Colombians have a wide and strange array of options as they go to the polls this Sunday.
2,559 candidates are running for seats in the Senate, the Chamber of Representatives and the Andean Parliament; there seems to be a candidate for every taste. Some popular, if nontraditional candidates include the Partido de Integración Nacional’s (PIN) Benjamin Arrieta, (currently a Senator with the Convergencia Ciudadana party), who proposes free vasectomies and tubal ligations for the country’s poorest citizens and the Partido de la U’s María Fernanda Valencia, a former newscaster who promises to pose nude if elected. Cristián Fredy Murcia Guzmán, the brother of pyramid schemer David Murcia Guzman’s (DMG Holdings) is running for the Senate with Movimiento Apertura Liberal, on a platform that includes calls to restore his brother’s disgraced enterprise.
Complicating Sunday’s elections is a relatively new voting system first instituted in 2006. Intended to strengthen the country’s political parties and movements, Colombians will vote first and foremost for their favorite party. If the party has an open list, voters may (but are not obligated to) specify which candidate they support within that party. But if the party has a closed list (which some do), then the party will have already assigned priority rankings to its candidates and voters will not be able to specify their personal preferences. As a result, many votes may ultimately help elect candidates who are not the voter’s preferred choice. Fortunately, almost all parties for this year’s elections (excluding, most noteably, Movimiento MIRA for the senate race) have presented open lists.
In order to gain a seat in either house of congress, parties must receive a minimum percentage of the total votes cast, which will likely translate into approximately 200,000 votes for Senate seats this year. If a party surpasses this number, it will get a seat for every 80,000 votes. For the Chamber of Representatives it varies by state. If a party receives twice the minimum number of votes, it will gain two seats, and so on. For parties with open lists, each seat the party wins is assigned to candidates from that party in the order of the votes each candidate received. For closed lists, the order of the candidates will have been pre-selected by the party.
So, let’s suppose a citizen were inclined to vote for our would-be nude model and Chamber of Deputies candidate María Fernanda Valencia based on her proposals to increase maternity and paternity leave for new parents. Let’s further suppose that Partido de la U needs 54,000 (in 2006, the precise number was 51,897) votes to get one seat representing Bogotá in the Chamber of Deputies—and that it gets exactly that number in the election. In reality, in order to achieve these results, the Partido de la U’s 18 candidates for the Chamber of Representatives for Bogotá would have to receive an average of 3,000 votes each. If candidate Valencia received 2,999 votes while Jorge Enrique Gómez Pardo, a former law professor and human rights worker, received 3,001 votes and the Partido de la U’s other 16 candidates received 3,000. Our imaginary citizen’s vote, along with the vote of the other 2,998 voters who supported Valencia, and the 48,000 who selected candidates within that party, would be crucial in bringing Gómez Pardo into Congress, but would fail to elect any of the other candidates. Without our citizen’s vote, Gómez Pardo would have had to call it a day as well. Conversely, had Gómez Pardo won 53,999 votes, but was the only candidate from his party to receive votes, he would not be elected to a post.
This would make some sense if Gómez Pardo and Valencia, being from the same party, shared similar values and proposals. But while Valencia promises pink taxi cabs reserved for women (to increase women’s security), Gómez Pardo’s proposal revolves around strengthening President Uribe’s democratic security policy. While Valencia offers to double maternity leave, Gómez Pardo has not touched the subject. The two candidates have very little in common beyond their party affiliation. Our imaginary citizen’s vote took an unintended turn. And yet this could very likely happen to thousands, if not millions, of voters.
While the reforms to Colombia’s electoral system may, in the long term, add coherency to political parties, for the moment we are stuck with disjointed parties jousting for votes within a system meant for solidified groupings. Parties have every incentive to fill their lists with individuals who may not get elected, but who will at least bring the party a few thousand votes. Meanwhile individual candidates often use parties for their own personal gain without any sense of loyalty or identification with the party. In fact, Colombia’s registrar’s office recently reported that seven candidates had illegally enrolled to appear on more than one party’s list in spite of the parties’ conflicting ideologies.
So how will Colombians vote this weekend?
Most eligible voters will not vote—in the 2006 Congressional elections less than half of eligible voters voted ; and there is no reason to believe this year will be any different. Baffled by the voting system, many will present invalid ballots—in 2006, one million votes, about 10 percent of total votes, were invalid—and this time around the ballots have been made more complex.
Of those submitting valid votes, most will vote for personalities this election season. And many of those votes will ultimately go to people who have little in common with the candidates for whom the votes were intended.
Fortunately, in May’s presidential elections there will be no open and closed lists and only one candidate per party. The number of candidates will be a two—not four—digit figure, and none of the candidates are expected to promise surgeries or nude poses if elected.
*Sebastián Chaskel is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is an independent analyst based in Bogotá and was previously a Latin America research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He is a regular contributor to LatAmThought.org.