Apathetic is a word rarely used to describe Colombians as their history has been characterized by passion, activism and attempted revolution. However, in recent years an anti-political wave has swept the country, leaving in its wake disillusioned citizens who equate politics to the corruption and scandals that so often dominate their newspapers and television screens.
The 40 per cent turn-out at the polls on Sunday revealed the sorry state of South America’s oldest democracy. This presidential election is crucial for the future of the country and its chances of ending or continuing its protracted civil war.
The electorate was presented with five choices ranging from the Leftist Polo party represented by Clara Lopez to Oscar Ivan Zuluaga’s right-wing Centro Democrático. The latter was the main serious contender to the current president, Juan Manuel Santos from the Partido de La U. And it was Zuluaga who won the first round on Sunday, coming slightly ahead of Santos, and leading to a run-off in the second round on 15 June
Santos promises to continue the peace talks between the government and the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) with a view to a negotiated end to the civil war. Zuluaga promises a return to ‘mano firma’ (hard hand) approach to the conflict, rejecting the notion of negotiation.
These positions reflect the split in Colombian public opinion.
Following fraud-filled Congress elections in March, numerous irregularities including vote-buying were expected. But in the capital Bogotá, NGOs and UN institutions acting as monitors saw little evidence of electoral fraud. Moreover some parts of the city saw an 85 per cent turn-out, a result far higher than elsewhere in the country.
Generally, though, vote-buying remains a popular method of garnering support. Parties provide buses for people living in remote places, ferrying them in to polling stations on the condition they vote for them.
The campaigns leading up to election day were riddled with scandals: there was a video of Zuluaga dealing with a well-known hacker and allegations that President Santos had accepted drug-trafficking money to help pay for campaign costs.
Last minute televised debates, supposed to enable the public to make an informed decision on election day, further muddied the waters leaving many even more confused about the policies of each candidate.
Will the turn out be higher for the second round? Colombians are uninspired by a political system dominated by a few families, traditional power blocks and corporate power. Little wonder many prefer sell their vote for a couple of pesos or a few roof tiles.
With each new leader or public figure comes further scandal and corruption. Since last year Bogotá’s precariously perched mayor, Gustavo Petro, has been locked in legal battles with the Inspector General who ousted him for alleged bad management of the country’s waste disposal system. Following months of uncertainty, the ex-guerrilla has now been reinstated as mayor but the conflict bred mistrust.
Colombia is a country torn by division but on the edge of potential change. The economy is opening up and foreign tourism is increasing. Much is at stake. A victory for the extreme right would suggest an unwillingness to move forward. Eyes will be focused on the second round on 15 June when Colombia’s voters decide (or don’t) to have a say in their country’s future.
Hannah Matthews lives in Bogotá.