The Polo Democrático Flatters to Deceive: Divisions and Clientelism Threaten to Ruin the Left’s Big Opportunity


  • Colombian right shows rare signs of fallibility under President Uribe
  • Public unrest with government corruption offers glimmer of hope for leftists
  • Factionalism within Polo Democrático looks set to undermine 2010 election hopes
  • Party shoots itself in the foot with links to clientelism in Bogotá


  • Colombia, it has often been said, has experienced so many attempted revolutions that it has become a profoundly conservative country. Who, after the violence that followed Jorge Eliecer Gaitan´s murder, would have predicted that 50 years later, the country would be the only one in the continent never to have had an openly “left-wing” government? Or that the conservative status quo could have been preserved for so long without even requiring a military dictatorship? Yes, leftist political hopes have often been extinguished by repression (for example, the extermination of the Union Patriótica in the 1980s), and discouraged by the media, but not necessarily any more so than in other countries on the continent, where both moderate and radical left wingers have overcome media bias and recovered from traumatic episodes to win power. By contrast, Colombia´s democratic left had not registered a significant electoral result until 2006, and even then was comfortably beaten by Alvaro Uribe Velez.

    Surveys repeatedly show that Colombians differ profoundly from their compatriots in other countries in their opinions on a broad range of issues, displaying a genuine distrust of Hugo Chávez and, at times, an unwarranted positive view of the United States’ regional role and of the beneficial potential of free trade. While Colombia´s bad human rights record makes it a honey pot for left-leaning NGOs and emancipated journalists, issues regularly emphasized outside Colombia (such as the almost routine assassination of trade unionists) rarely make it onto the average Colombian´s political radar.

    An Opening, if not an Invitation
    Despite this, Colombia´s political left finds itself with an unprecedented opportunity to increase its political visibility, and maybe even challenge for power. Following successful military operations to assassinate FARC commander Raul Reyes and rescue high profile hostages, Uribe´s approval ratings had climbed to 90 percent in 2008, a staggering achievement for any president. In the second half of that year, though, a series of scandals and problems put his re-election in doubt. First, the “false positives” scandal revealed what many had known for years: the government policy of maintaining quotas for the murder of enemy combatants creates morally perverse incentives, leading commanders to kill innocent people and present them as such “combatants”. True to form, Uribe´s teflon-esque popularity was only marginally dampened by the scandal. In November, however, the social calamity of the pyramid/money laundering schemes finally managed to achieve something that the Polo Democrático, the left-leaning opposition party, failed to do in 5 years: motivate the public into acts of spontaneous, popular opposition to the government.

    At a broader level, the unfettered capitalism favored by Uribe has been dealt a massive blow by the international financial crisis, and Colombia´s five years of high economic growth are coming to an end. Despite insistences from the government and private sector that the country is in a position to ride out the crisis, Colombia´s projected growth for 2009 is continually being downgraded by analysts. It is now recognized that the country is entering into a full-blown recession, and this has forced the government to nervously retreat from its neo-liberal policies by proposing increased public spending to fend off the crisis. Moreover, the weakening of the FARC may ironically lower Uribe’s silhouette in the long term, as it will allow the Colombian electorate to consider other factors which may negatively affect the country. Finally, it should never be forgotten that Colombia has a massive abstention rate, meaning a significant number of people, mainly from the lower sectors of society, remain uncommitted to Uribe’s political project and his personal fate. Despite all this, Uribe remains exceptionally popular for a president who has been in power for six years. Undoubtedly, Uribe, or one of his allies, remains the favorite to win the 2010 elections, but the competition will be far keener that it has in recent years.

    Work to be Done
    The fact that the left struggles to make headway in Colombia does not, of course, mean that it has little to offer. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in a very unequal continent, has a legacy of human rights abuses, and is blindly committed to self-defeating drug prohibition policies. Theoretically, a leftist party would be able to bring an end to the barbarity of “false positives” and other state-related human rights abuses. Beyond this, a left-wing government would be able to void one of the main taboos of the right, by pursuing an international campaign in favor of the legalization of drugs, with the explicit intention of targeting all of the country´s illegal armed actors. The left needs a central theme: to press forward with a major land reform program in order to expropriate land from the ever powerful drugs mafias, and return it to smallholder peasants and displaced people. It needs to move towards the universalization of the country´s health service to break the link between individual earnings and quality of healthcare. Finally, the Polo needs to get to grips with a key issue where the right really has little to offer: the question of how developing countries can articulate a model which looks after the needs and desires of their citizens, without simply locking themselves into the environmentally unsustainable growth experienced by China, India, and Brazil.

    The Polo´s Three Factions
    At the very time that the left should be seizing the national agenda by focusing on these long neglected issues and preparing for the 2010 elections, it seems more content to tear itself apart. The Polo has divided into three feuding factions: the bureaucratic left of Samuel Moreno´s alarmingly clientelistic administration in Bogotá, the radical left represented by people like Senator Jorge Robledo, and the pragmatic and conciliatory left of former M19 guerrillero Senator Gustavo Petro and former Mayor of Bogota Luis Eduardo Garzón. Between the three of them, these factions seem poised to squander the left´s big chance.

