Colombia: Political Dynamics

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the most consistent features of Colombia's political system have been the elitism and dualism of party politics. Elites from the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC), which in 1987 changed its name to the Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador--PSC), have dominated the nation's political institutions. Consequently, the majority of Colombians had little input in the political process and decision-making. The formation of the life-long party loyalties and enmities of most Colombians traditionally began at an early age. Campesinos adopted the party affiliations of their master or patron (patrón). Being a Liberal or a Conservative was part of one's family heritage and everyday existence. During the period of la violencia, party membership was sufficient reason to kill or be killed. Families, communities, and regions have identified with one or the other party. The PL traditionally dominated, the main exception being the period of Conservative hegemony from 1886 to 1930. For most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives have been able to gain power only when the Liberal vote was split.

Until the 1957 Sitges and San Carlos agreements, the parties had consistently used the perquisites of government to create and maintain popular support through a patronage relationship with members. The party that won an election rewarded party members by appointing them to public positions or by funding special projects. The party in power controlled the national budget, government jobs, and most of the economy. The party out of power did not necessarily lose support, however, because unemployed members in need of assistance often had nowhere else to go other than to the local party boss, who was usually a large landowner.

The cohesiveness of Colombia's nineteenth-century-style parties depended more on traditional patron-client ties than on elaborate organization. Party structures were complex, informal, and weakly institutionalised, extending vertically from the national to the local level. The two parties were multi-class (policlasista) alliances traditionally capable of high levels of mobilization at election time. Nevertheless, they were not genuinely mass parties that served to integrate individuals and groups into the politics of the nation. Members of the elite held all national leadership positions. The Liberals and Conservatives have continued to shape the traditional pyramidal structure of Colombian society as a whole by thwarting the emergence of modern parties organized around common socio-economic interests.

Support for the two parties stemmed from traditional loyalties and identifications, rather than organizational activity and ideological or class differences, and required mobilization at the local level. In the larger cities, the parties were detached from any popular base. As a result, opinion polls indicated that party identification in the larger cities was beginning to diminish in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The two major parties were confederations based on regional party organizations headed by, and dependent on, the gamonales, who acquired their positions through birth or connections with the wealthy and prestigious families that made up the national party leadership. Although the gamonales retained their positions through personal loyalties, their role diminished somewhat as the country became more urban and literate. Nevertheless, local leaders acted as powerbrokers by trading votes and electoral support for programs from the national government.

The highly personalized nature of Colombia's political culture resulted from the patronage and brokerage patterns that were dependent on the subordination and loyalty of the lower classes. The elites felt that government leadership should be the prerogative of a paternalistic upper class, whose members made decisions and cared for the nation and its people. Within these elites, loyalties were as much to one's class as to the nation. Acceptance of paternalism by the lower classes, however, eroded further in the 1970s.

The political parties reinforced the traditional attitudes by demanding and receiving intense loyalty from their members in exchange for favours granted by the parties and party leaders. The National Front modernized the party system by institutionalising elections, a mass base, and special representation for youth, women, and labour. Nevertheless, the front merely limited the traditional aspects of party structure, such as the gamonales and personal ties. Observers noted that the National Front arrangement closed off access to political power to all the forces not aligned with the traditional bipartisan structure.

Despite their similar moderate and elitist orientations, ideological differences existed between the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Liberal Party was oriented toward urban areas, industrialization, and labour; it was also more pro-welfare state and anticlerical, and less private property-oriented than the Conservative Party. The latter had its greatest support in rural areas and favoured the military, large landowners, and the Roman Catholic Church. The Liberals traditionally carried almost all of Colombia's significant cities, although the Conservatives' percentage of the urban vote increased in the 1980s. Until the May 1986 elections, the notable exception was the Conservative and industrial department of Antioquia. Another exception was Bogotá in the 1978 presidential election, when Betancur, a Conservative, won a plurality in that city.

In general, each party had interests and support among groups and classes associated with the other. The memberships of both parties included merchants, landowners, professionals, peasants, artisans, and workers. Interparty differences were largely personal, political, and pragmatic. For example, Liberal Party membership was more upwardly mobile than that of the urban Conservative members traditionally derived from old families of high social status. Of the two parties, the Conservatives had a more effective hierarchical structure at the regional and municipal levels.


