Colombia's Presidential Primaries

Colombia heads to the polls on Sunday to elect a Congress and representatives to the Andean Parliament as well as to select two top-tier Presidential candidates in a primary. With some four million plus Colombians living outside Colombia, the 1991 Constitution allows for Colombians of the Colombian diaspora to elect their own representatives to Congress.

As such, I will be voting and I've made my decision as to where to throw my support. Colombian elections are noisy, raucous, and above all colorful affairs. Historically, one would dress up to vote in the color of one's party but with the decline of the two longstanding traditional parties that fashionista voting may be a thing of the past. 

Choosing which primary to participate in has been a more vexing question for me, however, especially after the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that President Alvaro Uribe could not run for a third term. Uribe's forced retirement does cloud the Colombian political panorama. Two parties will hold open primaries: the Conservative party (the world's third oldest party still in existence) and the recently formed Partido Verde, a progressive Green party established in October 2009. My quandary is first of all which of the two primaries to participate in and then which candidate to support. The decision impacts how the first round general election scheduled for May 30th may play out.

The Green Party is led by three former progressive mayors of Bogotá Antanas Mockus, Luis Eduardo Garzón and Enrique Peñalosa. I'm partial to Enrique Peñalosa, in part because I share his penchant for building sustainable cities and his disdain of cities built around automobiles.

While each of the three mayors had an instrumental role in transforming Bogotá out of wretchedness into a modern, innovative, and more democratic city, Peñalosa, in my view, was the most impactful in that during his three years (1999-2001) as mayor he led a transportation revolution so complete that he single-handedly transformed Bogotá from a traffic-clogged mess into one of the most transit and bike friendly cities in the world. The Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit System, which he copied from Jaime Lerner's Curitiba, remains the world's most efficient and greenest urban transportation system which has, in turn, become a model for BRT systems from Brisbane to Lagos.

The main knock on Peñalosa is that he is "autocratic". Though I prefer the adjective "forceful", the reality is that Peñalosa's visionary projects were rammed through ruffling feathers and disturbing the comfortable sensibilities of various gatekeepers (political mafias is the Colombian term) in Bogotá. Though his projects have proved wildly successful and now much adored, his style of leadership proved caustic and he has failed to win another election since. The other problem for the technocratic Peñalosa is that he lacks a power base outside Bogotá.

Moreover, Antanas Mockus is likely the winner of the Green primary and as such a vote for Peñalosa, perhaps a sentimental one, is likely a wasted one. I have no problem with Antanas Mockus who is in my estimation one of the most revolutionary and visionary politicians anywhere in the world today. As we in the United States have discovered to our dismay, enacting change isn't easy nor straightforward. As Mayor, Mockus brought change in the most unusual of ways in a country where change has long been elusive. Change is ultimately about changing values and changing behaivour and that's what Mockus set out to do. 

Mockus, whose parents were Lithuanian immigrants, is not a traditional politician but an academic who has fashion together one of Latin America's largest civic movements. He's the former Rector of the National University, the country's largest and state-financed. He came to national attention in the early 1990s when in front of disruptive assembly of students, he got up and mooned the audience. They shut up, he got elected mayor. 

As mayor, Mockus proved most unorthodox, endearing but most of all impactful in getting Santa Ferreños to think twice before aggrieving their city. Famous initiatives included hiring mimes to make fun of traffic violators, because he believed Colombians were more shamed by being ridiculed than by being levied a fine which they tend not to pay anyway. Within months, the mimes helped increase the proportion of pedestrians obeying traffic signals from 26 percent to 75 percent. Traffic fatalities declined by over 50 percent. He sponsored a "Women's Night Out" to dramaticize female safety on the streets of Bogotá. Three quarters of a million women participated in the first night out and the number has increased since then. Under his tutelage, Bogotá's homicide rate fell 70 percent. His water conservation campaign, which featured an ad of him showering, reduced water use by a third even as the city added nearly a million inhabitants over the course of a decade.

All notable achievements but the one that impresses me most was his fiscal policy. He tackled corruption relentlessly and instituted a programme whereby citizens could pay an extra 10 percent in taxes and determine where to spend that money. To the surprise of many, 63,000 people voluntarily paid the extra taxes in the first year alone with two-thirds of the contributors coming from the lowest economic strata. A dramatic indicator of the shift in the civic attitude of Bogotanos during Mockus' second stint as mayor is that as of 2002 the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990. Change indeed.

