The Level of Democracy in Colombia

Level of Democracy: Colombia

Colombia has a strong democratic tradition. Since it won the independence from Spain in 1819, it has only experienced two military interventions interrupting long periods of stable democracy, one during the mid-nineteenth century and another one at the response to “La Violencia – The Violence”, the confrontation between the two traditional political parties.

This period of “La Violencia” began with the assassination of the popular political leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948 and ended in 1958 when the two parties decided to alternate the power in a called “power-sharing agreement” known as the “National Front”. However, the not inclusion of other political views and the poor rural population contributed to the conformation of the revolutionary guerrilla group in the 1960s, its name FARC (today a political party).

The growing presence of the guerrilla groups and the absence of the government’s presence in the rural areas, actively supported the creation of right-wing self-defense groups commonly knows as “Paramilitares” during the late 1980s and 1990s.

After the end of the cold war and the fall of the Soviet Union, the FARC lost its financial support, which led to the group to be involved in the narcotics business, fact that transformed the economic, social, political, historical context of Colombia forever as we know it today. This historical background leads us to the actual level of democracy in Colombia, a country recognized as partially free[1] with a liberal democracy but with a lot of improvements pending to be implemented.

Retrato de Colombia (Colombia's Portrait) - Debora Arango (Source: El Colombiano)
A liberal democracy is described as a political system that requires free and fair elections as well as guaranteed constitutional protection of civil and political rights such as the rule of law, separation of powers, liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property[2].

The Colombian case in terms of democracy has been characterized in many different ways. Bruce Bagley[3] questions whether the term “democracy” should be even be used to identify the political system in Colombia during the National Front period (1958 to 1974), and suggest that describing it as a “inclusionary authoritarian regime” would be more appropriate. William Avilés[4] calls it a “low-intensity democracy”, referring to the low level of effective citizen participation, and Manuel Trujillo draws on Guillermo O’Donnell’s term of “delegative democracy” to describe the political situation in Colombia under the Uribe’s administration. Bejarano and Pizarro refer to Colombia as a “besieged democracy” where the adequate functioning of democracy is hindered by extra-institutional rather than intra-institutional forces, and that its main failure is the inability to establish the rule of law[5].

All these points of view are related with the actual condition of the democracy in Colombia and all of them are seen as a result and consequence of the historical background exposed before.

One of the most important factors for become a full democratic state is the freedom of speech and press. Governmental and guerrilla groups have impacted Colombia’s definite adoption of free speech. The current situation in Colombia for free speech is rather promising. The Government signed a new access to information law, and with this law Colombian citizens are able to exercise their right to information as a fundamental right of liberty. This advance shows the progress and steps the government is taking to rescue a country and citizens that have been oppressed thought history. However, drug trafficking is still an issue, but increasing amount of citizens is using social-networking and digital communication as an effective tool against censorship and violence[6].

Contradictory to the degree of hope presented in the current Colombia’s situation, the country ranks 129 out of 180 in the world press freedom index, basically because Colombia’s journalist continue to be threatened by “bacrims”, gangs of former paramilitaries now involving in drug trafficking. Physical attacks, death threats and murders are still common; with the result that Colombia is one of the western hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for the press[7]. Criminal groups still use the violence to silence alternative media that try to cover their illegal activities, this violence, sometimes complicit with local officials, often goes unpunished and at the end this is one of the most important factors for the erosion of the democracy in the country.

To understand more this perceptions of the democracy in Colombia, a view on the election’s process is needed. Elections in Colombia are regulated and controlled by the National Electoral Council. Colombia elects on national level the president and the legislature. Colombia had a two-party system, in which it could be difficult for third parties to find success. However, recently, the number of independent candidates has tended to shows signs that past electoral trends may be wakening and the potential for diversity could be increasing[8].

For the election in 2018, will be the first elections in the Colombia’s history, where the rebel group FARC will participate as a political party. The rebels signed a historic peace deal with the government in 2016. This agreement guarantee the former fighter 10 seats in the congress, at the same time, the new party will get the same amount of financial support the government give to the 13 other political parties in Colombia.

During the last decade and a half, Colombia has witnessed both and improvement in the dimensions of political participation and contestation and a severe deterioration in the dimensions related to effective protection of the civil liberties and subordination of the military. With this in mind, the Colombian political regime is difficult to classify, since it is neither a full democracy nor an authoritarian regime.

