Post-National Front Political Developments

Colombia Table of Contents

With the return to normal interparty competition in the April 1974 presidential elections and the 1976 local elections, the PL's popular superiority enabled it to capture the presidency, a large working majority in Congress, and majorities in many of the departmental assemblies and municipal councils. Alfonso López Michelsen--the PL candidate in the 1974 presidential elections and the son of former President Alfonso López Pumarejo (in office 1934- 38 and 1942-45)--won with 55 percent of the popular vote, easily defeating Conservative candidate Gómez Hurtado.

Despite a low voter turnout of 34 percent in the February 1978 congressional elections, the Liberals and Conservatives maintained their total dominance, winning 305 of the 311 congressional seats. The PL again won majorities in both houses. The PL supporters of Julio César Turbay, who was closely linked to López Michelsen (1974-78), received more than 1.5 million votes, as compared with 800,000 for supporters of Carlos Lleras Restrepo, a highly respected former Liberal president (in office 1966-70). Turbay narrowly defeated the Conservative candidate Betancur in the June 1978 presidential elections, in which only 39 percent of the electorate voted. Turbay was elected president with 49.5 percent of the vote, as compared with Betancur's 46.6 percent. Thus, the second post-National Front president was also a Liberal who had the backing of his predecessor. In the National Front tradition, however, Turbay appointed five Conservatives to his thirteen-member cabinet.

Shortly after taking office in August 1978, Turbay was faced with the most serious guerrilla threat in decades. He strengthened his state of siege powers by decreeing the harsh National Security Statute, giving the police and military greater authority to deal with the growing domestic social unrest and political violence. The Turbay government used this statute to help minimize the security threats posed by the guerrilla and terrorist groups. The human rights situation deteriorated seriously, however, and armed opposition mounted dramatically.

Although the Liberals maintained majorities in both houses in the March 1982 congressional elections, Betancur won the presidency in May 1982, owing to growing dissatisfaction with the eight years of Liberal rule, a split within the majority PL between two candidates, and Conservative backing of his candidacy. The PL division allowed for the first Conservative victory in fully competitive presidential elections since 1946. Defeating López Michelsen by almost 400,000 votes, Betancur garnered 46.5 percent of the vote, with 54 percent of the electorate abstaining.

A militant follower of Laureano Gómez's ultra-right wing of the PC in the 1950s and early 1960s, Betancur moved to the political center after Gómez died in 1965. He first ran for president in 1970 as an independent Conservative and again in 1978 as a moderate reformer. He ran in the 1978 elections as a candidate of the National Movement (Movimiento Nacional), consisting of Conservatives, dissident Liberals, Christian Social Democrats, and remnants of Anapo. Betancur owed his decisive 1982 victory for the National Movement in part to the support of the alvarista and pastranista-ospinista factions of the PC, as well as of independent Christian democratic and Liberal voters, especially among the urban poor and working class in the large cities. López Michelsen, one of the two PL candidates, had called for rescinding the constitutional clause on coalition governments so that the two traditional parties could compete with each other more effectively. For the first time in Colombia's electoral history, modern campaign techniques prevailed over the traditional reliance on party machinery and the informal patronage and brokerage system.

During his four-year term, Betancur's highest domestic priority was to pacify Colombia's four main guerrilla groups. His approach to dealing with the escalating political violence differed profoundly from that pursued by his hard-line predecessor. After his inauguration in August 1982, Betancur called for a democratic opening (abertura democrática), an end to Turbay's repressive policies, a truce with the guerrilla groups, and an unconditional general amnesty for the guerrillas. By August 1984, the Betancur government's peace commission had reached short-term accords with most of the major guerrilla groups, with the main exception of the pro-Cuban National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional--ELN). In June 1985, however, the peace process began to unravel when the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril--M-19) resumed fighting, followed by other groups. Only the FARC agreed to renew its truce, although not all of its guerrilla fronts complied.

Despite his more open, informal, and honest leadership style--a sharp contrast with that of the more pompous and tradition-bound Turbay--Betancur's popularity declined markedly because of persistent problems with inflation and deficits. This made it difficult to finance the ambitious social, political, and electoral reforms that he had promised. In the 1984 mid-term elections, the Conservatives received only 42 percent of the vote, which was about their usual proportion, and the Liberals received 58 percent. Betancur's policy toward the guerrillas was a principal factor in undermining confidence in him among many military, economic, and political leaders, including Conservative congressmen. The M-19 dealt Betancur's prestige and his strategy of national pacification a severe blow by seizing the Palace of Justice, which housed the Supreme Court and Council of State, in early November 1985. The M- 19's action reinforced a widely held view among Colombians that Betancur had ceded too much to the guerrillas in his quest for peace. Betancur's handling of the courthouse takeover polarized public opinion within all sectors. It also generated Colombian criticism of Betancur's role within the Contadora group of Latin American countries seeking to negotiate a peace settlement in Central America, particularly after the M-19 arms used in the takeover were traced to Nicaragua.

The decisive campaign issue leading up to the congressional and local government elections in March 1986 and the presidential elections in May 1986 was the candidates' positions regarding public order. Even with half of Colombia's 14 million voters abstaining, the congressional elections held on March 9, 1986, produced a record voter turnout. The poll amounted to a vote of no- confidence for the lame-duck Betancur administration, which received only 37.4 percent of the vote. The opposition PL swept 48.7 percent of the vote, including Bogotá, thereby giving the party a majority in both houses.

In the May 1986 presidential election, PL candidate Virgilio Barco, a close associate of Turbay, won a landslide victory over Gómez Hurtado, the Conservative candidate. Barco received the largest mandate in Colombia's history, with 58 percent (4.1 million) of the vote, as compared with Gómez's 36 percent (2.5 million). Barco won in twenty-one of Colombia's twenty-three departments, even taking the Conservative stronghold of Antioquia Department. As a former minister of agriculture (1962-64) and mayor of Bogotá (1966-69), Barco had gained a reputation as a skillful public administrator. His election was helped not only by endorsements from four former Liberal presidents--Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-46; 1958-62), Lleras Restrepo, López Michelsen, and Turbay--but also by fears of a spread in public violence following Betancur's failure to pacify the country's guerrilla movements and his liberal reforms of the penal system.

On assuming office on August 7, 1986, Barco confirmed his intention to end the thirty-year-old tradition of coalition governments by establishing a one-party government (gobierno de partido). He believed that the sharing of cabinet seats and other government posts under the old National Front arrangement stifled democracy by excluding other groups and making it difficult to distinguish the policies of the two main parties. Barco favored a more conventional system in which the winning party governed and the losing party served as a genuine opposition. Although Barco offered the Conservatives three cabinet positions in his administration in accordance with Article 120 of the Constitution, Conservative patriarch and former President Pastrana declined the token participation in order to "revitalize" the party's identity. The Conservatives declared themselves in "reflective opposition" to the Barco administration. Thus, Barco's Council of Ministers was the first one-party cabinet in almost three decades.

Barco outlined a program to end guerrilla violence and crime through social reforms, a reduction in poverty, and an effective judiciary. He inherited Betancur's battered peace initiative, which Barco perceived to be fatally flawed, and began his mandate with the country still under a state of siege. Although the Barco administration committed itself to the peace process initiated by Betancur, Barco deemphasized dialogue with the guerrillas and--in October 1987--centralized the peace program in his office by making his new peace commission--the Permanent Advisory Council on Political Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, and Normalization--an intergovernmental body. Government talks with the FARC made little progress, however, owing to the FARC's unwillingness to disarm and its continued guerrilla and terrorist attacks.

By the end of Barco's first year in office, analysts were criticizing him for being indecisive, too low key, and inaccessible. Barco reportedly communicated mostly with his closest advisers, consulting infrequently with his ministers. His controversial effort to make the political system more competitive floundered from the start. Despite the novel existence of a 'purely' opposition party and the Conservatives' efforts to create an effective opposition, the two parties had few ideological and political differences. Consequently, instead of a system of checks and balances, the government--in the opinion of analysts--was experiencing administrative chaos. Pro-Barco critics accused the Conservatives of impeding congressional action and harassing the executive branch over the performance of various ministers, instead of offering clear-cut alternatives to the government's program. They also scolded the Liberals for failing to take advantage of their electoral majority to govern the country forcefully and to carry out needed social reforms. The broader effects included deterioration of the peace process and increasing polarization and confrontation between the army and the guerrillas, with both getting stronger.

Although the Liberals won a majority of the votes in the March elections, the opposition Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador--PSC) won an important victory over the governing PL by taking the mayoralties of Colombia's two largest cities: Bogotá and Medellín. Andrés Pastrana, the son of former President Misael Pastrana, became Bogotá's mayor, Colombia's second most important political position. Pastrana had been trailing in published voter polls until he was kidnapped in January, reportedly by drug dealers. The kidnapping of another top politician, the PSC's Alvaro Gómez, on May 29 pushed Colombian politics into a crisis. Gómez had been actively pressuring the ruling PL to give the military more power to combat the growing guerrilla threat. During the two months that the M-19 held Gómez, political analysts noted the polarizing effect the abduction was having on Colombians.

By early 1988, as the security situation continued to deteriorate nationwide, Barco came under increasing pressure to return to a national governing coalition similar to the old National Front. Politicians and diplomats in Bogotá reportedly believed that such an arrangement was needed to reassert legitimate authority and reach new accords on some basic issues, including new approaches to the guerrilla groups, cocaine traffickers (the Medellín and Cali cartels), and relations with the United States.

In May 1988, Barco and the PL leadership reached an agreement on a legislative agenda for constitutional and institutional reform. The reform package, consisting of about thirty-five bills, was designed to modernize the state in areas such as administration of justice, legislative efficiency, streamlining of public administration, and the state of siege provision in the Constitution (Article 121). The latter would be divided into three phases to be invoked gradually, depending on the national crisis situation. Each phase would call for different, measured responses by the state. Other measures called for the formation of a constitutional court to rule on the validity of treaties; another would restrict the attorney general's office to ruling only on human rights matters; and others would give constititional status to the protection of human rights, provide for mandatory voting and voter registration, and legalize the use of the plebiscite vote to consult the voters on key issues.

More about the Government and Politics of Colombia.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress