Colombia's failing democratic process

by Garry Leech
The boycott of Venezuela's recent elections by opposition parties unlikely to win more than 20 percent of the seats in the National Assembly succeeded in raising questions about the legitimacy of the country's electoral process. At the end of the day though, it became evident that the opposition boycott was little more than an attempt to cause the lack of democratic credibility it claimed to be protesting. Meanwhile, in neighboring Colombia, that country's democratic legitimacy has once again come under serious assault as the new campaign season has already been marked by its customary killing of candidates. In particular, those candidates opposed to President Alvaro Uribe have become the targets of right-wing paramilitaries allegedly participating in a cease-fire.

Dozens of pro-Uribe candidates in paramilitary regions ran unopposed in Colombia's last congressional elections in 2002 due to threats and assassinations. As a result, paramilitaries ensured that their chosen candidates proved victorious. In fact, they succeeded to such a degree that Salvatore Mancuso, a leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) declared after the election that paramilitaries controlled 30 percent of Congress.

The paramilitaries appear to be implementing the same strategy ahead of this year's congressional elections scheduled for March. In the past month, three mayoral candidates in southern Colombia have been killed by paramilitaries, according to the United Nations. The early stage of this year's campaign is also reminiscent of the 2003 municipal elections when Colombia's illegal armed groups killed 26 candidates. And despite the fact that more than 20,000 AUC fighters have supposedly demobilized during the past two years, the number of people killed by paramilitaries in 2005 was more than double the previous year, according to the Bogotá-based Resource Center for Analysis of the Conflict (CERLAC)..

According to Adam Isacson of the Washington, DC-based Center for International Policy, "Colombia's paramilitary groups appear to be increasing their power, even as they 'demobilize.' One key path to greater power has been Colombia's electoral process. Through a few bribes and a lot of threats, the AUC's bosses are guaranteeing that candidates allied to them win governorships, mayor's offices and seats in the Congress."

It is difficult to view Colombia's electoral process as legitimate when many candidates opposed to the country's president are forced to withdraw or face assassination. Consequently, Colombia's electoral irregularities pose a much greater threat to democracy than the problems faced by the Venezuelan opposition.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood has questioned the role of demobilized paramilitaries in the country's political process, which led to accusations of U.S. interference by President Uribe. One Colombian senator accused Wood of having her removed from her party's list of candidates because of paramilitary ties. But given that elections in Venezuela, Bolivia, Iran, Egypt and Lebanon have brought regimes into power that are critical of the United States, it is unlikely that the Bush administration will seriously question the legitimacy of a democratic process in Colombia that will likely lead to the re-election of a close ally.