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A Not So Secret Ballot

By
August 15, 2010

After two rounds of presidential voting, Colombia inaugurated “the warrior,” Juan Manuel Santos, last week. Did the country avoid the voter fraud so prevalent in Latin America? A from-the-ground report.

Radio stations in Colombia play the national anthem every morning at dawn. Former Colombian President Ernesto Samper began the policy in 1995, after the public learned that he had accepted illicit campaign funds from drug traffickers. This year on Election Day, May 30th, stations played the extended version which contains the line “good grows from painful furrows.” For the election, the Mission for Electoral Observation (MOE) had come to Colombia to ensure that good did just that.

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MOE was created in 2006, the same year the paramilitary group AUC (United Self-Defense Forces) signed an agreement with the government to disarm. President Alvaro Uribe had just won a highly controversial second term claiming to have the leftist guerrilla groups beaten. A decade of conflict appeared to be over.

Since then it has became a trusted voice in the country’s electoral process. During the congressional elections in March of this year, MOE observers reported voting fraud from the Amazon to the Guajira desert peninsula nearly two thousand kilometers to the north. Thanks to the detailed reports MOE publicized immediately afterward, several scandals were exposed, the greatest of which involved the purchase of eight seats in congress by Enilce Lopez, aka “La Gata,” a flamboyant businesswoman who owns a massive legal gambling operation that places bets on the outcomes of other lottos.

After a third term for President Alvaro Uribe—perhaps the most popular president in Colombian history—was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this February, six presidential hopefuls began mounting campaigns. Initially, most polls predicted a close race between the left-leaning Green Party and Uribe’s pragmatic, conservative party “la U.” Determining the validity of the presidential primary campaign would be a great challenge for MOE, perhaps their greatest since its inception.

The Green Party candidate, Antanas Mockus, a philosophy professor of Lithuanian descent, made his name as two-time mayor of Bogotá. With a mix of semiotics and post-modern urban design theory, he reinvented the crumbling capital. To reduce nocturnal violence, in 2001 he began a city-wide “ladies night,” encouraging men in the city to abstain from its typically marathon-like night life. In 1995 he distributed thumbs-up and thumbs-down cards, encouraging bogotanos to rate civic behavior as it occurred on the street. He designed the train-bus hybrid Transmilenio, a cheap and quick solution to massive congestion. In short, Mockus made life in Bogotá bearable, if not quite pleasant.

The “U” candidate, Juan Manuel Santos, had been the Defense Minister during Uribe’s second term. After an unprecedented increase in military spending—thanks to U.S. aid—Santos was able to update a sluggish, outdated military. With secured roads and air support supplied by American-donated Black Hawk Harpy helicopters, Santos was able to command a missile strike that killed one of FARC’s (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) top commanders, and later rescue hostages kidnapped by the leftist guerrilla group—something that no previous administration had been able to do.

Many argued that Mockus was too much of a cosmopolitan for the largely agrarian country.

Others said his gestures while in office as mayor were bull-headed and solipsistic; traits some feared could lead the country to war against traditional rival Venezuela, a fear magnified now by the unpredictable tactics of Hugo Chavez. Meanwhile, Santos had just been implicated in a nefarious massacre. Following a decision to award bonuses to soldiers for insurgent kills, a group of soldiers lured in impoverished urban youth with the promise of work, murdered them, dressed them in fatigues, and claimed their bonus.

It was the wizard, Mockus, or the warrior, Santos. In a tight primary race, every vote would count in determining between these two very different possibilities for Colombia’s future.

After four years in Colombia, having abstained from voting in the United States most of my adult life, I suddenly wanted to be a part of an election. As I didn’t plan on leaving the country, this election would be as much mine—if not more so—than the Obamania I missed. I considered asking someone to vote for my choice in Colombia, in exchange for my vote in the 2014 elections in the United States. I thought about supporting a campaign. In the end, I thought that embedding with MOE was the easiest way in.

Colombia has never had a military dictator or hosted a bloody coup d’etat. Fear of military intervention in government comes last on a list of political concerns.

Although staffed mostly by Colombians, MOE depends on international volunteers to ensure its objectivity. Foreigners from El Salvador to the Netherlands had come to decide if what they had heard were the most exciting presidential elections in Latin America since Peru in 2001, were also its fairest.