    Divided Over Election Strategies: Insults fly as Petro Leaves
    After attaining the largest ever vote for a leftist party in Colombia´s history in 2006 (2.6 million), the Polo Democrático faced many dilemmas, all of which have manifested in a highly public discussion over electoral strategy: whether to ally with other anti-Uribista forces to gain power, or go it alone and emphasize ideological coherence. The willingness of Petro and Garzón to ally with the Liberal Party and other “independent” political figures enraged the majority of the Polo, led by former presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria and Senator Jorge Robledo. They accuse Petro and Garzón of abandoning their principles, and shamelessly adopting Uribe´s policies just to make themselves more electable. They reject the possibility of an alliance with Liberal President Cesar Gaviria, a man who, after all, was the harbinger of neo-liberalism in Colombia.

    While such arguments may go down well among the Polo’s rank and file, they do not necessarily respond to the reality of Colombia´s political culture. Despite the Polo´s rise in the last few years, only its most hardened supporters believe it is capable of defeating Uribe on its own. The choice for the Polo is between simply remaining an opposition party, and seriously seeking to govern the country. Moreover, it is insulting to suggest that a man like Petro, who has dedicated a large portion of his political career to exposing links between mainstream politicians and paramilitary violence, simply lacks principles. Robledo believes that the Polo would, by allying with more centrist elements, lose its ideological edge, but does this mean that refusing alliances, and remaining in perpetual opposition, would really be a better way of improving society? While people like Cesar Gaviria may be neo-liberals, they also share similar ideas on the central issues like drug policy, something which the Polo could look to take advantage of.

    On March 30, Petro made the entirely predictable decision to leave the party. After months of criticizing the Polo leadership, his exit did not shock anyone, and neither did his parting shot, in which he accused the party of being governed by a “clientelist-extremist” alliance. He has announced a plan to build a coalition with the Liberal Party and independently minded progressive candidates including the eccentric former Mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, former Mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, and ex-FARC captive Ingrid Betancourt. Petro proclaims that the party will focus primarily on preventing Uribe´s reelection, and “getting Colombia out of the war.” It is expected that other Polo “moderates” like Lucho Garzón and Maria Emma Mejía will follow Petro out of the party, leaving behind a more ideologically coherent but far less electable political grouping.

    The Democratic Left and the Insurgency
    The Polo´s divisions go far beyond a debate over election strategy. The biggest point of contention is that of the party´s policy towards the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). If one had to pinpoint one over-riding explanation for the weakness of Colombia’s left, it would surely be the problems posed by the armed insurgency. Historically, the Colombian electorate has often associated leftist politicians and activists with the armed leftist insurgents, a view also held by the rightwing vigilantes who repeatedly have sought to link the Polo with political violence. The Polo, however, has sought to prevent any such illegal association from damaging its reputation, and explicitly condemns all forms of political violence, most notably FARC´s recent massacre of the indigenous Awa in Nariño. In some regions it is clear that the Polo has indeed distanced themselves from the FARC in the eyes of the public, as can be seen by Uribe´s vain attempts to tarnish Samuel Moreno´s campaign to be Mayor of Bogotá.

    Petro, however, believes that the Polo have still failed to sufficiently clarify their opposition to the FARC in terms of concrete proposals. Petro believes that Polo´s wholehearted commitment to negotiations with the FARC is outdated, as it fails to respond to the reality that the FARC has historically used negotiations as a different wing of the armed struggle, rather than as an alternative to it. It seems unlikely that the population at large will permit a return to the days of negotiation, when the FARC failed to participate in good faith and used the demilitarized zone to intensify the cultivation of coca and kidnappings. Recently, the proposal of negotiations has borne more fruit, in the form of the liberations of 6 hostages in an action organized by controversial Liberal Party Senator Piedad Cordoba. At the time of writing, it seems increasingly likely that the FARC will release one of their longest-held hostages, Pablo Emilio Moncayo. Despite the joy aroused by these actions, it is unclear whether they represent a genuine desire for peace. Following the events of last year, the FARC is in need of political breathing space, and such actions have not been accompanied by any change in its behaviour. In the last few months, it has been guilty of “politics as usual”, including the assassination of the Awa and bombing of Villavicencio´s water supply.

    As Petro forcefully argues, how can you hold up diplomacy as the best solution when you know that the other side only sees negotiations as an extension of the military struggle? If there does come a point when negotiations resume, it must be explicitly clear that any discussions with the FARC or humanitarian agreement must be an alternative to armed violence, rather than a compliment to it. The issue has been exploited by Uribe, who recently has called for a “cross-party consensus against the FARC,” including even “some of my most vehement critics.” Many in the Polo will presumably see this as an attempt to further divide them, and they may be right, but the Polo could gain a lot by recognizing the success of Uribe´s struggle against the FARC whilst vociferously condemning him on other issues. They should realize that the FARC has only damaged Colombia´s left, and that treating it with kid gloves only weakens the reputation of their own political project.

