Letter from Colombia: vote buying, taxes and Claudia López

by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

Another vote-buying scandal has erupted in Colombia, involving the Democratic Centre. It is not the first time this party has been implicated in scandals of this
nature and neither are they the only ones. In the 2010 electoral campaign Petro alleged that other candidates had spent more than 2,000 million pesos (over a million US dollars at the time), tamales (traditional meal) and cash are now part of Colombian folklore.

Vote buying in Colombia exists in various fashions and some of these are not only legal, but are even institutional and used by both the left and right.

Recently a video went viral of the mayoress of Bogotá, Claudi López, unjustly scolding a student leader, practically accusing him of being the leader of masked rioters. In the middle of her diatribe she said that the citizens do not pay taxes so students can damage buildings, nor attack state forces. I don’t know whether the citizens voluntarily pay taxes or not, what we do know is the president of the country does not voluntarily or involuntarily pay taxes but taxes are collected and are legally spent in buying votes and Claudia López does so as well.

There are people who take part in every electoral campaign, who due to their leadership, fame and capabilities amongst other talents capture many votes. They know how to get the vote out and after voting they go to the candidate and say: “Look, I got you so many votes, now I have come for what is mine”. What is theirs is nothing as simple as a tamale, but rather a position or a juicy contract with some state body.

It is normal for politicians to nominate their advisors, but in Colombia even a receptionist in a minor office could be a political appointee to pay off a favour. It is so normal that when Peñalosa won the elections for Mayor of Bogotá, memes circulated in social networks alluding to the computers in the Town Hall collapsing the website http://www.elempleo.com (recruitment website in Colombia) as all those nominated by the previous left governments had to leave and would be replaced by those nominated by Peñalosa, as certainly happened now with the new Mayoress.

These positions are paid for by taxes, but are doled out as political favours. Whoever helps the successful candidate gets their position, or maybe one of their family does. Lovers, the children of lovers, friends and the friends and lovers of friends are nominated. In any other part of the world this would be called corruption, but in Colombia it is normalised vote buying. The left never opposed this system, never fought for a 100% professionalised staff. What is the point or technical need for the receptionist of an office to be a political nominee? None, other than buying votes and paying for favours.

This doesn’t just take place in the municipal offices of the country, but even in the
senators’ and deputies’ Legislative Work Units (UTLs). Of course the UTLs require people with technical abilities who are ideologically close to the politician, but we all know that there are people nominated as political favours to those who abuse their position as social leaders to get out that vote for a particular politician. We all know that in the UTLs, including the left wing ones, there have been very capable people who share the politicians’ ideology and also there have been fools, empty heads more interested in the soap opera or latest football match than the country’s public policies or legislation.

This vote buying is legal, normal and they all do it. It is fine to criticise the electoral campaigns of Uribe and Santos and others for vote buying, but no Colombian politician has moral authority on the issue. Some, like the right, buy votes illegally and others legally, but they all buy votes.

That is what the taxes are spent on Mrs Claudia López, and I would prefer the taxes to be spent fixing the damage caused in some student riot than lining the pockets of the inept as a payment for the votes obtained for the candidates.