When Colombians went to vote in congressional elections on Sunday, international media had little doubt what the story was: the participation of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — the guerrilla movement that had conducted a 52-year war against the country’s central government until concluding a peace treaty in November 2016. “Former FARC rebels face first ballot,” blared the BBC. “Critics of peace deal dominate Colombia election,” declared the Associated Press. The Voice of America went with “Former Colombian guerrillas run for office.”
You could be forgiven for thinking the campaign was all about FARC, but, as it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth. To an amazing extent, Colombia’s congressional vote was FARC-free territory.
Without their guns, the new FARC political party quickly became a rounding error in the polls. The group was doing so badly that it suspended its campaign, alleging that its candidates weren’t being sufficiently protected. And the party could afford to. The 2016 peace accord guarantees it 10 seats in Congress, regardless of the outcome. Why go to the effort of canvassing for votes?
The party got a pathetic 0.34 percent of the national vote in the Senate, and an even sadder 0.21 percent in the Lower House, according to results late Sunday night. And it wasn’t as though Colombia turned to the political right: other left-wing and center-left parties improved their standing.
Turns out FARC the party is just as unpopular as FARC the rebel group. Unlike the rebel group, though, the party is entirely irrelevant.
With the exhausting, unending questions of war and peace out of the way, Colombia has settled into a kind of campaign that would be normal anywhere else. Take health care, for instance. Colombians love to complain about the country’s complex public-private universal coverage model. Insurance providers are a favorite target of voter rage — with corruption, mismanagement and inefficiency dragging down the quality of care.
Candidates jockeyed to turn those concerns into votes. Iván Duque, the main right-wing candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for May, called for strengthening regulations on insurance providers and for reforms to ensure that self-employed workers actually pay into the system to strengthen its financial viability. Duque’s main leftist rival, Gustavo Petro, called to for the entire mixed system to be dismantled, flirting with a single-payer system, a la Bernie Sanders.
Pretty boring, huh? It sounds pretty much like the normal political debates people have in normal countries all over the world, doesn’t it?
It does. And that’s extraordinary.
Take the environment, for another example. These days, Medellin, the nation’s second-most populated city, is notorious for its atrocious smog. (If you read “Medellin” and your mind goes straight to the drug trade, your stereotypes are a generation out of date.) With its calls for “A New Air,” the Green Party put the air-quality issue front and center in its campaign in the city. In the capital of Bogota, the mayor’s controversial plan to expand the city into a nearby nature reserve became the center of a furious controversy on zoning and land use. Elsewhere, candidates talked about mining rights, water management, fracking, oil-industry regulation, and even climate change: the same kinds of problems voters face in France, or North Dakota, or Chile, or anywhere else reasonably democratic and peaceful.
The foreign headlines had it exactly backward: This was the first Colombian election in an exceptionally long time not dominated by FARC. For decades, Colombian politics had centered obsessively around the issue of what to do with the Marxist rural army funded by drugs; war and peace were the bread and butter of political debate. In the new political reality, candidates still talk about public safety, but they mean petty crime and street violence, not guerrilla warfare.
Even the peace process that ended the war — an intensely controversial issue for years — has faded from view. FARC made a bit of news when a photograph began to circulate showing a former FARC commander casting his ballot in civilian clothes in a regular polling station. But that incongruous sight was soon overshadowed by news that ballot sheets had run out at some polling stations, which led people to hastily organize to photocopy new ones.
None of this is to claim Colombia is some kind of problem-free Shangri-la. Sluggish wage growth and a culture of ingrained corruption dominate the national discussion; many voters are anxious about their future and deep divisions over key questions. But in stark contrast to the country’s past, citizens can now focus on finding answers to these challenges without being overshadowed by armed conflict.
Colombia is now closer to a normally functioning democracy than it has been for a very long time. For the first time in years, no voting centers had to be moved away from rebel-controlled territory — because there is no more rebel-controlled territory.
In May, Colombians will vote in a more consequential presidential election. Once more, FARC will loom large in foreign-media accounts of the vote and small in Colombian ones. Colombians will be busy arguing about the economy, about corruption, about health care and the environment, about how to fund pensions — and all the normal, humdrum things that people worry about in democracies.
Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions.
Rodrigo Palau Zea is a Colombian translator and political observer.