On the Friday before elections Carlos Santana, founder of MOE, led a twelve-hour workshop for foreign observers in the Medical Club, a former country club for doctors, located in the ritzy Rosales district. The observers sat around a long U-shaped table covered with a white table cloth. Electric candelabras lined the brick walls adding an orange hue to the dim, rainy afternoon.

Santana, thirty-five, began by describing the kinks observers should expect: “It might happen that someone says you shouldn’t be on the premises, like the police, or the military. If so, just calmly walk out and report them afterward.”

One international observer interrupted. “Shouldn’t we be worried about soldiers in the polling stations?” she asked. Santana responded as though the entire group had asked it, “Remember that in Colombia, because of the civil conflict, the military is seen as a guarantee of clean elections.”

Surprisingly, in its two hundred year history, Colombia has never had a military dictator or hosted a bloody coup d’etat. Fear of military intervention in government comes last on a list of political concerns. Much more disconcerting is paramilitary or guerrilla activity that has made the armed police in polling stations a necessary evil.

“Also, keep in mind some authorities still don’t know about MOE,” he said. Several hotspots in the armed conflict “said that they would send a list of our names to all of the districts, but that didn’t happen, so they don’t even know that we’ll be going,” Santana said with a wry smile.

Santana was not being flip but he couldn’t hide his mordant sense of irony. He has seen that, as he told me, “Anything can happen in an election.”

“This is when things can heat up,” he warned.

Next he explained the ballot. In Colombia, voters mark their votes in pen, then seal the ballot in an envelope and drop it into a box.

A Power Point slide showed a ballot with “Thieves” written across all the candidates’ faces.

“You might see one like this. It clearly doesn’t count,” Santana explained.

Nicolas Montoya, a co-founder and spokesperson for the organization demonstrated by tossing the ballot box on the floor.

Yes, he did say count. Each vote will be counted out loud. A witness from each party is permitted to watch.

“This is when things can heat up,” he warned. “You might hear shouting, people speaking out of turn. A party’s electoral witnesses might be thrown out for disturbing the count. And they can be removed. That’s in part why you’re there as an impartial observer.”

Since international observers are supposedly the most neutral, their eyes would be essential to MOE’s report on the election’s fairness.

After a week of rain, the sky on Election Day was blue and cloudless. Sun poured over the green mountains at Bogotá’s fringe. Voters could not use the rain as an excuse to stay home.

Electoral observers, grouped by last name, waited in vans outside of MOE’s headquarters, one floor of an aging office building in Bogotá’s quaint Teusaquillo district. Last names G through S, a group of mostly women, was headed to the capital’s poorest areas, to survey five polling stations where fraud was expected.

Laura Villalba, the group coordinator—and as such exempt from the alphabetization—was fine with her potentially vulnerable group. Having monitored elections all over Latin America, she appeared to be surprised by nothing and scared by even less. From Paraguay, she now lives in Washington, D.C., where she works as a human rights consultant.

“I specialize in gender rights,” she explained before a bus full of female observers.

Villalba’s co-coordinator Caroline McDermott was a Fulbright scholar studying “the public library system as a form of social inclusion.” She was enthusiastic, inquisitive, and clearly very bright. Originally from suburban Colorado, in a few months she’d mastered Bogotá’s massive and tortuous grid, where street numbers often defy numerical order.

In between tropical pop songs, the radio DJ encouraged listeners to “Get out there and vote.” But, like the bus, the streets were quiet, almost empty, except for a few colorful buses and the occasional boxy yellow cab.

Seeing his hesitance the bald man walked over to him and pointed to the candidate the senior was to vote for, then got back in line.

The bus stopped near Plaza Bolivar—the Colombian equivalent of Capitol Hill—where, like the francophile “Liberator” it was named after, nearly all the buildings mimic the architecture of Republican France. Under the archways, impromptu polling stations had been erected and lines of voters waited to be frisked by police in bright green jackets. In the middle of the baroque plaza hundreds of policemen, batons in hand, stood alongside a stiff marching band.

Bogotá’s mayor Samuel Moreno dashed out, with a minister, to sing the national anthem, raise the flags, and open the polls. The sun had passed the tip of the green mountains and forced the posing politicians to squint. Snipers were flat shadows on the surrounding rooftops.

Villalba pointed out a gray-haired man in a suit talking on a cell phone. “That’s head of Voter Registry,” she whispered. “Whatever little bullshit comes up just call me,” he said to what I assume to be someone from the Registry. Surrounded by politicians on a sunny day, it was hard to believe that eight years ago the leftist guerrilla group FARC had launched a mortar attack right next to where we were standing. It killed twenty-one people and wounded more than sixty.

