International Delegation Issues Preliminary Findings on Pre-electoral Conditions in Colombia

By  |  30 / April / 2010

The following is the preliminary statement of the International Pre-electoral Observation Mission, presented Feb. 15 to the Colombian press in Bogotá. The Americas Program was privileged to form part of this Mission and participate in the extensive observations that took place over a period of two weeks prior to issuing the statement. The Mission is currently working on preparing the full report, due out next week before the scheduled Mar. 14 congressional elections in Colombia.

STATEMENT TO THE PRESS

The International Pre-Electoral Observation Mission is an effort led by Global Exchange, a U.S. non-governmental organization, with the participation of professionals, analysts, and citizens of more than seven countries including the United States, Canada, Germany, the UK, and Mexico.

The mission is made up of 22 individuals with collective experience of electoral observation in 11 countries. From Feb. 3-15, the group conducted pre-electoral observation in Colombia, prior to the 2010 elections. We divided into four teams to observe conditions in municipalities in the departments of Antioquia, Córdoba, Valle del Cauca, and Santander.

The objective of the mission is to compile reports from diverse sectors that form part of the electoral process, register the concerns of civil society, and assess the actions of governmental institutions. These accounts were collected within a country context where internal displacement, violence, and the presence of armed actors persists.

The team carried out an intensive schedule of training, in-field observation, and research from Feb. 3-14. Its members interviewed governmental authorities in charge of electoral matters—the National Electoral Council, the National Civil Registry, local Attorney Generals, officials from the regional prosecutors’ offices, local and states Human Rights Ombudsmen, and mayor and state governors’ offices. We also met with representatives and candidates from the political parties, political analysts, Afro-Colombian and indigenous organizations, LGBT persons, youth groups, human rights defenders, journalists, organizations of internally displaced persons, victims of human rights abuses, and trade union activists.

The mission’s final report will be available on March 10 prior to Colombia’s congressional elections. The goal is for the report to serve as a catalyst for the electoral authorities and civil society to investigate and take steps to minimize the electoral risk factors found in the report prior to the conclusion of Colombia’s 2010 elections.

Our international team had the support of the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), at the national and regional level. The MOE has carried out the important work of identifying and systematizing electoral risks since 2006. As an independent entity and working in conjunction with MOE, our purpose is to strengthen democracy and generate conditions so that citizens can fully exercise their political rights in Colombia.

The International Pre-Electoral Observation Mission would like to share some preliminary findings that came to our attention during the visits we undertook to the different regions:

1. Human Rights Violations and Electoral Risks

The protection of human rights and effective justice in cases of violations are key to ensuring that voters can fully participate in a democracy in a transparent, free, and informed manner. The mission encountered much evidence of an alarming human rights situation in the country and the existence of grave violations of the rights of residents we spoke to in Antioquia, Santander, Córdoba, and Valle del Cauca. Violations were attributed to both legal and illegal armed groups, and drug-traffickers. We also found that levels of violence remain high, especially among vulnerable populations including youth, women, Afro-Colombians, indigenous, internally displaced, LGBT, and poor people. In addition to selective assassinations, the mission was informed by different sources that the incidence of forced disappearances has been rising, presumably to avoid inflating the national murder statistics. This violence, and subsequent impunity in many of these cases, prevents citizens from trusting the authorities and leads many voters to decide against participating in the electoral process.

In certain regions like Barrancabermeja and Buenaventura, the mission was informed that despite an increase in police and military personnel on the ground, citizens do not have an overall sense of security and the homicide rate has been rising. Youth, indigenous people, and Afro-descendants face stigmatization within society and are often branded “undesirables.” This creates a context of discrimination in which crimes against these sectors are often not fully investigated or prosecuted.

In various parts of the country, civil society organizations reported that supposedly demobilized paramilitary groups continue to act against the civilian population. They noted that an open strategy exists on the part of these groups to persecute leaders of Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, rural farmers, trade unionists, and human rights defenders and their organizations. Those interviewed reported cases of selective assassinations, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances among the leaders of these groups.

While officials claim that the paramilitary groups have demobilized, that they no longer exist, and that drug-trafficking rings have been dismantled and now represent only isolated expressions of violence, civilian groups we spoke to in the regions expressed grave concerns about these groups’ continued presence and territorial control. Citizens reported that armed criminal groups are consolidating, a perception that is shared by some officials who work on these issues and who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of possible reprisals for their statements.

Internal displacement and confinement (the inability to move freely from their territories due to restrictions imposed by the legal and illegal armed groups) are two situations that the delegations found in all regions visited. Some local authorities expressed concern about how slow the national government was in recognizing the status of many internally displaced citizens and their lack of attention to this population. In addition to the trauma of being internally displaced, many of these people faced social stigmatization and are forced to confront many institutional obstacles to their rights to protection, humanitarian assistance, and access to public services. Many interviewed noted that the period granted for the internally displaced to renew I.D. cards and register to vote was too short.

2. Fear and Restriction of Freedom of Expression

Fear is widely present in all spheres of Colombian society and serves as a factor that clearly inhibits Colombia’s free voting process and the ability to have open electoral debates. Individuals interviewed reported fear of reprisals if they voted for certain candidates, fear of traveling freely in certain geographical areas, and fear of carrying out opposition campaigns.

