Colombia’s Sunday congressional elections saw an unprecedented amount of voter fraud and vote buying, though violent pressure on voters from armed illegal groups largely abated, according to electoral observers.
As the dust cleared approaching midweek after Colombia’s congressional elections, candidates were crying fraud and corruption.
Former President and senator elect Alvaro Uribe called the Sunday’s elections “illegitimate” in an interview with Blu Radio; defeated presidential primary candidate Camilo Romero insisted on Twitter that ballots were missing across the country; and presidential candidate Aida Avella told Colombia Reports that “money,” not votes, guaranteed candidates congressional seats this past weekend.
MOE spokesperson Fabian Hernandez told Colombia Reports subsequently that “we have never received this many complaints about election fraud” since the organization’s foundation in 2007.
MOE’s National Legal Coordinator Camilo Mancera clarified exactly what the electoral watchdog found and illustrated problem areas to be tackled moving forward.
“We received 1,100 reports of electoral irregularities during the electoral process, of which the large majority consisted of vote buying and prohibited publicity,” Mancera explained to Colombia Reports.
Vote buying is rather self explanatory — the selling or buying of votes is strictly forbidden — and prohibited publicity includes advertisements of particular parties or candidates inside the voting polls.
“On election day, it is completely prohibited to hand out electoral publicity, or for the electoral witnesses to have publicity, or for the electoral judges,” said the electoral legal expert.
These were the rules, asserted Mancera, that were most frequently ignored Sunday by political parties: “The weight of these legal prohibitions that exist, it would seem that the political parties did not comply much with this norm.”
About a quarter of the 1000+ reports that MOE received had to do solely with vote buying while prohibited publicity shared a similar spread according to MOE’s legal coordinator.
The other bulk of irregularities illustrated a more subtle form of pressure, with more life-style consequences for voters that did not vote a certain way. The perpetrators were more often than not, public officials such as mayors’ offices according to Mancera.
“[In regard to forced voting], we saw pressures and threats against people to make them vote in a certain way…they made reference to clientelism pressures, labor pressures…That is to say that if people didn’t vote certain ways, then their job could be affected, or their contracts, or they risk not receiving subsidies…that they should receive.”
The legal expert explained that these pressures were coming from “public officials in local administrations” such as “mayors’ offices” who had specific interests in the success of certain candidates and “were looking to favor” those candidates.
Mancera was quick to say that these reports are not investigated by MOE, just organized and then distributed to the proper authorities.
“This is citizen information that in no moment has been investigated or confirmed by the MOE, but rather what [we do] is hand over the information to the authorities. If there are transparent elections or not, we send the information to the National Electoral Council, the Prosecutor General of the Nation, and the Inspector General’s Office. They are in charge of …determining if there really was fraud or irregularities.”
But, he concluded definitively, “That is how people were pressuring voters to vote a certain way [Sunday].”
Violence however, was not the method of choice for voter coercion this election cycle.
“The majority of these pressures were not armed pressures,” said Mancera confidently.
“A few years ago Colombia was in a moment during which [illegal] armed groups had a great influence over the voters — they were seen threatening…very violent attacks. For these elections, as the MOE reported, we did not see as much armed influence,” said MOE’s expert.
The electoral watchdogs affirmed that almost all of the instances of irregularities and fraud received were related to tampering with electoral mechanisms such as those mentioned above.
“For us, it is positive to see how armed pressure has diminished in elections, because in the 90s and the beginning of 2000 we saw a lot,” said Mancera with a positive outlook.
When asked how the national legal coordinator hoped to work to prevent these instances from happening in the future, he appeared optimistic and enthusiastic about current preventative plans in place.
Mancera explained that one of the main problems is that local prosecutors simply are not well versed in the subject of electoral crime.
“Many of the prosecutors do not know how to [prosecute electoral crimes], and in the past, they did not pay much attention to it because there were few announcements of electoral crime. [Also], these are crimes [that] are very difficult to obtain evidence for,” explained the electoral expert.
Since realizing this, the Prosecutor General’s office has “implemented measures to train public officials for the investigation of [and knowledge of] what are electoral crimes and irregularities,” with the support and participation of MOE.
“The prosecutors should know all about the voting process and this [knowledge] has been what was lacking,” said Mancera.
He added that in addition to prosecutors, MOE is working with municipalities to educate electoral witnesses, electoral juries, and young people about these issues, all while “making known democratic values, without economic interest.”
Mancera expects that the instances of fraud and electoral irregularities will be considerably lower for the presidential elections.
“It must be taken into account that normally the presidential elections are much calmer than the congressional elections,” said the legal expert.
He mentioned that the number of candidates — nearly 2,500 candidates in Sundays’ elections vs the current six registered presidential candidates — makes a big difference corruption-wise.
Also, “In the presidential election [you see] citizens voting more for ideas than a bureaucracy or clientelism,” said Mancera.
In terms of what he expects to happen next in terms of responding to these allegations of electoral irregularities, he advised to sit back and wait.
“On television, you have seen many announcements on the part of some politicians, now we wait for the corresponding investigations to begin,” concluded Mancera.