f the interference of criminal groups in local politics is not addressed, they could become even a bigger threat to Colombia’s local democracy and national security.
Cutting the Link between Crime and Local Politics: Colombia’s 2011 Elections , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the risks of political violence, electoral fraud and infiltration of criminal groups in the October 2011 governorship, mayoral, departmental assembly and municipal council elections. Violence against electoral candidates has intensified, and the elections are first real opportunity for the increasingly powerful new illegal armed groups and paramilitary successors (NIAGs) to distort or interfere with local politics. The national government under President Juan Manuel Santos is more willing and better prepared than in the past to curb the influence of illegal armed groups on the elections, but the challenges remain huge.
“The high number of killed prospective candidates bodes ill for the electoral campaign, suggesting that the decade-old trend of decreasing electoral violence could be reversed”, says Christian Voelkel, Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Analyst. “There are substantial risks that a variety of additional means, including intimidation and illegal money, will be used to influence outcomes”.
The meddling of criminal groups in local politics has become stronger following the extensive decentralisation process of the 1980s and 1990s, which made local governments increasingly attractive targets. While guerrillas have mainly concentrated on disrupting the electoral process, paramilitary groups used their links with economic and political elites to infiltrate local governments on a large scale and capture public resources.
A recent political reform law provides for stronger rules in candidate selection and electoral finance, but to protect local politics from the influence of criminal actors, authorities and political organisations need to take both short-term and longer-term measures. The government needs to review the methods to identify security threats, and it must strengthen measures to protect candidates. Prosecutorial institutions must follow up swiftly on electoral fraud allegations and should investigate promptly denunciations of electoral misuse of public funds. Political parties and candidates should contribute to enhancing transparency by revealing their campaign finances ahead of Election Day.
Over the longer term, oversight institutions such as the National Electoral Council need to become stronger and more independent. Electoral norms should be simplified, and the political rights of vulnerable populations must be more effectively protected. Political parties need to foster internal democracy and build up the capacities necessary to satisfy their accountability obligations. Finally, local justice will have to be strengthened so it can assume a more prominent role in prosecuting links between criminals and local politicians.
“If illegal armed groups are not prevented from strengthening and expanding their links to local politics, they will be able to operate with yet greater impunity”, says Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Project Director. “Recovering the legitimacy of local government and constructing democratically accountable, clean and efficient political institutions are central challenges Colombia must master in order to achieve a sustainable peace”.