The far from monolithic Liberal and Conservative parties were divided internally on the basis of personal and regional rivalries as well as issues. By limiting inter-party competition for patronage, the National Front arrangement gave momentum to the already strong tendency toward intra-party factionalism. Factions usually were highly structured and headed by a former president or potential presidential candidate. At the departmental level, dissident factions as well as party directorates often put up their own slates of candidates for legislative elections.

Colombia's traditional party factions posed a reformist, as opposed to a revolutionary, challenge to the social and political order. Colombianists have noted that factionalism actually helped to perpetuate the two-party system by serving as a de facto substitute for a more fragmented multiparty system. The factions did not evolve into new parties because the loyalties of dissidents remained ultimately with their original party. Nevertheless, factionalism in the ruling party tended to diminish the president's ability to command party loyalty while in office. Competition among factions was most pronounced at election time, when a split in the party in power traditionally provided the opportunity for the other party to win.

In the 1980s, factional rivalry continued to weaken the Conservatives. Two main factions have been active since the 1940s. One--the pastranistas-ospinistas--was named after Pastrana and the late Mariano Ospina Pérez (president 1946-50). Its members also were known as unionistas (unionists). The other faction--the alvaristas--was named after Alvaro Gómez Hurtado, son of the late Laureano Gómez Castro (president 1950-53), a Conservative hard-liner who was widely blamed for the sectarianism that led to the bloodshed of la violencia. The pastranistas-ospinistas were allied to industrialists in Antioquia Department and to the coffee sector, whereas the alvaristas were closer to farmers in the Caribbean coast departments.

In the 1980s, the Liberals also were divided into two main factions: the New Liberalism Movement (Movimiento Nuevo Liberalismo--MNL), established in 1979, and the majority official wing (oficialistas). Each ran its own candidates in the 1982 and 1986 presidential elections, as well as separate legislative slates in the 1982 and 1984 congressional elections. The MNL, which won only 8 percent in the 1986 congressional and local government elections, was more technocratically oriented and concerned with promoting the role of the state in economic development and social reform. Its base of support was mainly among the urban middle class, especially in Bogotá. The broadly based official wing relied more on traditional patron-client ties and partisan appeals to mobilize support. In May 1988, the MNL's head, Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento, signed an agreement with the PL to carry out joint activities to support fully President Barco's government. Under the agreement, the MNL would continue to be a PL faction, but it would cancel its legal registration with the electoral authorities on August 6, 1988, and attend the PL's national convention in Cartagena.


Minor Third Parties

Although the amendments creating the National Front limited participation in the political process to the PC and the PL, minor parties were able to participate by filing as dissident factions of the two main parties. The two-party system notwithstanding, all parties were free to raise funds, field candidates, hold public meetings, have access to the media, and publish their own newspapers. Smaller parties, which were generally class oriented and ideological, fielded candidates at all levels and usually were represented in Congress, departmental assemblies, and city councils. Nevertheless, with the exception of the populist National Popular Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular--Anapo; created in 1961 by Rojas Pinilla) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, these small parties had few members and little impact on the political system.

Although the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia--PCC) regained its legal status in 1957 after having been outlawed by Rojas Pinilla, the party did not contest elections during the National Front. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, the PCC ran candidates in various legislative elections, as well as joint presidential candidates in alliance with other leftist groups. In 1974 the PCC, some Anapo dissidents, and other minor parties on the far left combined in the National Opposition Union (Unión Nacional de Oposición--UNO), but their candidate for president received less than 3 percent of the total vote.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia--FARC), the guerrilla arm of the PCC, sought to make its presence felt in the political process through a legal political party called the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica--UP), which the FARC founded in May 1985 after signing a cease-fire agreement with the government (see Guerrilla and Terrorist Groups). In addition to representing the FARC, the UP coalition included the PCC and other leftist groups. Using the UP as its political front, the FARC participated in the March 1986 local government and departmental assembly elections. The UP's main reform proposal was the opening of Colombia's tightly controlled two-party system to accept the UP as a third contender for political power. The UP received only 1.4 percent of the vote in the elections, instead of an expected 5 percent. Nevertheless, as a result of the elections the UP could boast 14 congressional seats, including one in the Senate, and more than 250 departmental and municipal positions.

