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  • The Post-Cold War WorldCan Colombia Cope?
  • Gary Hoskin (bio) and Gabriel Murillo (bio)

The 1998 presidential election in Colombia was one of the most hotly contested races in the nation’s history. Violent conflict involving guerrilla armies, right-wing paramilitary groups, narcotraffickers, and state security forces increasingly threatened its political stability as well as the lives of its citizens. The economy was deteriorating rapidly, and the government’s ability to deal with it was hampered by the worldwide financial crisis.

On 18 June 1998, Conservative Party candidate Andrés Pastrana was elected president by a narrow margin in the second round of voting. Many greeted his election with relief, optimistic that he could turn the situation around. But a number of complex problems must be resolved before Colombia can emerge from what may be the most serious challenge to the viability of its democratic institutions since la violencia, the intense period of interparty violence between 1948 and the early 1960s that resulted in the deaths of 200,000 Colombians.

Throughout their history, Colombians have always been resilient. A democratic system, although sometimes restricted and distorted, has prevailed in Colombia during most of its history since it won independence from Spain in 1819—a record unsurpassed in Latin America. The country has experienced only two military interventions, one during the mid-nineteenth century and the other in the mid-twentieth as a response to la violencia. The regime of General Rojas Pinilla (1953–57) was followed by a power-sharing agreement between the Liberals and the Conservatives, the two traditional political parties that had existed since the nineteenth century. Under this agreement, [End Page 36] known as the National Front, participation in the electoral process was restricted to the two traditional parties, which alternated control of the presidency and shared equally in all administrative, judicial, and legislative posts. The National Front lasted from 1958 to 1974 in terms of restricted electoral competition, and through 1978 as regards the sharing of bureaucratic posts. Thus the electoral and bureaucratic restrictions associated with the Front had supposedly expired by the time of the 1978 national elections. 1

To a considerable extent, the National Front served its original purpose of reducing societal violence, restraining interparty competition, depoliticizing macroeconomic policy, and promoting economic and social development, but at the cost of freezing the political system and undermining its ability to adapt to a rapidly changing society. 2 Discontent with the hegemony of the traditional political parties rose, producing new movements opposed to the National Front, notably the Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal (MRL), led by Alfonso López Michelsen, and the Alianza Nacional Popular (ANAPO), headed by former military leader Rojas Pinilla. The National Front almost collapsed as a result of the 1970 elections, in which Rojas Pinilla was arguably denied the presidency through electoral fraud. 3 Moreover, extralegal opposition to the National Front and the political class arose with the formation of several guerrilla groups, including the Alianza Democrática-Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19) and two others that remain active today—the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN).

The post-National Front period has been characterized by an intense debate over the need to make the transition from restricted to participatory democracy. The prevailing explanation for the state’s inability to resolve basic societal problems more effectively has been the noninclusionary nature of the political system. Every post-National Front president, beginning with Alfonso López (1974–78), had spearheaded political reform initiatives that ended in failure until the convocation of a constitutional assembly, the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (ANC), in 1990. But the ANC’s success in launching a new constitution with participatory options has not led to a rapid transformation of governmental or political behavior, casting doubt on the view that an exclusionary political system was at the root of Colombia’s problems.

Despite some imperfections, Colombian democracy has become institutionalized in terms of electoral competition but it has not succeeded in making what Guillermo O’Donnell calls the “second democratic transition” to an institutionalized, consolidated democratic regime. 4 This more profound transition has been elusive because of the tenacity of traditional patterns of...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 36-50
Launched on MUSE
1999-01-01
Open Access
No
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