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COLOMBIA: Election Campaign Marred by Violence

BOGOTÁ, Oct 24 2011 (IPS) - “Political power will be fought for metre by metre in the Oct. 30 local and regional elections in Colombia, because this is a country imbued with violence, with different armies disputing different parts of the territory,” said Alejandra Barrios, director of the election observation mission (MOE).

Murders, kidnappings, mass killings and forced displacement of people from their rural homes and land have marred the campaign, in which economic interests have become political spoils, said analysts consulted by IPS.

Between Feb. 2 and Oct. 20, 253 violent election-related incidents were registered in 233 municipalities, according to the MOE, a non-governmental group of analysts and academics from leading educational institutions in Colombia.

The organisation’s report, released on Oct. 20, states that in terms of violence strictly against candidates, the number of cases was five percent higher than in the 2007 regional elections.

In addition, the MOE reported that there is a risk of fraud in 534 municipalities, and a risk of violent incidents in 447 – out of a total of 1,119 municipalities.

For its part, the Interior Ministry reported that as of Oct. 19, 37 candidates had been killed.

In the elections, nearly 102,000 candidates are running for 32 gubernatorial posts, 1,102 mayorships, 418 provincial parliamentary seats, and 17,068 seats on town councils, Barrios told IPS.

“It is a very complex process” in this civil war-torn country of 46 million people, which is divided into 32 department or provinces, each of which has an executive and a legislative governing body of its own, she said. In addition, the large cities have a decentralised administration and local community councils.

The mining industry, one of the priorities of the government of conservative President Juan Manuel Santos, “is playing an important role in the current local and regional elections,” said Barrios.

For example, there are foreign companies waiting for government decisions on mining concessions in different regions, such as Anglo Gold Ashanti, which has been trying for years to operate in the central department of Tolima.

“The restitution of land is another central issue in the campaign, because many mayors and town councillors do not agree with returning to the original owners the land that was violently seized from millions of campesinos (small farmers),” the expert added.

More than four million people forced off their land by the nearly five-decade armed conflict between government forces, far-right paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas stand to benefit from the restitution of their land under the Victims and Land Restitution law passed in June.

The process is to involve more than two million hectares of land from which the owners were forced to leave by illegal armed groups – mainly the paramilitaries – large landowners and even government officials.

Another touchy issue in the regional elections is the question of illegal drug crops like coca, poppies and marijuana.

There is also the issue of the heavy rains that lashed the country in 2010 and this year, “which involved a large amount of resources to administer, added to which promises for reconstruction have become a matter that has been easily manipulated in the campaign,” Barrios said.

“We are talking about large amounts of funds, if we take into account the fact that flooding affected 90 percent of the municipalities,” she added. An estimated 2.8 million dollars were earmarked to compensate and offset the damages caused by the rains.

These are all interests that, according to the MOE, are in play in the midst of the conflict that involves three leftist insurgent groups with different dynamics – the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPR), and especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which are “the most powerful, and tend to declare an ‘armed strike’,” designed to interfere in elections.

And on the other side are the so-called Bacrim (for “bandas criminales” or “criminal bands”) – a new name given by the government to ultra-right-wing groups that arose after the demobilisation of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary militias.

“The Bacrim emerged from the AUC, and mainly have a local reach, although some groups that have appeared are regional, in places such as Casanare (an oil-rich eastern department) or Guajira (a coal-rich northern department),” Barrios said.

She said she was referring to right-wing irregular “armies that have been maintained for nearly 60 years, for different reasons and with different origins, and which have backed different candidates, fomenting the association between illegal activities and politics.”

This history of violence surrounding elections is not new in Colombia. But only in 2006 did it begin to be studied more closely by organisations like the MOE and human rights groups.

“As citizens, and as members of serious social organisations, we realised that we were focusing on specific human rights issues, but were ignoring the red flags of electoral corruption,” she said.

Wholesale violence occurred between 1984 and 1992, with the slaughter of thousands of candidates and supporters of the Patriotic Union (UP), the leftist party that emerged from a peace agreement between the government of Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and the FARC.

Persecution of the UP, which had been joined by regional movements of different political tendencies, the Communist Party, and dissidents from the Liberal Party, claimed between 4,000 and 5,000 lives.

In September 2002, after right-wing President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) took office, the UP was stripped of its legal status as a party, and surviving UP politicians continue to demand that its status be reinstated.

Other cases of electoral violence claimed high-profile victims like left-wing presidential candidates Jaime Pardo in 1987 and Bernardo Jaramillo and Carlos Pizarro in 1990.

“So we realised that every four years we were taking part in the same ritual of elections that were not held, precisely, in conditions of transparency or freedom or suitable conditions, but under the imposition of armed groups.”

However, “even the most heroic efforts to achieve clean elections have been insufficient,” said Barrios. “That is why we want to continue building democracy, so people understand how decisive their vote is.”

This month the government’s civil registry office presented a new voter registration card containing mechanisms aimed at preventing fraud and guaranteeing transparency, such as a bar code with encrypted information, to be read by a special device.

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