The UP's presidential candidate in the election of May 25, 1986, Jaime Pardo Leal--a lawyer and president of the National Court Workers Union (Unión Nacional de Trabajadores de las Cortes-- UNTC)--placed third with about 350,000 votes, or 4.5 percent of the total vote, winning Guaviare Commissaryship. Although it was the left's greatest electoral victory in Colombia's history, observers suspected that the FARC's use of terrorist tactics--such as kidnapping, extortion, blackmail, and assassination--intimidated many voters into voting for the UP. The UP made some gains in the March 1988 elections, but it won only 14 out of 1,008 mayoralties, considerably fewer than expected. The UP victories, which theoretically gave the UP legal jurisdiction over the armed forces and police in those districts, were in regions where the FARC was active.

The UP itself was a prime target of unidentified "paramilitary" groups. The UP claimed that by mid-1988 some 550 UP members, including Pardo Leal and 4 congressmen, had been murdered since the party's founding in 1985. In the six months preceding the March 1988 elections, gunmen reportedly murdered more than 100 of the UP's candidates for local office. According to the Barco government's investigation, a major drug trafficker, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha ("the Mexican"), sponsored Pardo Leal's assassination, which took place on October 11, 1987. The PCC weekly, La Voz, published documents that allegedly revealed ties between Rodríguez and members of the armed forces, and it suggested that the military was linked to Pardo Leal's murder. In an April 1988 report on Colombia, Amnesty International charged the Colombian government and military with carrying out "a deliberate policy of political murder," not only of UP members but of anyone suspected of being a subversive. The Colombian government strenuously denied this charge.

Another minor party was the Christian Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrática Cristiano--PSDC), founded in May 1959 and composed mainly of students and a few workers. The reformist PSDC identified itself with the Christian democratic movements that had become political forces in other parts of Latin America. The PSDC candidate for president in 1974 received fewer than 16,000 votes, however. In 1982 the PSDC supported Betancur's candidacy.


Post-National Front Political Developments

With the return to normal inter-party competition in the April 1974 presidential elections and the 1976 local elections, the PL's popular superiority enabled it to capture the presidency, a large working majority in Congress, and majorities in many of the departmental assemblies and municipal councils. Alfonso López Michelsen--the PL candidate in the 1974 presidential elections and the son of former President Alfonso López Pumarejo (in office 1934- 38 and 1942-45)--won with 55 percent of the popular vote, easily defeating Conservative candidate Gómez Hurtado.

Despite a low voter turnout of 34 percent in the February 1978 congressional elections, the Liberals and Conservatives maintained their total dominance, winning 305 of the 311 congressional seats. The PL again won majorities in both houses. The PL supporters of Julio César Turbay, who was closely linked to López Michelsen (1974-78), received more than 1.5 million votes, as compared with 800,000 for supporters of Carlos Lleras Restrepo, a highly respected former Liberal president (in office 1966-70). Turbay narrowly defeated the Conservative candidate Betancur in the June 1978 presidential elections, in which only 39 percent of the electorate voted. Turbay was elected president with 49.5 percent of the vote, as compared with Betancur's 46.6 percent. Thus, the second post-National Front president was also a Liberal who had the backing of his predecessor. In the National Front tradition, however, Turbay appointed five Conservatives to his thirteen-member cabinet.

Shortly after taking office in August 1978, Turbay was faced with the most serious guerrilla threat in decades. He strengthened his state of siege powers by decreeing the harsh National Security Statute, giving the police and military greater authority to deal with the growing domestic social unrest and political violence. The Turbay government used this statute to help minimize the security threats posed by the guerrilla and terrorist groups. The human rights situation deteriorated seriously, however, and armed opposition mounted dramatically.

Although the Liberals maintained majorities in both houses in the March 1982 congressional elections, Betancur won the presidency in May 1982, owing to growing dissatisfaction with the eight years of Liberal rule, a split within the majority PL between two candidates, and Conservative backing of his candidacy. The PL division allowed for the first Conservative victory in fully competitive presidential elections since 1946. Defeating López Michelsen by almost 400,000 votes, Betancur garnered 46.5 percent of the vote, with 54 percent of the electorate abstaining.

