Colombia: Degraded Presidential Campaigns Offer No Real Debate

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - May 20, 2014, 12:55 pm

EspañolDuring the ongoing presidential election campaigns in Colombia, there have been calls for a real debate on the issues rather than personal confrontation between the candidates. However, these calls miss the point, since this confrontation is not due to a lack of alternative ideas, but the inevitable consensus among those competing to take the reigns of the executive.

The campaign has become a sorry spectacle of lies, accusations, and counter-accusations. The two leading candidates, incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos, and the representative of former President Álvaro Uribe Velez, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, have been locked in a terrible spiral of scandal (see here and here). It has reached the point where it seems as if the whole thing isn’t about a presidential election at all, but a contest to determine which of these individuals has the most elaborate criminal record. The other candidates continue to try to present their own proposals within the few spaces to which they have access. And in the middle of all this, we have the public, mesmerized by the carnage and further polarized, left to choose who to hate and who to defend.

In short, the degradation of the campaign results from the fact that there are no major differences in the ideas the candidates advocate. They are all statists, in one form or another. That is not to say that every candidate proposes exactly the same thing, but rather that each of the proposals reflect varying degrees of statism from which Colombians will be made to choose.

Of course, Colombia is hardly the only country in the world where this situation exists. This is, however, a prototypical case that demonstrates why politics is an obstacle to overcoming social problems, if not the cause for their very existence and persistence over time.

The statism of which I speak is displayed, for example, in the way that every candidate sees himself as an agent of change, progress, and renewal. Each contestant believes that education and health care will improve with him at the helm. That he will overcome the problems associated with poverty and achieve economic development. Each of them have ignored — either by choice or lack of knowledge — that each and every citizen is an agent of change in his own life, and that when they enjoy real freedom, they make their own decisions to pursue their own individual goals.

This ignorance leads to one of the worst expressions of statism: politicians who think they are indispensable. For Juan Manuel Santos, there can be no peace without him. For Oscar Iván Zuluaga, the war cannot be won without him. For Enrique Peñalosa, of the Green Alliance, the quality of education will not improve without him, and the country will never have developed cities. For Clara Lopez, of the Democratic Pole, without her there will be no justice or social development (without discussing what this might actually mean). They do not understand — whether through arrogance or megalomania — that every social phenomenon is the result of multiple, complex causes that no human being can control or deliberately manipulate.

Not one of the presidential candidates thinks that the state should be limited. What we have are different proposals on how to spend the resources that we all provide as citizens to the government. We are presented with choices on who should benefit from these resources, which industries to protect, and what new regulations, prohibitions, and limitations on freedom to impose. All this is done from what they consider to be their throne, in the same style of the old monarchies and authoritarian regimes that are still among us.

The situation is such that of all the candidates, not one advocates for maintaining a policy of free trade and the legalization of drugs. As I said previously, each of their proposals, rather, only show varying degrees of statism.

Therefore, there are no real debates. The candidates on display for Sunday’s election do not advocate different ideas. They only promote their own personal interest: power for power’s sake. They promote the irresponsible management of resources that do not belong to them in the first place, and impose their values, preferences, and objectives on the citizenry. That is why we are left with personal confrontations, attacks, and counter-attacks.

What is worse is that the people generally go along with these wrong-headed ideas. The chosen candidate will be the one who proposes what the majority considers the most adequate prohibitions, and the one who best succeeds in creating the illusion that he will distribute resources left and right, without regard to their source or who it punishes. All of this without any regard to whatever means they used to achieve power. As it seems to be the preference of Colombian voters, the elected candidate will be the one who screams the loudest, carries out the dirtiest campaign, and appears to be the most paternalistic of all.

I hope I’m wrong, but it seems that after next Sunday, we will have a second round of voting in which serious issues, like the growth and persistence of statism, will be eclipsed by more scandals that border on criminality. Colombians will continue believing that a messiah will one day arrive to improve their lives, without realizing that not only do these messiahs not exist, those who claim to be are precisely the ones who have caused the degradation of politics today.

Translated by Alan Furth.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.