Santos wins landslide victory in Colombian election

But will the former defence minister take responsibility for the murder of 2,000-plus civilians?

Juan Manuel Santos made a clean sweep of the second round of the Colombian elections, winning the highest vote ever received by a president. He seduced the electorate on Sunday with a message of national unity.

But Santos's victory is controversial. During his term as minister of defence, it emerged that the army had murdered more than 2,000 civilians over several years, passing them off as rebels.

Under President Àlvaro Uribe's "democratic security" policy, soldiers are rewarded according to the number of rebels they kill, a practice called "positivos".

The scandal known as "falsos positivos" erupted late in 2008 when 19 young men were reported missing in the municipality of Soacha, only to reappear as rebels killed in action a day later, on the other side of the country.

"Those young people were contacted by guys that were related to the army and they were delivered to them," says Maria Victoria Llorentes, executive director of the think tank Ideas para la Paz, which monitors the Colombian armed conflict.

But the army is also under tremendous pressure to defeat the rebels. Uribe and now Santos have made this the cornerstone of their mandate.

"Uribe has been pushing the military forces a lot for results. Previous presidents were not pressing as hard; he is really obsessed with these figures," says Llorentes

Juan Manuel Santos reacted quickly when the scandal emerged. He fired leading members of the military staff and forced the commander of the armed forces, General Mario Montoya, to "resign". Santos also created a new human rights doctrine for the armed forces in late 2008.

But doubts remain over how much he knew.

"Santos only took action once the killings went public," says Hollman Morris, a journalist and strong critic of Uribe's presidency. "Why only in 2008? What happened to the internal control mechanisms of the armed forces? You could think they hushed it up."

Close your eyes

On the contrary, Roy Barreras, a senator and member of Santos's political party, defends him. "The minister of defence of this government was the one who denounced the falsos positivos, which had been happening for a long time. He warned about the phenomenon and stopped it."

The murders outraged Colombia's educated classes, who denounced them in the media, but they left the rest of the country indifferent.

"It was like, yes, it's horrible and everything, but that is it. Life goes on," says Maria Victoria Llorentes. "The feeling against the Farc [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] is so strong. In fact, that is why Santos is winning. The rest of the people couldn't care less."

"The feeling of greater security and safety that Uribe and Santos were able to transmit weighs more than the scandal," says Angelika Rettberg, a political analyst at Los Andes University.

"There is also something classist about it: these kids are mainly poor kids, so it makes it easier for people to close their eyes."

Yet many people feel not enough was done.

"In Israel, for the murder of nine activists on the flotillas, they are asking for the prime minister to resign. And here in Colombia where thousands died, we elect Santos as president," says William Salamanca, 43, a taxi driver.

It is the question of political responsibility that remains most troubling. No one knows who should take the blame for the falsos positivos.

But a recent verdict condemning General Plazas Vega for murders committed by the army during the siege of the Palace of Justice in Bogotà in 1985 is setting a new precedent.

Will President Juan Manuel Santos be held accountable in the future for the falsos positivos?

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds.                                                                                                                

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change