A militant follower of Laureano Gómez's ultra-right wing of the PC in the 1950s and early 1960s, Betancur moved to the political center after Gómez died in 1965. He first ran for president in 1970 as an independent Conservative and again in 1978 as a moderate reformer. He ran in the 1978 elections as a candidate of the National Movement (Movimiento Nacional), consisting of Conservatives, dissident Liberals, Christian Social Democrats, and remnants of Anapo. Betancur owed his decisive 1982 victory for the National Movement in part to the support of the alvarista and pastranista-ospinista factions of the PC, as well as of independent Christian democratic and Liberal voters, especially among the urban poor and working class in the large cities (see Factionalism ). López Michelsen, one of the two PL candidates, had called for rescinding the constitutional clause on coalition governments so that the two traditional parties could compete with each other more effectively. For the first time in Colombia's electoral history, modern campaign techniques prevailed over the traditional reliance on party machinery and the informal patronage and brokerage system.

During his four-year term, Betancur's highest domestic priority was to pacify Colombia's four main guerrilla groups. His approach to dealing with the escalating political violence differed profoundly from that pursued by his hard-line predecessor. After his inauguration in August 1982, Betancur called for a democratic opening (abertura democrática), an end to Turbay's repressive policies, a truce with the guerrilla groups, and an unconditional general amnesty for the guerrillas. By August 1984, the Betancur government's peace commission had reached short-term accords with most of the major guerrilla groups, with the main exception of the pro-Cuban National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional--ELN). In June 1985, however, the peace process began to unravel when the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril--M-19) resumed fighting, followed by other groups. Only the FARC agreed to renew its truce, although not all of its guerrilla fronts complied.

Despite his more open, informal, and honest leadership style--a sharp contrast with that of the more pompous and tradition-bound Turbay--Betancur's popularity declined markedly because of persistent problems with inflation and deficits. This made it difficult to finance the ambitious social, political, and electoral reforms that he had promised. In the 1984 mid-term elections, the Conservatives received only 42 percent of the vote, which was about their usual proportion, and the Liberals received 58 percent. Betancur's policy toward the guerrillas was a principal factor in undermining confidence in him among many military, economic, and political leaders, including Conservative congressmen. The M-19 dealt Betancur's prestige and his strategy of national pacification a severe blow by seizing the Palace of Justice, which housed the Supreme Court and Council of State, in early November 1985. The M- 19's action reinforced a widely held view among Colombians that Betancur had ceded too much to the guerrillas in his quest for peace. Betancur's handling of the courthouse takeover polarized public opinion within all sectors (see Interest Groups). It also generated Colombian criticism of Betancur's role within the Contadora group of Latin American countries seeking to negotiate a peace settlement in Central America, particularly after the M-19 arms used in the takeover were traced to Nicaragua.

The decisive campaign issue leading up to the congressional and local government elections in March 1986 and the presidential elections in May 1986 was the candidates' positions regarding public order. Even with half of Colombia's 14 million voters abstaining, the congressional elections held on March 9, 1986, produced a record voter turnout. The poll amounted to a vote of no- confidence for the lame-duck Betancur administration, which received only 37.4 percent of the vote. The opposition PL swept 48.7 percent of the vote, including Bogotá, thereby giving the party a majority in both houses.

In the May 1986 presidential election, PL candidate Virgilio Barco, a close associate of Turbay, won a landslide victory over Gómez Hurtado, the Conservative candidate. Barco received the largest mandate in Colombia's history, with 58 percent (4.1 million) of the vote, as compared with Gómez's 36 percent (2.5 million). Barco won in twenty-one of Colombia's twenty-three departments, even taking the Conservative stronghold of Antioquia Department. As a former minister of agriculture (1962-64) and mayor of Bogotá (1966-69), Barco had gained a reputation as a skillful public administrator. His election was helped not only by endorsements from four former Liberal presidents--Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-46; 1958-62), Lleras Restrepo, López Michelsen, and Turbay--but also by fears of a spread in public violence following Betancur's failure to pacify the country's guerrilla movements and his liberal reforms of the penal system.

