegations in the context of Colombia, and what do you think this kind of fraudulent activity, in terms of vote buying and so on is concerned, will this have an impact on the presidential elections coming up?

MARIO MURILLO: This was a really the problem with one of the candidates, Germán Vargas Lleras from the Cambio Radical party. They did pretty well in the elections, in terms of Congress. He was implicated in a lot of that earlier on in the last couple weeks, and he seemed to do pretty well in the election. I think there's also major concerns as to the limited number of ballots that were available. A lot of spaces, polling places around the country, there was complaints about not having enough ballots, that perhaps the electoral commission wasn't prepared for it. Was that deliberate? Was that a deliberate manipulation?

But to be frank, there's been a lot of stories. I've been trying to follow this on social media very closely over the last two days, three days, and certainly over the last 24 hours, and you can't tell what is real and what is not. So I would be wary to make a definitive determination as to what that amounted to. But certainly, there was concerns about the legitimacy of the ballot. Certainly how people were also pressured. This is another issue that's not being discussed too much. And that's in the countryside. There's a lot of pressure still on the communities that, for years, have been afraid of voting, or at least voting independently and voting freely. That stress, that threat, those threats are still there. Especially given over the past year, the major attacks on social movement leaders who have been targeted and been assassinated. So that exists in the country, and I think it might have had an impact on the high voter abstention that we had seen. I think it was over 51% of voters who did not participate who were eligible to participate on Sunday's elections.

SHARMINI PERIES: Mario, looking ahead now to the presidential elections coming up, give us a sense of who's running on the left and who's running on the right. Or, I should say, who's running on the right, which seems to dominate more of the political sphere at the moment, and who's running on the left, and what their viability looks like coming up.

MARIO MURILLO: I think the jockeying for position over the next week or so is going to be very interesting. What we see is Ivan Duque, who is the senator and candidate for the Democratic Center, Alvaro Ulribe party. So he represents the Right, strong anti-Farc, anti-peace accords person. He comes out on top. He's already welcomed into his alliance. A couple of other opposition candidates who are running against him for that seat, or for that candidacy. The Right is consolidating around Ivan Duque.

On the left we have Gustavo Petro, the former mayor of Bogota, former guerrilla of the M-19. Somebody who's really galvanized public opinion around the country, getting, as I said before, almost three million votes, and really generating massive crowds around the country. He's creating a buzz.

And I think what we have to watch and wait and see is what's going to happen with the so-called centrist candidates. Particularly said, Fajardo, who is the former mayor of Medellin in Antioquia. And his alliance did pretty well congressionally. He wasn't running in any primary. He was already a candidate for his party, or for his coalition, we should call. And it's going to be interesting to see what happens. He's already indicated that they're open to a negotiation or an alliance with Humberto de la Calle, who was the Santos official who led the peace negotiations with the Farc. Centrist to right, if we can call it that, Fajardo's more of a centrist candidate. Neo-liberal candidate, if we can call it that, but with strong alliances with the Green Party and with the Democratic Pole, particularly the senator Jorge Robledo. He has some support from the left, but the real energy is coming from the Petro campaign. And it looks like there's no bringing them together, Fajardo and Petro.

And that's the danger that a lot of people feel, that if you don't have some kind of broader alliance between the left, whether it's Petro and Fajardo or Fajardo and somebody else to the left, the right is going to win, and they're going to have complete control not only of the Congress, but also of the presidency. And there, you'll see perhaps rollbacks in the peace accords, and not to mention all sorts of other policy shifts that will probably bring Colombia back to a more intense level of conflict in the coming years.

SHARMINI PERIES: Dr. Murillo, I thank you so much for joining us today. And we'll ride these elections and the campaigns coming up with you, and I hope to have you back very soon.

MARIO MURILLO: Thank you for having me, it's great.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.


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