Five minutes away from Plaza Bolivar, in las Cruces, the MOE observers waited in line to enter the polling station. A police commander introduced himself and shook their hands, having spotted their white T-shirts and passes.

“It seems the phone lines were cut at some point last night,” he said, motioning to the mess of black wires sprouting out from the wall.

The observers noted this, while he glanced nervously over their shoulders. Without phone lines there would be no Internet, something a registry official would need in order to verify what tables voters should cast their vote at. As a result some votes could be lost.

In the school’s courtyard, white tents had been set up over state provided cardboard dividers adjacent to the tables with ballots, pens, and bored registry officials fiddling with their cellphones.

After flag-raising, protesting, and police marching in Plaza Bolivar, this station in las Cruces seemed like a let down. The observers wanted to see some action, but aside from a ceramic statue of the Virgin in the courtyard, there were few signs of anything extraordinary, until some strange behavior was spotted at a nearby polling station

“See the guy in the black jacket at the end of the line,” Villalba, the group coordinator indicated a bald, pot-bellied man at the end of a line of six men waiting to get a ballot. Leaning on the adjacent white divider, an elderly man stared at the ballot, a pen in his hand. Seeing his hesitance the bald man walked over to him and pointed to the candidate the senior was to vote for, then got back in line.

“He’ll wait until everyone finishes,” Villalba said. And she was right. He did. This was a caudillo, someone who buys votes in return for favors. This caudillo finally voted himself. We could see he voted for Santos, which also indicated a lack of privacy. The observers could only report the irregularity and MOE would include it in their press release. Irregularities happen all the time, and they don’t necessarily discredit an entire election.

Usme was a town before Bogotá engulfed it and transformed the grassy moor into a nest of crooked streets, chicken joints, and pool halls. Its streets smelled of bus exhaust and sweet bread. Through the bus windows the observers watched troops in hard helmets, harnessing machine guns patrol the unpaved streets.

It became clear the police and the registry were outnumbered and maybe even out-reasoned. The commander stormed off in silence. The observers had won.

At one polling station there the group found itself with a local contingent of MOE, all of them students. From the way they looked at our global coalition, you could tell they’d never been far from this rural section of metropolis.

The MOE observers were inspecting the station when a commotion erupted. A registry official would not allow the observers to speak with voters, something they were required to do. When the registry official finally asked one of the observers not to, Villalba got involved knowing that this young woman in the green vest, the registry official, was not an expert; like jury duty in the United States, Colombians are called to work for the registry, as was this young woman now questioning MOE observers.

“We’re international observers, we can talk to the voters,” Villalba explained to her, before turning to the local observer group and yelling, “Keep doing your jobs.”

McDermott, the other group coordinator, told the young woman from the registry that they were not only allowed, but were obligated to speak with voters. The young woman wouldn’t have it and soon her own back-up arrived, a hefty female commander of police. Now it was the registry and the police versus the observers.

The commander stared at Villalba through her sunglasses, her hands on her hips and “Alright, you all need to leave now.” This was absurd, but at least now they were fighting for something.

Mellander, a red-headed Swedish woman with the observation group, cocked her head in puzzlement. On Training Day, the observers were told that if they were asked to leave, they should leave. A stickler for rules, Mellander wouldn’t even talk to me because MOE had told the volunteers not to speak with press on Election Day. Now she seemed leery of Villalba’s dissidence.

Arguing descended to shouting and I began to wonder just how legal it was of even me to be there. Perhaps this had all been a bad idea. One of the young Colombian observers from Usme, Harry Villar, tried addressing the police commander, casually placing his arm on her shoulder. Meanwhile, the official representative from the registry, whose job it was to run the station, watched the whole thing a few feet away. Perhaps he was intimidated by the group coordinators. Perhaps he didn’t care enough to get involved.

Villalba certainly cared. “We are international observers and we have a right to be here,” she yelled.

It became clear the police and the registry were outnumbered and maybe even out-reasoned. The commander stormed off in silence. The observers had won.

On their way back to the bus Villalba reassured the group, “If these people want to talk to us like that, we’ve got to talk to them like brutes. That’s the only way they’ll listen. That’s what they’re used to.”