The current situation of Colombia’s democracy can be conceived as a game being played on two fields simultaneously (Bejarano and Pizarro, 2002), there is an electoral field (where the rules of the democratic game are largely respected among legally recognized political actors) and an extra-institutional field (where the rules of war rather than the rules of democracy apply, including the accumulation of instruments of force, territory and arms)[9].

Now it is important to analyze the perception of the Colombian regarding democracy. According to the Americas Barometer, 70% of the polled Colombians consider that the country is almost democratic and only 5% have the perception of living under a regime or a system not democratic. Additionally, 60% of the Colombians say that are satisfied or high satisfied with the democracy. To understand this perception, is important to take a look on the question what is the meaning of “Democracy” for Colombian people.

For Colombians, living under democracy means freedom of expression (15,4%), participation (8,3%), freedom, elections, and the right to choose its leaders, human rights, peace and justice. However, 31,3% of the polled does not find any meaning for democracy[10]. With this result, Colombia appears as one of the Latin-American countries, after El Salvador and Dominican Republic, where the citizens have a low or empty meaning about democracy. This is a problem and disappointing not only for the country itself but also for the efforts of people to develop the levels of democracy in the region. The government needs to increase the efforts empathizing the meaning of the democracy in the national education programs because this may be an important factor in the actual level of democracy in the country.

In addition, is helpful also to analysis the so called democracy Index, this is an index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit and tries to measure the sate of the democracy in 167 countries, 165 of them are UN members states. The first publication was produced in 2006; this index is based on 60 indicators that measure pluralism, civil liberties and political culture. At the end, the countries are classified in four types of regimes: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

According to this report, Colombia is number 57 in the rank and number 10 in the regional rank (Latin America), being this democracy flagged as “Flawed Democracy”. According to this index, Colombia is a country that has free and fair elections, where may occur problems with infringements on media freedom but basic civil liberties are respected. However there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, and underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation[11].

Democracy Index 2016. The Economist 

Colombia ranks 57th with a score of 6.67 out of 10. The lowest ratings were in the short ranks of political participation (4.4) and political culture (4.38), which are caused by high rates of electoral abstinence and political apathy in the country.

Politicians and internationalists consulted consider that although Colombia has "very weak" political institutions, elections are carried out in the country according to an electoral calendar, the results of the elections are respected, there is the right to dissent and to oppose, there are freedom of the press and there is significant progress in recognizing differences, orientations, cults and identities[12].

The last presidential period has supported an ambitious agenda for social reform, passing a victims and land restitution law in 2011 and initiating talks with the Revolutionary armed forces of Colombia in 2012. The negotiation process was concluded in December 2016 with the passage of revised accords in the Colombian congress. In response, the Congress must pass legislation that will allow for implementation of reforms required by the accords addressing rural development, political participation, drug trafficking, amnesty and victim’s rights[13]. All these social reforms will have an effect on the gaps presented in the social structure of the country, at the end, all the social differences impact directly to the level of democracy. As conclusion, Colombia has a lot to do in order to become a full democracy, however consistent efforts have been implemented to contribute in the improvement of the levels of democracy.

[1] Freedom in the World 2017. Freedom House. Colombia Profile.
[2] Larry Diamond, Elections without Democracy: Thinking about hybrid regimes. Journal of Democracy 13. No. 2, 2002.
[3] Dr. Bruce M. Bagley. University of Miami College of arts and science. PhD. Political Science.
[4] Dr. William Aviles. University of Nebraska Kearney. Comparative Politics, Latin American Politics.
[5] An Analysis of Colombia’s Democracy. Roberto Lorente. April 15, 2010
[6] Free Speech and Free Press around the world. Colombia. Ernest Macias. April, 2014
[7] World Press Freedom Index 2017. Reporters without borders.
[8] The Green Party was second in the presidential elections in 2010
[9] From ”Restricted” to “Besieged”: The changing nature of the limits to Democracy in Colombia. Ana Bejarano. Eduardo Pizarro. National University of Colombia. January 2005.
[10] Cultura Politica de la Democracia en Colombia. Americas Barometer. USAID. 2006
[11] Democracy Index 2016. The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2017
[12]  EL TIEMPO. Casi 3 de cada 10 países viven bajo regímenes autoritarios. 29 April 2017.
[13] National Democratic Institue. Colombia, 2017

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