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What to Watch in Colombia's 2019 Local Elections

Colombian ballots. (AP)

Colombian ballots. (AP)

October 24, 2019

After a relatively peaceful 2018 election cycle, political violence is up in Colombia this year. Authorities also voided over 900,000 voter IDs ahead of Oct 27 local elections. We look at security and voter fraud concerns in this preview of Sunday's vote.
Over 3,300 posts are up for grabs in Colombia’s local elections on October 27, including 32 governors and 1,101 mayors. We take a look how key races are playing out amid voter fraud concerns.

Colombia’s 2019 local elections for governors, mayors, and city councilmembers were supposed to be an opportunity for President Iván Duque’s Democratic Center party to grow its power. Instead, Duque’s approval rating is below 30 percent per Gallup, and the party’s founder, ex-President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, is under formal investigation by the Supreme Court for alleged procedural violations and witness buying.

The elections will take place amid a fragile peace and under the specter of the country’s fraught past, with a reactivated FARC and rising violence against political candidates. That said, the country is relatively stable and the IMF projects GDP to grow 3.4 percent in 2019—the highest rate among Latin America’s eight largest economies.

More than 36.6 million Colombians will be eligible to vote on October 27 for over 3,300 posts, including governors in each of the 32 departments and 1,101 mayors, as well as departmental legislatures and city council boards. Turnout in the previous local elections in 2015 was about 60 percent, which is, incidentally, a few points higher than that in last year’s presidential races. Those elected will serve four-year terms from 2020–2023 and be inaugurated on January 1. Governors and mayors cannot serve back-to-back terms in Colombia, though the topic of extending the length of their terms or allowing for immediate reelection is a regular debate.

Bogotá mayoral race

The high-profile race for mayor of Bogotá—often dubbed the country’s second-most important post after the presidency—is coming down to the wire. After leading polls for most of the campaign, former Senator and presidential hopeful Claudia López, 49, of the Green Party has lost the lead in polls heading into the final weeks of the campaign to journalist and one-time Senator Carlos Fernando Galán, who’s risen steadily since August.

 

Galán, 42, is younger son of Luis Carlos Galán, who in 1989 was Colombia’s leading presidential contender when he was assassinated in the middle of a campaign rally in what was arguably the nadir of Bogotá’s year of tragedy. The son first entered politics in 2008 when he joined the Bogotá City Council and later was a senator from 2014–2018. Though a member of the Radical Change party for most of his career, Galán left the party in 2018 and is now running as an independent under the Bogotá for the People mantle. Voters say they support him precisely because of his independence, as well as his honesty and transparency, which they attribute to the legacy of his father. Galán is the only candidate in the Bogotá race with net positive favorability among voters.

López is a central figure in the rise of a new left-wing in Colombia, where for years being leftist meant being associated with Marxist ideologies of FARC and other guerrillas. She gained national recognition for her anti-corruption stance within the Colombian Senate and as a presidential candidate in 2018. She’s seen as a stronger defender of inclusion and is a proponent of free education. In addition to her party, she also has the support of Colombia’s more establishment left-wing party, the Democratic Pole.

Now pulled into a statistical dead-heat with López is Miguel Uribe Turbay, 33, who also comes with family history as the grandson of a former liberal President Julio César Turbay (1978–1982) and son of a conservative ex-Senator Miguel Uribe Londoño (1990–1991). Like Galán, he also lost a parent during Colombia’s violent period when his mother, journalist Diana Turbay, was kidnapped in 1990 and killed five months later in a botched rescue attempt.

Uribe Turbay joined the Bogotá City Council at age 25 in 2012 and then served for three years as outgoing Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s chief of staff. He represents the Democratic Center, both the Conservative and Liberal parties, and a handful of others in this year’s race. Voters who support him say they are doing so because they view other candidates as too liberal and because he’d offer continuity with Peñalosa’s administration.

Hollman Morris, 50, of the far-left Humane Colombia (CH) party, founded by 2018 presidential runner-up Gustavo Petro, rounds out the four-candidate field. His platform focuses on building an underground metro for Bogotá and Petro’s social justice initiatives. However, allegations of domestic violence have marred his campaign.

This will be the last year in which the Bogotá mayoral race will be decided in a single round of voting. The next local elections in 2023 will introduce a runoff in the case no one candidate receives 50 percent of the vote. Peñalosa won the 2015 race with 33.3 percent of votes, and before him, Petro won with 32.2 percent. Bogotá has never had a female mayor.

Other mayoral races

In Medellín, Alfredo Ramos of the president’s Democratic Center has a solid lead in polls with close to 50 percent of voter intention and an almost 20-point lead over left-wing activist Daniel Quintero. Outgoing center-left Mayor Federico Gutiérrez has an approval rating of over 68 percent.

The race is closer—and polarized—in Cali, where former Senator Jorge Iván Ospina of the Green Party has a single-digit lead over gambling honcho Roberto Ortiz of the Democratic Center. Ospina, who’s vying for a second go as mayor of Colombia’s third-biggest city, was at one point on a hunger strike over what he said was a coordinated smear campaign. Incidentally, Ortiz’s hardball campaign manager also ran Ospina’s first successful campaign in 2007. Opinion on outgoing mayor Maurice Armitage, an independent, is split.

In Colombia’s fourth-largest city, Barranquilla, Jaime Alberto Pumarejo of the center-right Radical Change party has a commanding lead with over 60 percent of voter intention. Outgoing Mayor Alejandro Char, also of Radical Change, has a sky-high favorability rating of 91 percent. “Continuity works in some places,” noted former Colombian diplomat Muni Jensen, referring to the race in the Caribbean port city, in a recent podcast with AS/COA Online.

Governor races

Governorships tend to be less prestigious in Colombia but can still be important footholds for parties and ways for politicians to maintain a profile. Familiar face Aníbal Gaviria, for instance, leads the race for governor of Antioquia, a position he held once previously from 2004 to 2007 before serving as mayor of Medellín from 2012 to 2015. In his current race, he has the support of the Liberal Party, the Party of the U, and the Green Party.

Though few women besides López feature in the country’s most high-profile mayoral races, women do lead in some key governorships. Former national sports director Clara Luz Roldán has an easy lead in the race for governor of Valle del Cauca, seat of Cali, with the support of a coalition that includes parties ranging from the center-right Radical Change to the indigenous rights party MAIS. In the north, the popular former Mayor of Barranquilla Elsa Noguera of Radical Change has a healthy lead in polls for the Atlántico governorship.

Security and voter fraud concerns

Three mayoral candidates and four city council candidates have been assassinated in the 2019 cycle, along with 40 threats. Karina García, a young mayoral candidate in the southwestern town of Suarez, was assassinated along with her mother and four others on September 1, drawing increased attention to the issue. By contrast, the 2015 local elections were the country’s most peaceful in three decades. 

In September, Colombia’s national electoral body voided over 900,000 voter ID cards on evidence that they might have been fraudulently registered. Voter trafficking is a major issue in local elections as voters are allowed to cast ballots in municipalities they don’t live in, which is not the case in national elections. The director of the national registry was accused of allowing voter fraud in 2018 congressional and presidential elections. Though he denied the accusations, he also failed to appear at an October 15 congressional hearing on electoral fraud to which he was summoned, saying he was occupied with “intense preparations” related to the October 27 vote.