Nearly six-four with an athletic build, Antanas Lukavskis hardly fit into his MOE t-shirt. The twenty-something from the Chamber of Commerce was also the only Colombian amongst our group of observers, which meant he could vote. Since the polls forecasted a tight election, McDermott along with Villalba decided he should cast his ballot. The group rushed to get him to the polls before they closed at four.

The group joked about buying Antanas Lukavskis’ vote with lunch. When I asked Villalba if that really happened, she nodded, “It’s that or a bag of rice, some meat, anything really.”

McDermott called their director Maria Lucia Vidart to tell her the observers wouldn’t make it to the last station. They were now foregoing monitoring to get Lukavskis to the polling station where he was registered.

The six-lane street we drove up filled with tiny puddles after the backdrop of gray clouds finally revealed heavy rain. After a half hour in the bus with McDermott directing the driver, Villalba spotted police barricades that suggested a polling station. Using his observer pass Antanas Lukavskis slipped past the line of wet voters. Villalba followed him in. Once inside the station a Green Party election witness started begging them for help. The clean-shaven man, in a black leather jacket and jaffa scarf, was the party witness Santana had warned the observers about on Training Day.

“You don’t understand what’s going on here,” the witness said, looking over his shoulder every so often. “I saw this man come in taking pictures, when the police told him to stop, it turned out he had a fake ID. It didn’t match his name.”

A stocky police officer with glasses pulled the witness to the side to speak with the observers directly.

“The man has been prosecuted. There’s no need for worry,” the officer said.

“That’s not true,” the witness shouted from behind.

Antanas Lukavskis came back and let out an enthusiastic, “I did it” but a tense situation was brewing.

“We’re going to talk with him outside,” Villalba told the commander and left. The Green Party witness scurried out with her. The witness’s story was hardly coherent. He seemed delusional.

I saw a bumper sticker on an SUV that read, “I voted Santos and they didn’t pay me.”

“I’m a human rights lawyer and know my rights. Did you see him put his hands on me? That’s illegal,” the party witness explained. The policeman’s aggressiveness was frightening. At least he had stopped. That seemed to justify why any of us were there.

He went on, “I’ve got people following me.” He told the story overwhelmed with paranoia, the rain drops sliding down his face, a thick gray fog over the mountaintops behind him. “I’m going back in,” he said, trembling. “You can’t take the will from a volunteer,” he said before going back into the station.

Some sixteen million people voted, according to MOE, the largest turnout for a primary race in Colombia’s history. In comparison to the legislative elections, these were a drastic improvement. Sure there were reports of bought votes, a few stations in the more turbulent south attacked by FARC, but overall there was transparency. In the end, MOE deemed it a clean and efficient election, despite fifty-four official complaints, including the one filed by my group about the caudillo. Votes were counted and tallied in only three hours: a new record for Colombia.

On Wednesday representatives double-checked votes alongside the party witnesses who would make sure each of their party’s votes were counted. The results were verified: 46 percent Santos, 21 percent Mockus. The other four candidates received around ten percent each. The race was nowhere near as close as most polls predicted. Although Juan Manuel Santos, the Defense Minister, won by a wide margin, he hadn’t won over 50 percent of the total votes. This meant that there would be another election to determine which of the two top winners would become president. Typically candidates seek out endorsement from the losing political parties. Mockus, however, announced that he would not accept any political alignments, and instead focus his campaign on the thirty million who chose not to vote.

Mockus was changing. After the elections that Sunday night, he seemed dumbfounded by the crushing defeat. At a speech, his supporters, holding sunflowers in their hands, chanted for fifteen minutes before Mockus could get out a word. Unsure of what to do, Mockus tried to chant along with them in a deep baritone voice. Afterward, he said the sort of things a politician says when in a close-but-no-cigar position: they were going to win; that day was historic; they are going to change the future. Then a chant rose up, “I came to vote because I wanted to, not because they paid me.”

Despite MOE’s ruling, rumors continued to circulate about bought votes. I saw a bumper sticker on an SUV that read, “I voted Santos and they didn’t pay me.”

Thanks to MOE’s reputation as an unbiased third party, there was no legal question as to whether the former defense minister Santos had won.

Juan Manuel Santos supporters celebrated that Sunday night, while the defeated took down the posters from their windows and cut the bracelets off their wrists. The party was over for a long time to come.

G

Jesse Tangen-Mills is a writer living in Bogotá.

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