On assuming office on August 7, 1986, Barco confirmed his intention to end the thirty-year-old tradition of coalition governments by establishing a one-party government (gobierno de partido). He believed that the sharing of cabinet seats and other government posts under the old National Front arrangement stifled democracy by excluding other groups and making it difficult to distinguish the policies of the two main parties. Barco favored a more conventional system in which the winning party governed and the losing party served as a genuine opposition. Although Barco offered the Conservatives three cabinet positions in his administration in accordance with Article 120 of the Constitution, Conservative patriarch and former President Pastrana declined the token participation in order to "revitalize" the party's identity. The Conservatives declared themselves in "reflective opposition" to the Barco administration. Thus, Barco's Council of Ministers was the first one-party cabinet in almost three decades.

Barco outlined a program to end guerrilla violence and crime through social reforms, a reduction in poverty, and an effective judiciary. He inherited Betancur's battered peace initiative, which Barco perceived to be fatally flawed, and began his mandate with the country still under a state of siege. Although the Barco administration committed itself to the peace process initiated by Betancur, Barco deemphasized dialogue with the guerrillas and--in October 1987--centralized the peace program in his office by making his new peace commission--the Permanent Advisory Council on Political Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, and Normalization--an intergovernmental body. Government talks with the FARC made little progress, however, owing to the FARC's unwillingness to disarm and its continued guerrilla and terrorist attacks.

By the end of Barco's first year in office, analysts were criticizing him for being indecisive, too low key, and inaccessible. Barco reportedly communicated mostly with his closest advisers, consulting infrequently with his ministers. His controversial effort to make the political system more competitive floundered from the start. Despite the novel existence of a 'purely' opposition party and the Conservatives' efforts to create an effective opposition, the two parties had few ideological and political differences. Consequently, instead of a system of checks and balances, the government--in the opinion of analysts--was experiencing administrative chaos. Pro-Barco critics accused the Conservatives of impeding congressional action and harassing the executive branch over the performance of various ministers, instead of offering clear-cut alternatives to the government's program. They also scolded the Liberals for failing to take advantage of their electoral majority to govern the country forcefully and to carry out needed social reforms. The broader effects included deterioration of the peace process and increasing polarization and confrontation between the army and the guerrillas, with both getting stronger.

Although the Liberals won a majority of the votes in the March elections, the opposition Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador--PSC) won an important victory over the governing PL by taking the mayoralties of Colombia's two largest cities: Bogotá and Medellín. Andrés Pastrana, the son of former President Misael Pastrana, became Bogotá's mayor, Colombia's second most important political position. Pastrana had been trailing in published voter polls until he was kidnapped in January, reportedly by drug dealers. The kidnapping of another top politician, the PSC's Alvaro Gómez, on May 29 pushed Colombian politics into a crisis. Gómez had been actively pressuring the ruling PL to give the military more power to combat the growing guerrilla threat. During the two months that the M-19 held Gómez, political analysts noted the polarizing effect the abduction was having on Colombians.

By early 1988, as the security situation continued to deteriorate nationwide, Barco came under increasing pressure to return to a national governing coalition similar to the old National Front. Politicians and diplomats in Bogotá reportedly believed that such an arrangement was needed to reassert legitimate authority and reach new accords on some basic issues, including new approaches to the guerrilla groups, cocaine traffickers (the Medellín and Cali cartels), and relations with the United States.

In May 1988, Barco and the PL leadership reached an agreement on a legislative agenda for constitutional and institutional reform. The reform package, consisting of about thirty-five bills, was designed to modernize the state in areas such as administration of justice, legislative efficiency, streamlining of public administration, and the state of siege provision in the Constitution (Article 121). The latter would be divided into three phases to be invoked gradually, depending on the national crisis situation. Each phase would call for different, measured responses by the state. Other measures called for the formation of a constitutional court to rule on the validity of treaties; another would restrict the attorney general's office to ruling only on human rights matters; and others would give constitutional status to the protection of human rights, provide for mandatory voting and voter registration, and legalize the use of the plebiscite vote to consult the voters on key issues.