The recent Colombian elections for governors, mayors, plus state and city legislators were remarkable, with much good news about the state of democracy in the long troubled country. Unfortunately, there was as much gloomy news as the nation looks to 2010 presidential elections. Good, bad or neutral, these polls between the 2006 and 2010 presidential races resemble U.S. midterms, where future trends are often detected.
First, the good news, representing a stark contrast to elections in neighboring Venezuela:
Nearly 15.5 million men and women cast ballots — some 48 percent of registered voters — an increase of more than 20 percent over 2003.
Some 86,449 candidates competed for 18,527 positions with an historic low in violence (sadly, 20 candidates lost their lives, at least 15 at the hands of FARC, the ruthless communist terrorist-narcotics trafficking organization).
Overall, non-radical candidates won a significant majority of executive and legislative races.
Clearly, the elections reflected a vibrant democratic spirit throughout the country. That said, however, portents for the presidential stakes in 2010 have become even more clouded than they were pre-election.
Last year's presidential race was won overwhelmingly by incumbent President Alvaro Uribe, who received more than 62 percent of the popular vote. Tellingly, Marxist professor and former judge Carlos Gaviria of the ultra-leftist Polo Democratico party finished a distant second with 22 percent and the candidate of Colombia's long-established Liberal party placed third.
To be sure, the Liberal candidate, Horacio Serpa, was a previous two-time loser, accused of having close ties to narco-traffickers, but Polo Democratico had well-known ties to the murderous FARC guerrillas and clear ties to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
The election results on October 28 cause concern because the Polo Democratico candidate for mayor of Bogota, Samuel Moreno, won a resounding victory, retaining control for the party of the country's second most powerful elective position. Receiving nearly 44 percent of votes cast, while the second place candidate mustered just over 28 percent, Mr. Moreno's 900,000 votes were the most ever cast for a mayoral candidate.
Mr. Moreno's victory was a stinging setback for President Uribe, who backed the second-place finisher, former mayor Enrique Penalosa. Polo Democratico's chances for winning the presidency in 2010 are thus significantly strengthened. Should this happen, Mr. Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution will have gained its biggest prize yet: Colombia, the United States' strongest Latin American ally.
The Chavez regime machine is already laying extensive groundwork, contacting some 2 million Colombians living in Venezuela illegally, to offer them permanent residence, jobs and/or "settlement stipends" on condition they remain loyal to the Bolivarian Revolution.
Mr. Chavez has allowed the FARC to establish bases in southwest Venezuela, and residences for its representatives in Caracas. Mobile medical clinics have been sent to the Venezuelan"Colombian border, where Cuban doctors provide free medical services to thousands of Colombian campesinos in neighboring areas.
With Polo Democratico retaining political control of critically important Bogota at least through 2011, the 2010 presidential race becomes very problematic. Consider the following scenario:
Polo Democratico nominates a popular figure, such as former President Cesar Gaviria, leader of the Liberal party, to run in a united front.
The nominee receives the support of Polo Democratico's political organization in Bogota.
The nominee receives clandestine support from the FARC, long quietly Polo Democratico supporters, which retains strong organizations in several rural and southern areas of the country.
Hugo Chavez, who has said he would spend $5 billion or more in the coming election, provides a substantial amount to the FARC for "campaign expenses."
The FARC pays 50,000 pesos ($25) to millions who would normally have voted for an opposing candidate, or not voted at all.
While publicly denying the possibility of such a drastic change, respected political analysts privately worry that the above is indeed possible. Unfortunately, as they see no single, strong center-right candidate on the horizon, some have proposed that President Uribe be drafted to serve a third four-year term.
Such a development would severely cloud Colombia's great democratic achievements during the last several years, with detractors charging the nation's president had become convinced — like so many developing world leaders — he was indispensable to Colombia's continued survival. Rather, it is incumbent on President Uribe and like-minded leaders to select and support an equally incorruptible candidate who embraces solid democratic principles.
Many of Bogota's elites contend Polo Democratico cannot possibly succeed nationally, saying the citizenry would reject such radical leadership. They cite the generally conservative nature of the population plus the need for the winning presidential candidate to get more than 50 percent to win, which could mean a runoff of the two top vote-getters in the event of a multi-candidate initial election.
These factors, albeit correct, ignore another indicator: many 20-something Colombians are declaring support for the red-shirted, charismatic Mr. Chavez, who has a Che Guevara-like attraction for a cross-section of youth, a possibility many of the same leaders in the country's capital said could never happen.
The situation is further hurt by the failure of the U.S. Congress to ratify the free trade agreement that was signed by the countries a year ago. Failure to do so has played into the left's hands as proof the United States does not stand by its friends.
What does all this mean, potentially? Unless current trends are blunted, the western hemisphere's ongoing struggle to establish strong, viable democracies could well lose one of its greatest current success stories. In short, friends of a democratic Colombia — at home and abroad — must do everything possible to strengthen the country's institutions and support proven patriotic leaders.