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Colombia: Presidential Election and Campaigning in Citizen Media

The race to the May 30 presidential elections in Colombia (with a run-off on June 20 if no candidate manages to get more than 50% of the votes) has been marked, among other issues, by the use of internet social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (and video platforms as YouTube) by the campaigns and the supporters of most candidates (and even by those who do not support any of them).

Even though there are 9 presidential candidates [es], most of the attention has gone to Juan Manuel Santos, the candidate of the pro-Álvaro Uribe Party of the U (officially, ‘Social Party of National Unity’), and Antanas Mockus, candidate of the centrist Green Party, whose surprisingly good results on the parliamentary elections of March 14 boosted his aspirations on his race to the Casa de Nariño (the same day he won the internal election of his party, and later centrist candidate and former Mayor of Medellín Sergio Fajardo became his vice-presidential running mate). Santos has never ran as President, while Mockus (Mayor of Bogotá in two occasions) has been presidential candidate in 1998 and 2006.

Antanas Mockus and Juan Manuel Santos

Antanas Mockus and Juan Manuel Santos participating on the World Economic Forum in Latin America, May 2010 ()

Mockus’ campaign, focusing on issues such as “democratic legality” (which would be in contrast to President Uribe's “democratic security“), education, ethics, and the “sanctity” of life and public resources, has captured the attention of mostly urban young adults. They, using mainly (but not only) internet social networks, started the so-called “green wave” (ola verde) to show their support and have been trying to convince others to join and vote for the “eccentric” former director of the National University and son of Lithuanian immigrants. The strategy has been successful: Mockus started to jump in the opinion polls, by early April he was second [es] (beating Conservative Party's Noemí Sanín) and by the end of the month he became the frontrunner [es]. The campaign is even capturing the attention of those outside the country, and has been discussed by bloggers like Charles Lemos of the blog Direct Democracy writes that, “I suspect given the enthusiasm I am witnessing with the polling to support it that many if not most Colombians think I do that now is the time for a complete and radical departure even if it's not really radical what Antanas Mockus is proposing.”

Not everyone shares these views about the Green candidate. Blogger Noel Carrascal writes [es]:

El principal problema de la falta de legalidad es que la justicia está politizada, no que los Colombianos somos pillos. Como con la superioridad educativa de sus lecciones, en legalidad Mockus suena como auto-proclamado autoridad moral–se necesita más que ser honesto para llegar a ese nivel. El problema de Mockus no solo es identificar el problema sino encontrar la solución ¿Como piensa Mockus quitarle a las cortes esa ambición de poder que se hace evidente en sus prepotentes decisiones y sus intromisiones en los otros poderes? La Corte Suprema dobla las leyes para entrometerse en temas muy politizados como los procesos contra algunos congresistas y la elección del fiscal. Las cortes de Colombia están llenas de legalidad, pero también de injusticias. […] El problema principal de la legalidad no está en los colombianos, está en la forma en que se imparte justicia y como unos pocos abusan de esta.

The main problem of the lack of legality is that justice is politicized, not that we Colombians are rogues. As with the educational superiority of his lessons, when it comes to legality, Mockus sounds as a self-proclaimed moral authority, you need more than being honest to reach that level. The problem of Mockus is not only to identify the problem but finding the solution. How does Mockus think that he will take the Courts off that ambition of power which becomes evident in their arrogant decisions and their interferences with the other branches? The Supreme Court bends the laws to meddle in very politicized issues, such as the [criminal] processes against some Congresspeople and the election of the Attorney General. Colombian courts are filled with legality, but also with injustices. […] The main problem with legality is not on Colombians, it is in the way justice is served and how a few ones abuse it.

This led the Santos campaign to relaunch [es] their strategy in early May. It dropped the orange colour they had been using so far, returning to the Party of the U's visual identity, and hired Ravi Singh to lead their youth team which now focuses on the social networks. Santos’ stronghold is the rural Colombia, since more of it had benefited from the hard policy on armed groups (specially FARC and ELN guerrillas) by President Uribe, which Santos claims he will continue.