    Bureaucracy and Clientelism in Bogotá
    Most alarmingly of all, the Polo seems to be squandering its only opportunity to put its political proposals into practice. Samuel Moreno´s mayorship in Bogotá – the second most important position in the country – has become a byword for the type of clientelism and traditional politics that the Polo was supposed to be the antithesis to.

    Prior to 2008, Bogotá had served as a useful testing ground for the left´s ability to propose an alternative to Colombian society. Former communist and trade unionist Luis Eduardo Garzón, known popularly as “Lucho,” had extended social services in Bogotá (most notably with the popular soup kitchens, based on Lula´s Brazil sin Hambre) whilst balancing the budgets and even maintaining previous successful policies implemented by Mayors Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus. When Garzón´s tenure came to an end, his success meant that the Polo candidate was virtually guaranteed victory in Bogotá, even against a resurgent Peñalosa. Thus it was that Samuel Moreno, despite an undistinguished political history, the dubious distinction of being former dictator Rojas Piñilla’s grandson, and his disastrous “yes” answer to the question “would you buy 50 votes to save Bogotá from someone capable of buying 100,000 votes?,” romped to victory with 43% of the popular vote. His main proposal, a metro system to supplement the innovative yet limited Transmilenio, caught public imagination.

    However, after more than a year in power, Moreno finds himself lampooned in the press and plummeting in popularity ratings. Undoubtedly, he has been the victim of a campaign by the right to discredit him; problems like immobility and insecurity have indeed been exaggerated by the Polo´s opponents, aware of the importance of the mayor´s reputation to the national leftist movement. However, there is only an extent to which this can explain his falling popularity. Obviously, accusations about clientelism are hard to substantiate, but just the sheer weight of criticism from all sides of the political spectrum suggests that something is not right. NGO and civil society leaders complain of a labyrinth of patronage and favoritism that have to be negotiated in order to win participation contracts, and even Polo members such as Petro have spoken out against the phenomenon. Most recently, Moreno has been forced to deny receiving any donations from the controversial “holdings company,” DMG. Obviously, if the allegations were true, he would not be the only Colombian politician to have succumbed to the temptation of allying himself with the company, but it would be disastrous for the reputation of a party which had made political capital over Uribe´s poor handling of the affair.

    Perhaps Moreno´s worst crime is simply his lack of direction. In stark contrast to the capital´s last three mayors, he has failed to articulate any clear vision for the city, and has failed to introduce any innovative proposals. While Peñalosa, Mockus and Garzón arrived at the job with very clearly defined ideas of how they wanted to improve the city (improving the civic culture, public space, services, etc.), Moreno seems to have nailed all his colors to the mast of the metro project, without considering other issues. He probably calculates that if the metro does indeed go ahead, his failings will be forgiven by history, and he may be right, but this is not the type of attitude that Bogotá needs or deserves. As the mutterings against Moreno rise to a deafening pitch, Polo activists and supporters are nervously wondering if the failings of one administration can tarnish an entire political project, thereby undoing the hard-won gains of the last five years.

    An Uphill Struggle for Electoral Success
    Although it is rarely stated explicitly, many of the Polo´s divisions revolve around the fundamental dilemma over whether or not they should seek to emulate the “21st century socialism” of neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela, or aim for the more conciliatory social democracy that Brazil has put on the table. From a purely practical perspective, it is hard to imagine a Colombian electorate voting in any project resembling the former, while the latter does not do enough to respond to the deep fissures in Colombian society. Indeed, the dichotomy is exceedingly damaging for the left, as it reduces all policies and proposals to a choice between two poles, neither of which are satisfactory.

    The left, in spite of the opportunities presented to it by a changing national and international context, is failing to present a coherent alternative project to Colombian society. It is deeply divided over a range of fundamental issues. If, as expected, the Polo loses its moderate members, it would undoubtedly suffer in the eyes of the public. It is far too early to say whether Petro will succeed in building a moderate left anti-Uribista coalition, but there is no doubt that it will be hard for him to build up a sufficiently significant base of support without help from the Polo´s activists. If anyone is well served by the division, it is surely the president, who gleefully watches as his opponents´ infighting gives him a far easier ride than he deserves. Meanwhile, the Polo is becoming overly associated with an inefficient and clientelist administration in Bogotá, which is rapidly eroding the party´s reputation as an “alternative” option offering a different way of doing politics. Most worrying of all, it is failing to offer what Colombia and Latin America most badly need: a leftist party capable of going beyond the Lula-Chávez dichotomy, and articulating imaginative and coherent responses to issues such as drugs, the environment, and the financial crisis.