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On 10 March 2002, little more than two weeks after the end of the peace process with the insurgent Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC), Colombians elected a new House of Representatives and Senate. Despite heightened apprehension among the electorate and the government about violent interference by the guerrilla and paramilitary organisations, the polls took place in an atmosphere of relative calm and good order. In part this was due to the large-scale deployment of military and police forces across the country to guarantee voter security.
Colombia has a long electoral tradition dominated by two parties, Conservative and Liberal. The 1991 constitutional reform introduced important formal changes to the electoral regime, such as the nation-wide election of senators, regulations regarding party and campaign financing and the registration of candidates. However, these measures largely failed to modify traditional parliamentary practices and political structures. Patronage networks still exist on the departmental level, and representation in parliament is skewed to favour the two traditional parties and the most populous departments. Although the spectrum of political forces participating in elections has widened during the 1990s, the 10 March polls show that the Liberal and Conservative parties continue to have the strength to dominate parliament.
The novel situation today involves the split within the Liberal camp, the relative demise of the Conservative party and the rise of a number of strong independent candidates. Out of a total of 102 seats in the Senate, "official and dissident Liberals" obtained 28 and 27 respectively, followed by 13 and 12 won by "official and dissident Conservatives". However, most "big winners", i.e. those candidates who obtained the highest number of votes, are independents such as left-wingers Antonio Navarro and Carlos Gaviria; or Germán Vargas and former Minister of Defence Rafael Pardo, who are close to the "dissident Liberal" presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe. It appears that Uribe, who clearly leads the pre-election polls, would be able to rely on a sound majority in parliament if elected in the first round on 26 May.
Much about the 10 March elections was, in effect, business as usual. That is both good and bad. It is encouraging that violence and threats of violence did little to impede the normal flow of the country's democratic processes. Neither in the way candidates approached the elections nor in voter response, however, was there much sense of new politics of the sort that a national emergency might be expected to evoke.
Indeed, the new parliament is unlikely to have a major direct impact on Colombia's most pressing problem: solving the long-standing internal armed conflict. Electoral campaigns have historically been focused on the individual candidate, who promises his voters to tend to their specific, local interests. These were no different. Only a few candidates campaigned on national issues such as peace/war and comprehensive political reform (e.g. a radical overhaul of the electoral regime and parliament). The next government's stance on peace or war thus depends on the presidential election, and against the backdrop of increased insurgent attacks since January 2002, the major candidates have all pronounced themselves strongly in favour of a tough policy vis-à-vis the FARC. The legislature's greater influence on the future of Colombian democracy, for good or ill, will probably be determined by the role it eventually plays with respect to the deep reforms the political system requires regardless of the immediate course of the armed conflict. But this is a parliament that is very much a part of the old system.
Bogotá/Brussels, 17 April 2002