Controversy arose when it was learned that Venezuelan political marketing guru J. J. Rendón was joining the Santos campaign, because he is perceived as a “dirty politics” expert. Rumours, such as people being paid COP$40,000 a day (US$20) for leaving comments in the fora of news websites, blogs, Facebook pages and groups and Twitter, soon appeared [es] (denied by the campaign and hard to prove, despite the apparent “evidence”). When asked about a radio spot [es] which used an impersonator imitating President Uribe's voice, Santos told the media the ad “brings playfulness, joy and humor to the campaign.” [Santos used the Spanish word picardía [es], which beside ‘playfulness’ or ‘prank’ can also mean ‘mischief’ or ‘knavery’]

In the wake of these remarks, @donAlvar asks some “rhetorical” questions about the ‘mischief’ of the Uribe administration and his allies (Santos was Defense Minister between July 2006 and May 2009).

  • La contratación de criminales para traer a Rodrigo Granda de venezuela. ¿#picardía o secuestro? #
  • Las zonas francas de Mosquera ¿#picardía o peculado? #
  • El asesinato de Edwin Legarda. ¿#picardía o crimen de estado? #
  • Las reuniones de Santos con la guerrilla y los paras para bajar a Samper ¿#picardía o conspiración de golpe de estado? #
  • El bombardeo en suelo ecuatoriano. ¿#picardía o violación de soberanía? #
  • La operación Jaque ¿#picardía o violación de tratados internacionales? #
  • Mapiripán ¿#picardia o transporte de decenas de asesinos por el ejército? #
  • Los falsos positivos ¿#picardia o asesinato? #
  • La compra de la reelección ¿#picardia o soborno? #
  • El manual del DAS para hacer terrorismo de estado ¿#picardia o matoneo? #
  • Las chuzadas del DAS. ¿picardía, o presión a la oposición? #

Jaime Restrepo complains about the “dirty politics” [es], which is not exclusively against Mockus:

Esta campaña presidencial ha sido una patética muestra de la aplicación de estrategias propagandísticas malintencionadas para golpear al adversario: las vallas en Villavicencio contra Mockus, o los miles de mensajes e imágenes contra Santos, evidencian la poca altura que tiene el actual debate y el predominio del impacto publicitario sobre las propuestas y el análisis de los discursos de los candidatos.


Curiosamente los ahora furibundos detractores de la publicidad negra, o promovieron o guardaron silencio frente a la constante campaña de desprestigio contra el Presidente y en este momento quieren mostrar al sujeto de culto —Antanas Mockus— como víctima exclusiva de la propaganda negra.

A muchos les irrita J.J. Rendón, pero son benévolos y hasta complacientes con los “voluntarios” de la campaña del Partido Verde… ¡Qué coherencia!

This presidential campaign has been a pathetic show of the use of ill-intentioned propaganda strategies to hit the opponent: the billboards in Villavicencio against Mockus, or the thousands of messages and pictures against Santos, are the evidence of pretty low current debate and the predominance of the advertising impact over the proposals and the analysis of the candidates’ speeches.


Interestingly, current angry detractors of the dirty politics advertising, either promoted or kept silent regarding the constant smear campaign against the President [Uribe] and right now want to show their cult object —Antanas Mockus— as the exclusive victim of this dirty politics.

Many are upset by J.J. Rendón, but are lenient and even complacent with the “volunteers” of the Green Party campaign… Such coherence!

Still, it seems that Mr. Santos’ “counter-attack” worked, because in the polls published late last week (the last ones before the elections), the candidate of the ruling coalition recovers his first place, though followed very closely by Mockus. According to these surveys, there will be a run-off on June 20 and that Mockus will defeat Santos.

Besides, some remarks and clarifications by Mockus have turned beneficial for his opponents, especially Santos and left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro. Marsares writes in the blog Equinoxio [es]:

Cada día que pasa, cada entrevista, cada opinión del profesor Mockus muestra a un hombre abstracto y dubitativo, que comienza a gastar a manos llenas el inmenso capital político que los colombianos le entregaron

Todos tenemos derecho a equivocarnos, pero cuando esas equivocaciones son reiteradas, comienza la preocupación. ¿De verdad Mockus está preparado para gobernar un país violento y corrupto como éste o tiene razón el jubilado que lo calificó como el mejor gobernante pero para un país de ángeles?
En las últimas semanas, una tras otra, les dio la agenda a sus adversarios para que le dañaran el caminado. Extradición de Uribe, ateísmo, Chávez y alianzas. En los cuatro temas trastabilló lamentablemente […]

Every day, each interview, every opinion by professor Mockus shows an abstract, doubtful man, which starts to waste the huge political capital delivered to him by the Colombians.

