All photos courtesy of Joseph Bouchard

Colombia is in the midst of a historic presidential election. The leading candidate, Gustavo Petro, may well be the country’s first-ever leftist president. The former M-19 guerrilla fighter-turned-economist and senator also chose environmental and Afro-Colombian rights activist Francia Márquez as his running mate, making her the first-ever Black female vice-presidential candidate in Colombia’s history. Petro’s campaign has focused on poverty-alleviation programs, reviving the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), making higher education more accessible and affordable, and an economic transition towards renewable energy.

Periodic references to the grueling results of the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, and extreme polarization have defined this election cycle, as the two leading candidates are populists on the extremes of their respective sides of the ideological spectrum.

Now in its second round, the election has also been marked by the meteoric rise of a right-wing populist candidate, business tycoon Rodolfo Hernández (better known as Rodolfo), whose entire campaign platform is focused on eradicating corruption by jailing the “100,000 thieves who have bled Colombia dry”, referring to politicians and bureaucrats throughout the country. Time-sensitive issues, including criminal armed groups, climate change, and diminishing purchasing power have been discussed by Rodolfo, though all through the angle of corruption: “When no one steals, there is enough money [to pay for social programs].”

Rodolfo has been at the center of many scandals – he has been documented making comments that support Adolf Hitler, decrying the advance of women’s political rights, facing corruption allegations, and having apparent connections to controversial former President Álvaro Uribe. Nevertheless, Rodolfo has built a strong base of supporters. The populist wave that Rodolfo and other candidates globally are riding is certainly sweeping over Colombia, as locals seek change from the right-wing elite rule that has plagued its democracy since its civil war more than half a century ago. 

Currently living in Bogotá, I have been able to witness the tense electoral campaign from the front lines. The country’s capital, itself a hub for revolutionary politics and left-wing student activism, was split between the two leading candidates on May 29th. As no candidate gained more than 50% of the popular vote, a run-off between Petro and Rodolfo will be held on June 19th. 

Inside the Polling Station in Fontibón

Fortunately, I was able to enter a polling station in the capital region to see the moving gears of Colombian democracy. I visited a polling station held at the Colegio Distrital Carlo Federici (Carlo Federici District School), a public school located in the working-class neighbourhood of Fontibón, in the east of the capital. The Colegio was converted into a polling station for the special Sunday. 

Although not a member of the Colombian electorate, I was able to enter the station and observe the election. I planned to enter two other polling stations in the neighbourhoods of Marly and Alameda but was refused entry from both due to my not being a registered voter. 

The working-class neighbourhood of Fontibón in Eastern Bogotá

Leaving my apartment in Las Cruces I got in line at the polling station in Fontibón at 8 AM, as the polls began to open. I was happily surprised to see a long line of voters already present, eagerly waiting to cast their votes. Voter turnout was high this time around at 55%, given that turnout has historically been around 45% in the first round. 

Before queuing up, voters looked at the cardboard sheets plastered on the outside of the school walls, indicating where each voter, depending on their address of residence and citizenship number (also called cédula), would be sent to vote. The voters were divided between tables (or mesas), each having a dedicated private voting booth (called cabins).

Cardboard sheet indicating the allocation of voting tables for voters according to citizenship number (cédula)

There were two lines. One for women, and one for men. The police guarding the polling station repeatedly told voters that women should go on the left, while men should stand on the right. As was explained to me by my neighbour in the voting line, the segregation is justified by the idea that female police officers (POs) should only search the women, while the male POs would search the men. 

The measure comes as a way to reduce gender discrimination and harassment, which has been endemic within the Colombian police and military after countless reports of abuse and misconduct against female civilians by state security forces. After waiting for about half an hour, I was examined by a male PO, who conducted a pat-down search and quickly looked through my phone. I was not asked to provide any documentation or information – I was let in after the search. 

