On Sunday, Colombians went to the polls to vote in congressional elections to renew all 166 seats in the Chamber of Representatives and 102 seats in the Senate. Voters punished the incumbent party of Juan Manuel Santos (2012-2018) and rewarded the opposition—particularly the Democratic Center, led by his once-ally-turned-critic, former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). The vote also marked the electoral debut of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), which performed miserably, despite the international media focus on the former rebel group’s participation.
The results shed light on the winners and losers of Colombia’s splintered, evolving party system. President Santos’ Social Party of National Unity saw its seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate drop from 37 to 25 and 21 to 14, respectively. Many blame Santos’ low approval rating, which is currently around 14%, for the party’s performance.
Santos’ second term was marked by the controversial peace treaty with the FARC, which ended a five decade long civil war in which more than 200,000 Colombians had died. In 2016, Colombians voted on the peace agreement in a referendum and rejected it by a slim margin. Though the plan provided an alternative to the violence, many criticized the concessions the government was offering, including lean prison sentences for guerrilla members who confessed to war crimes. The Santos administration eventually revised the peace deal and submitted it to congress, which passed it. Santos was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the dawn of the congressional vote, but his international prestige did not dissuade voters from the idea that he turned his back on their popular rejection of the deal.
In addition to the uproar over the administration’s handling of the peace process, Santos’ government has been hit by a series of corruption scandals. The president himself has not been immune to allegations of corruption and influence peddling. Last year it was uncovered that his first election campaign received more than $ 400,000 from the infamous Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, whose shady dealings continue to tarnish politicians across the region. His re-election campaign has also been accused of receiving $1 million from the same source. Though Santos publicly apologized for his actions, his image has been tarnished.
The remaining members of the incumbent National Unity coalition also saw their support drop. The Liberal Party—which has drifted apart from the Santos administration—lost seats in both houses of congress. The Party of Citizens’ Action was barely able to hold on to two seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
Opposition parties fared better. The Democratic Center, led by former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), received the most votes of any opposition party, winning 16% of votes in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Uribe and his Democratic Center have represented the hardline opposition against Santos’ government.
Though back in the day they were political allies—many considered Santos, Minister of National Defense during Uribe’s second term (2006-2009), as his political protégée—they fell into public arguments shortly after Santos was elected president, leading Uribe to quit the Social Party of National Unity and create the Democratic Center.
Since Santos’ re-election in 2014, Uribe has led a strident opposition to his government. His actions have allowed him to capitalize from the government’s defeats, such as growing public doubts about the peace plan and the plebiscite. Uribe’s active campaign against the peace agreement with the FARC has won him and his party favor in the eyes of voters. Uribe himself was re-elected as senator with 877,677 votes—the greatest vote share for a senate bid in the history of Colombia.
Of all parties, however, it was Radical Change that was the greatest surprise. Until recently, the party was a member of the ruling National Unity coalition, but left after clashing with president Santos during the peace process. The party received 14% of votes and more than doubled its seats in Congress. The result gives an unexpected boost to the presidential candidacy of Germán Vargas, 56, who quit as Santos’ vice-president (2014-2017) after his party fell out of favor with the government.
The election’s biggest losers (by far) were the FARC. Sunday’s vote marked the first electoral test for the former guerrilla group turned political upstarts. The FARC barely received 0.21% of votes in the Chamber of Deputies and 0.34% in the Senate. The disastrous result comes barely days after Rodrigo Londoño (AKA Timochenko)—the leader of the guerrilla group who led the peace negotiations—announced he was withdrawing his bid for the presidency due to health-related concerns, as he floundered in polls and drew violent reactions at his campaign stops.
Despite the FARC’s poor electoral performance, they will still hold seats in the next congress. The peace agreement grants the former guerrilla group 5 seats in both houses until 2026, regardless of their levels of electoral support (or lack thereof).
Colombians will return to the polls on May 27th to vote for a new president. If no candidate receives an absolute majority, a second round vote is scheduled for June 17th.
After Sunday’s election results, two outcomes seem realistic. First, the conservative right is well on its way to winning the first round if not the presidency. Voters turned out in large numbers to support senator Iván Duque, 41, Uribe’s most recent protégée. The vote share of center-right and right-wing candidates in the inter-party primaries almost doubled that of the center-left, which is currently fragmented but will likely be led by Gustavo Petro, 57, a former M-19 guerrilla member and mayor of Bogotá (2012-2015), who won the nomination of the inter-party primary with 85% of votes. The second point comes as a warning: whoever wins the presidency will need to build strong legislative alliances because they will lack a majority of seats in Congress.
With the election on the horizon, Colombia’s candidates will be moving fast. With a new legislature ready to begin the transition away from the tumultuous end to the Santos years, the coming weeks will be crucial for the battle for the House of Nariño.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello