Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Elections Under Threat

Luz Stella Tocancipá

BOGOTA, Oct 17 2007 (IPS) - With 11 days to go to Colombia’s Oct. 28 local and regional elections, the campaign has been marred by the slaying of candidates and activists, cronyism and patronage, threats by armed groups, and the prospect of fraud and votes cast out of fear.

"Electoral risk" mapped out. Credit: Misión de Observación Electoral

"Electoral risk" mapped out. Credit: Misión de Observación Electoral

Sixteen municipal candidates and 70 activists have been murdered, nearly all in remote villages and towns in rural areas.

They include Alberto Martínez, who was running for mayor in Rioblanco in the western department (province) of Tolima; Julio César Marentes, the candidate for mayor in Villarrica, also in Tolima; and Medardo de Jesús Vásquez and Gildardo Toro, candidates to the city council in Cocorná, department of Antioquia. And the list goes on.

In addition, many people have survived attempts on their lives, such as mayoral candidate Héctor Copete and city council candidates Laidy Tatiana Palacios and Maritza Santomé in the southeastern port city of Buenaventura.

Intimidation also abounds. After receiving death threats, former presidential candidate and government minister Horacio Serpa, who is running for governor of the department of Santander in the northwest, announced that he was limiting his public appearances and that he would stay off highways as much as possible.

But never before in the history of civil war-torn Colombia have the risks threatening elections been so closely monitored. A report on "Electoral Challenges, Risks and Recommendations" was released by the non-governmental Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), made up of analysts and university researchers.


The report states that "there are no guarantees for the free exercise of the right to vote" in 576 of the country’s 1,098 municipalities. It also includes maps illustrating the risk level in different departments and municipalities, and sets forth recommendations to prevent them.

The monitoring group lists factors affecting the elections, which could lead, for example, to suspiciously large proportions of votes for a certain candidate or party ticket, an unusual percentage of blank or annulled votes or exceptionally high or low turnout. The factors include armed clashes, threats or murders of candidates, and intimidation and pressure on voters to cast their ballots for a certain candidate or to refrain from voting.

The report says 330 municipalities are at risk of armed clashes, while 367 are at risk because of the presence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, the main rebel group), 65 due to the presence of the National Liberation Army (ELN, a smaller insurgent group), and 99 because of the presence of new groups, like reorganised former members of demobilised right-wing paramilitary militias.

The most heavily affected departments are Arauca, Meta, Vichada, Casanare and Guaviare, in the south.

The report also says that 328 municipalities are at risk of fraud based on anomalies and irregularities seen in past elections, like unmarked ballots, manipulation of votes and races with a single, unopposed candidate (whose rivals were often threatened, killed or otherwise forced out of the campaign). These cases are mainly seen along Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region in the departments of Atlántico, Sucre, Bolívar, Cesar and Magdalena.

"The most important thing is not how many municipalities are at risk, but the fact that risk exists," said political analyst Claudia López, one of the authors of the report. The group’s aim, she said, is to report on the risks and thus sound a warning, with the hope that they will be mitigated.

Another concern expressed by the researchers is that 12,000 of the 16,000 people displaced by violence between May and August will be unable to vote, because they are not registered in their new places of residence. An estimated total of three million displaced people in Colombia have been forced to flee their homes because of the armed conflict.

Furthermore, complaints of violations of press freedom were filed between May 2006 and August 2007 in 50 municipalities throughout the country, says the MOE.

And from January to mid-September, candidates or public officials were the targets of 13 murders, 71 death threats, and six kidnappings, with 51 percent of the cases occurring in the departments of Antioquia, Meta and Valle.

Alejandra Barrios, executive director of the MOE, said that the organisation has had 23 regional coordinators overseeing the monitoring in 22 of the country’s 32 departments since Oct. 12. "We have covered 232 municipalities," she added.

But what are the government and relevant institutions doing to allay the risks pointed out by the MOE?

Jorge Enrique Calero, head of the early warning system in the ombudsman’s office, said "the risk is higher in rural areas. There are high levels of aggression in the south of the country. The ombudsman’s office has recommended that the government implement a security plan to protect the lives of candidates and public officials under threat. We are also calling for a suspension of the practice of using indelible ink" to mark voters’ hands, in order to prevent attacks on citizens who exercise their right to vote.

National Electoral Court magistrate Héctor Osorio Isaza said the Court had set up tribunals in 15 departments to monitor how candidates are spending their campaign funds. In addition, "election witnesses have been authorised to film the results" of the elections," he said.

Nicolás Farfán, an official with the National Civil Registry, said that in August, the Registry had received a list from the Procuraduría General de la Nación (the office of the inspector general) that contained the names of 260 disqualified candidates.

But, he said, although the list was distributed to the political parties, the names of 48 of the disqualified candidates are still on the party tickets, and disciplinary action will have to be taken if they are elected.

The National Civil Registry will post 590 officials to different municipalities for the elections.

The police announced that under the so-called "Democracy Plan", 135,000 police officers will provide security at campaign rallies and on the streets on election day, 62,000 will be posted at the 9,150 voting stations around the country, 2,200 will guard political party offices, and 336 will be assigned to candidates facing threats.

Former ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes said "more than 3,000 voter registrations have been cancelled. We are still on time to prevent electoral fraud. But if it occurs, penal action will have to be taken."

Despite the risks, 69,478 men and 16,971 women are running for the often dangerous posts of governor, mayor, provincial legislator and town councillor.

 
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