Voters in line in Fontibón

I walked through the school a few times, observing the election officials, police officers, private security guards, and voters. Election officials were present at all corners of the school, watching over both police-security staff and ensuring the integrity of voting procedures at all booths and tables. Police officers and private security guards also strolled around the school, watching who enters and leaves, and ensuring no one simply walks around aimlessly or is “disrupting the electoral process” – as was told to me by one of those police officers. After walking around for an hour and taking pictures, I was asked to leave by a police officer, after which I re-entered the school again. 

Police searching voters at the entrance of the Colegio Distrital Carlo Federici

The table-allocation system, though basic, worked as intended. Voters calmly went to their assigned table. Those unable to find their assigned table asked election officials for directions, which were provided to them. Some approached police-security staff, who simply redirected them to the cardboard signs or to election officials.  

When arriving at their table, voters were asked to provide proof of identification and residence, verified by five officials. If approved, the fifth official then directed the voter to the voting booth, located in front of or beside the table. Voters were provided with a sheet and a pen, pencil, or marker. 

One of the voting tables and a private voting booth

The voting sheets had pictures of all registered presidential candidates, their vice-presidential running mates, and their respective party or coalition. Voters were instructed to cross out the candidate they wished to vote for. A “blank vote” option was also available and brought in about two percent of the popular vote this time around, or about 300,000 votes. 

Those at my polling station who chose the blank vote option were uninspired by the candidates and cited concerns regarding corruption, lack of representative democracy, and the notion that, as told to me by a member of the electorate in Fontibón, “the election is merely an exercise, those in power decide.” No write-in option was provided for those wishing to vote for those outside the registered parties and candidates.

Anyone unable or unwilling to follow these instructions would have their ballot discarded. Voting tables and booths were scattered throughout the entire Colegio. Three police officers were located at the exit to escort any wanderers and ensure no one who had already voted could not re-enter the polling station. COVID restrictions were loosely enforced in the polling station, namely mandatory masking and social distancing. 

“Protect yourself and get vaccinated. The fight against COVID-19 is still not over.”

Protecting Democracy Through Force

The police presence was palpable, as all were armed with handguns, batons, and pepper spray. Military police – equipped with assault rifles and protective gear, and followed by armoured vehicles – were dispersed throughout Bogotá and the entire country on election day, though none were at my particular polling station. Many stores, including all stores selling alcohol, were closed on government orders, and military blockades closed off main areas close to choke-points for usual demonstrations and clashes, including the Casa de Nariño Presidential Palace, the National Congress, and the National University. 

On the orders of conservative President Iván Duque, 80,000 police and military forces were deployed in-country one week ahead of the elections to protect the elections and democracy. When interviewing voters in Bogotá and neighbouring Boyacá, I found that while some were critical of the move, most deemed it necessary to protect electoral integrity, as Colombian democracy remains fragile due to the far-reaching influence and power of criminal armed groups

The move may be perceived as intimidation and reflective of the Duque government’s approach to democratic processes and institutions. Still, while the principle of protecting democracy through military force is contradictory at best, few to no violations by deployed state security forces were reported on Sunday. Predicted mass riots and clashes between police and protesters were deafened by the country’s cautious optimism for their country’s democracy. 

Police vehicle outside a polling station in Marly

What’s Next for Colombian Democracy

For the most part, the election was, as I saw in Fontibón, indicative of a messy but strong democracy, in a region sliding back towards authoritarianism. The run-off election on June 19th will prove whether the calm atmosphere and smooth reporting were an exception or a symbol of the country’s strong democracy. Whoever is crowned winner will have to face a right-wing Congress and a fragile peace with criminal-armed groups, forcing them to form alliances and confront a powerful, corrupt conservative elite still in control of most of the country’s wealth and power. 

Edited by Osama Alshantti

Joseph Bouchard

Joseph is a Senior Writer with Spheres of Influence, covering geopolitics, crime, and democracy in the Western hemisphere. He has spent over a year in Latin America, notably working as a freelance journalist...