OAS Mission Praises Electoral Progress and Laments High Abstention Rate
The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Colombia, led by former Costa Rican President José María Figueres, deployed 64 observers who visited 398 voting centers in 24 of the country’s departments and the Capital District to observe Sunday’s presidential elections.
During the weeks leading up to the voting, the Mission’s experts observed key aspects of the electoral process in detail, including electoral organization and technology, campaign financing, voting abroad, election-related crimes, and dispute resolution. The Chief of Mission, appointed to the task by OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, held meetings with the various actors in the electoral process to get a comprehensive overview of these elections. The Mission’s observations will be presented in a report designed to contribute, in the medium and long term, to strengthening the electoral process in Colombia.
The Mission would like to point out, first of all, that yesterday was the most peaceful election day in decades, and for this it congratulates Colombian citizens and all the institutions that made this achievement possible for the country. The Mission would also like to highlight the work done by the National Registry of Civil Status and the National Electoral Council in the organization of the process. The Mission also noted the good work done by the Electoral Follow-Up Committee, coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior, a forum in which concerns raised by political actors were discussed, and in many cases resolved, before the election. In our opinion, the Committee, which was also replicated at the departmental level, is a highly valuable mechanism that should continue its efforts not only in advance of the second round but even after the electoral process is over, as a forum to reach consensus on eventual reforms to the Colombian electoral system.
In terms of the organization of yesterday’s election day, the Mission notes that all the polling stations it observed opened on time and had the materials available for citizens to be able to exercise their right to vote. The Mission also praises the speed with which preliminary election results were presented; less than an hour after the polls closed, it was possible to know how the results were trending. This is a major achievement by any standard and is the result of an arduous effort carried out by the National Registry’s technical team, which we must congratulate. These results, we should add, were accepted in a timely manner by all the candidates, who provided an example of great democratic maturity, which we hope will be the norm in future electoral processes.
The OAS Electoral Observation Mission also noticed progress in terms of transparency in campaign financing. While in the legislative elections of last March not all parties and movements used an accountability mechanism called Cuentas Claras (“Clear Accounts”), all the contenders in the presidential elections presented their campaign financing reports using this software application, which improves the transparency of the process. The Mission invites authorities and parties to expand the use of the Cuentas Claras application, and new technologies in general, in order to strengthen transparency in political funding.
Despite all these merits, however, there are aspects of the process that have been of concern to the Mission and that, in our opinion, demand priority action. The first and most important of these is the low level of electoral participation. According to the National Registry’s pre-count data, 59.93% of eligible voters abstained from voting, which marks a significant increase in abstentions compared with the first round of the 2010 presidential election. This is the first time in which a presidential election in Colombia has had an electoral participation rate below that of the immediately preceding legislative election.
The fact that two-thirds of the electorate did not participate in the process to select the person who will occupy the country’s top post, or cast blank ballots, cannot be interpreted as anything other than a sign of citizens’ serious disenchantment with the political system. This powerful message must not go unnoticed. At the very least, it should prompt political leaders, parties, and electoral authorities to launch a national effort to strengthen civic awareness and promote voting.
The Mission believes that the negative tone of the campaigns could be one of the causes behind this high level of abstention. The campaign that led to yesterday’s election was characterized, especially in its final phase, by a highly negative tone and by a relative lack of political debates with the participation of all the hopefuls. Campaigns that focus on attacking the opponent do not at all help to strengthen citizen participation at the polls; on the contrary, they drive them away. Such campaigns may or may not yield short-term political benefits to those who engage in them, but they invariably do severe damage to democracy and political leadership in the long term.
For the upcoming second round and for future elections, the OAS Electoral Observation Mission calls respectfully but emphatically on Colombia’s political actors to focus the debate on the ideas and proposals they are offering the Colombian people, and to conduct their exchanges with civility. The Mission also recommends that the election authorities, the media, universities, and other social actors encourage more debates among the contenders in the second presidential round.
Other specific aspects that go into the organization of the election also need improvement and can be addressed with a view to the second round. For example, the Mission observed a reduced presence of poll watchers from political parties at the polling stations, a phenomenon that deprives political parties of the best mechanism for strengthening the integrity of the electoral process. Ensuring the integrity of an election is a responsibility of the electoral authorities, but also of the political parties themselves. We respectfully urge them to carry out their best efforts to expand the presence of poll watchers in voting centers and polling stations, in order to provide even greater protection to the electoral process.
Likewise, the Mission observed that the partitions used in the voting do not guarantee the secrecy of the vote. Thus, we reiterate here a recommendation made by missions similar to ours in many past elections, to put into practice measures that provide greater privacy to citizens when they are voting.
In terms of voting abroad, along with the Colombian citizenry we have noted with concern that partial election results were leaked in two countries, days before the election was held in Colombia. The Mission observed that there are not sufficient rules in place to prohibit dissemination of these results. Therefore, it recommends strengthening the legal framework in this area and including clear instructions on this matter in training manuals for consular employees and polling officials.
The OAS Mission will keep a team in the country for the second round of the presidential elections, in order to finish the observation efforts it has been carrying out since March. Finally, the Mission would like to express its appreciation for the contributions of Canada, South Korea, Spain, the United States, France, Peru, and Switzerland for the deployment of the Electoral Observation Mission in Colombia.
For more information, please visit the OAS Website at www.oas.org.