Fear also exists among critical journalists seeking to do their job and exercise their right to inform the general public. Independent journalists brought to the team’s attention the fact that they have received threats against their lives and are put under pressure when they report electoral crimes.

Freedom of the press is further constrained by the political affinities of some media with certain political parties, which causes reporters who work for those entities to self-censor. This leads to unequal coverage of the campaigns.

3. The Presence of Electoral Crimes

Participation in political campaigning by public officials, prohibited under Colombia’s Law of Guarantees, is one of the top concerns expressed by the different sectors consulted. Political parties and citizens reported that some mayors, governors, and council members have openly participated in campaigning for candidates. This participation allegedly goes beyond expressing their political sympathies, and the Mission heard claims that campaign workers and publicity were being paid for through public funds, including through the issuance of temporary work contracts.

All of the political parties consulted said that the “other” parties or candidates were involved in buying votes, an electoral crime defined as such in the Colombian penal code. This practice is so frequent that citizens colloquially call it “tula millonaria” or TLC (Spanish initials for tiles, bricks, and cement), referring to the common practice of paying voters in kind for their votes.

To check if citizens voted for the agreed-on candidate, those who commit electoral fraud use methods such as carbon paper, or cell phone or digital camera photos to verify how a ballot was marked, as well as employing a method of rotating marked ballots known as the “carousel.”

According to community leaders and beneficiaries of the social programs run by the Colombian Agency for Social Action, candidates for the House and Senate have participated in meetings where beneficiaries were informed that if they do not vote for them or for the governing party, the subsidies they receive from the president’s office will be terminated. We consider it of serious concern that there is no distinction made between the figure of the president and basic programs that are designed to attend to the needs of displaced populations and vulnerable families in the country.

4. Distance between Citizen Complaints and Actions Taken by Officials

Colombian democracy faces many challenges.

We note that there have been advances in electoral norms and regulations that will permit the strengthening of the electoral process. However, there is a huge distance between the views of the local populations and those of the local authorities. While many people and all the political parties informed us that the practice of buying votes with cash or in-kind payments is widespread, and numerous cases of voter coercion exist, local authorities state that they have not received complaints of electoral fraud.

This situation indicates that there is a rupture between the formal aspects of the society represented in Colombian institutions and the daily reality for the general public. It also shows the lack of confidence that civilians have in their authorities, which impedes official reporting of electoral crimes.

We found it troubling that many people affirmed that the main reasons for why they do not report crimes are due to fear and impunity. Democracy is not limited to elections but to the confidence that exists between citizens and their officials. This must be built on clear rules of engagement, transparency, impartiality, and coherence between the mandates of the institutions and their practices.

Final Considerations

The International Pre-electoral Observation Mission considers the tradition of participation in Colombia to be very important. We noted in our observation in the different regions of the country that Colombians have a strong capacity to organize and engage in civic actions in areas of defense and promotion of human rights, participation in the planning and exercise of local budgets, implementation of community projects, and collective action on a wide range of issues. However, persistent distrust of the electoral process and the lack of basic guarantees means that the work of civic education and elections monitoring is still incipient.

In this sense, the Mission considers that the work being done by various citizen groups in electoral observation forms part of political processes that seek to change corrupt practices; this requires developing a closer relationship to the citizenry and greater commitment in the exercise of power.

The Mission considers it vitally important that authorities take decisive steps against electoral crimes, in particular to pursue the continued existence of “electoral frontmen,” where questionable political organizations seek to continue to operate by changing the names of political parties or supporting candidacies of family members. While such practices are not illegal, they generate a sense of illegitimacy in the democratic process and run the risk that the Congress elected could be investigated and subject to legal proceedings that greatly affect the legitimacy and credibility of the current legislature.

The final report will include our full recommendations and observations. The mission, however, would like to preliminarily highlight the need for governmental authorities to strengthen the work of regulating, applying, and monitoring electoral regulations. Authorities report a lack of resources to be able to implement their mandates. We also believe that it is urgently important that steps are taken to eliminate the possibility of fraud and coercion of voters, practices that continue to exist, according to the accounts we received.

The strengthening of democracy and the construction of electoral processes that reap the benefits of having the full confidence of the citizenry are only possible if Colombian society opens spaces for dialogue and transparency, ends impunity, and eliminates current practices of exclusion and concentration of wealth and power. The current challenges for Colombian democracy range from more effective control of the electoral process, to resolving much deeper problems in society, including the internal armed conflict, violence, intimidation, discrimination, and corruption.

The mission wishes to thank all of the civil society leaders, citizens, officials, and local authorities for the constant support of our activities, and the strong commitment to democracy evident in many sectors of Colombia, despite situations that jeopardize the full exercise of liberty and fundamental human rights. For all the people who maintain the hope that it is possible to bring about the changes that our societies need, we offer our solidarity. We believe, as they do, that all change requires time, as well as collective, determined action over the long term. It is this type of important work that thousands of Colombians are already undertaking in their country.

Many thanks.

International Pre-electoral Observation Mission
Bogotá, Colombia, Feb. 15, 2010

To reprint this article, please contact americas@ciponline.org.

For More Information

South American Nations Question U.S.-Colombia Military Base Agreement
http://americas.irc-online.org/am/6411

South America: U.S. Military Bases in Colombia and the Dispute over Resources
http://americas.irc-online.org/am/6367

“Honduran Elections”: A Parody on Democracy:
http://americas.irc-online.org/am/6619

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