Luis Eduardo Garzón, nicknamed Lucho, hails from the Colombian left. He was once a member of the Colombian Communist Party and a former union leader but has come to accept the "pragmatic socialism" model that combines the building of a social safety net atop a free-market capitalist system. Under his leadership, Bogotá invested heavily in its public education, health and housing system transforming the city into Latin America's most progressive city. His Bogotá sin hambre ("Bogotá without hunger") program has been hailed as a model by the United Nations.

Here's a web ad for the Partido Verde, the copy of Hicimos ciudad, haremos país translates as "we built a city, we'll build a country" that highlights the accomplishments of these three progressive mayors now seeking the presidency.

With Mockus' victory in the primary likely a foregone conclusion, voting in the rather competitive Conservative primary looks more appealing. The Conservatives have five candidates in their primary and they run the gamut from an octogenarian who last served in government in the 1950s to a thirty-something Uribe wannabe. Three stand no chance of winning. The other two do and whoever wins affects the voting choice of the pro-Uribe faction come the May 30th first-round presidential election.

With Uribe ineligible to serve as President ever again, the Uribistas too face a quandary. Though Uribe hails from the Liberal party, he ran for office as an independent. Indeed, he is the first politician in Colombian history not to be elected president from either one of the two long dominant traditional parties (the Conservatives were founded in 1830, the Liberals in 1848). As President, Uribe was forced to forge his own bipartisan governing coalition. Uribe's government was effectively a national unity government with a mandate to stablize the security situation. He secured almost the whole of Conservative party which in 2002 was in tatters anyway and a large segment of dissident Liberals. Out of this group, a new political party called the National Social Union party - or more simply La U - was formed in 2004 to support Uribe's initiatives.

In what has turned out to be a grave political miscalculation, La U refrained from running a candidate having presumed that popular sentiment and deep pockets would secure Uribe a third term. With those hopes dashed by the Court, La U has selected Juan Manuel Santos, a former Defense minister and a scion of one of Colombia's most powerful families (the majority shareholders in the country's largest media group). But the problem for the Uribistas is that their movement largely revolved around Alvaro Uribe and with him out of the picture, factionalization has crept in and the Uribistas may be facing a split as the country heads to the polls.

Three of the five Conservatives running served in the Uribe Administration. The first of the two main contenders is Andres Felipe Arias, a former Agriculture Minister and known as "Uribito" or little Uribe. Arias is probably Uribe's preferred choice to succeed him because Uribe might well be able to be the power behind the throne should Arias win the general election. Arias, who bears an uncanny physical resemble to Uribe and since they are both from Antioquia speak with the same regional accent, makes no secret of his admiration for Uribe and his unflinching commitment to the security policies that Uribe has put in place.

An Arias candidacy, however, has its limitations. At 38, he would become the youngest President in Colombian history. He is seen as inexperienced and often derided in the press as a sycophant but his biggest problem is that he is tied to one of the still unfolding corruption scandals of the Uribe era during his tenure as Minister of Agriculture.

The other contender for the Conservative nomination is Noemí Sanín, twice a former Foreign Minister. An unconventional politician (she's run for President twice before once with Antanas Mockus as her running mate which demonstrates that in Colombia political labels no longer have the weight they once did), she's political force in her own right and universally known as Noemí. Though she, like Juan Manuel Santos, would largely follow Uribe's security policies, their stature alone suggests that there would be modifications especially in the economic realm.

Even at this late hour, I have not been able to reach a decision. Should I vote for Arias in hopes of splitting the Uribistas in the general election? Should I vote for Sanín to prevent a man I think simply odious from having a chance at the presidency? Or should I vote my conscience and vote for the man I most admire, Enrique Peñalosa being comfortable with either a Mockus or Garzón victory.

I do know that I'll be wearing green tomorrow when I go vote. May my grandfather forgive me my eschewing the red of the Liberal party that his grandfather helped to found.


Enrique Peñalosa on Building a City of Equality

Tags: Colombia, Colombia 2010, sustainability, Urban Issues (all tags)


1 Comment

Good stuff

Thanks for the clear explanation of what is going on in this election. And thanks especially for the links.

I really liked hearing Enrique Peñalosa speaking about the importance of equality in a modern city and measures to advance it.

by Woody 2010-03-14 08:36PM | 1 recs


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