Everyone has the right to make mistakes, but when those mistakes repeat over and over, concerns begin. Is Mockus really prepared to rule a violent, corrupt country like this one or is he, as a retiree who said, that [Mockus] he was the best leader for a country of angels?


In the last few weeks, one after another, he gave the agenda to his adversaries to attack him. Uribe's extradition, atheism, [Venezuelan president Hugo] Chávez, and [political] alliance. In the four issues he stumbled in a deplorable way […]

Later, Marsares explains that even though Mockus is neither an atheist nor an enemy of President Uribe, and also does not admire but “respect” Chávez's “legitimacy”, “he is so convoluted, tries so hard to explain a single thing, and to top it all is so honest that ends up creating a chaos in the message he intends to send.” Nevertheless, he criticizes Mockus for shutting the doors [es] to possible alliances with conservative Noemí Sanín or left-wing Gustavo Petro for the run-off. Liberal Party's Rafael Pardo or centre-right Germán Vargas also could ally either with Santos or Mockus.

There are dozens of Facebook groups and pages, official and unofficial, supporting or bashing the candidates, some of them with such ‘unconventional’ titles as Prefiero el Parkinson de Mockus a la gonorrea de Santos (“I prefer Mockus's Parkinson to Santos's gonorrhea”), Yo no como Mockus (“I don't eat Mockus”, a pun with Spanish word mocos, “boogers”), Las inconsistencias de Mockus (“Mockus's inconsistencies”), A que esta inerte barra de carbón consigue mas fans que Juan Manuel Santos (“I bet this inert carbon bar gets more fans than Juan Manuel Santos”), A que esta mosca tiene más seguidores que Noemí Sanín (“I bet this fly has more fans than Noemí Sanín”), Los Verdes: la nueva derecha hippie-chic (“The Greens: the new hippie-chic right-wing”), etc.

Twitter has also being used as a political tool. Though in Colombia presidential candidates started using social media in 2009, as La Silla Vacía‘s Juanita León notes [es], “they realized the investment in virtual time did not compensate efforts in the real world,” and soon dropped or campaigned less due to the low penetration of internet in Colombia (despite official figures [es] published late April). Nevertheless, this proved wrong after Mockus’ success, as written above.

Among the Colombian twittosphere, since late 2009 overtly fake profiles [es] of politicians and other influential figures have appeared, mocking them and making ironic comments about their scandals or mistakes. The list not only includes candidates as @ElFalsoPositivo (Santos) or @AnterasMickus (Antanas Mockus), but also @JOBMontesinos (former presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria), @Proc_Marianito (Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez), @JJ_Rendon (J. J. Rendón), @trollbarreras (Senator elect Roy Barreras), and, of course, @myPresident (President Uribe, whose real account is @AlvaroUribeVel).

We will publish a separate post about common Twitter users “commenting” the elections.

Mainstream candidates are not the only ones using the internet for their campaigns. For example, La Voz de la Consciencia's (sic) Róbinson Devia (who started a hunger strike in protest for the poor coverage and attention by the media to his campaign) has a comprehensive website [es] on their proposals. Devia managed to collect a million signatures for his movement and was the first candidate to sign up [es] early February. Former magistrate Jaime Araújo Rentería [es] and Apertura Liberal's Jairo Calderón [es] also have set up their websites, which include Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook accounts. Devia, Araújo, and Calderón appear with less than 2% in the opinion polls and are routinely not invited to televised debates.

Even though the campaign for the Colombian presidency started quite late because of the court ruling denying President Uribe the possibility of a third term (and his influence on the election has been waning), only the results of the elections will tell if the internet had something to do with the success or the failure of the top candidates. There is some skepticism, of course, as Messtiza points out commenting [es] a “radiography” of the candidates in cyberspace (mostly using Google Trends) by La Silla Vacía:

Muy interesante, pero en Colombia hay digiVOTOS? En la realidad el top hashtags es Pobreza, desempleo y Uribe que ha sido el top de los top durante 8 años. El top de las fuentes es la radio, porque es el medio de mayor cubrimiento en el territorio Colombiano. Para los ciudadanos que tienen conque comprar la prensa o pueden pagar n acceso a Internet la fuente principal es el Tiempo, periódico pro Santos. En la TV es Caracol, su noticiero es pro Santos. Desde la semana pasada no transmiten noticias de Noemí Sanín. En la vida real no hay buscador, no hay google que valga. La mayoría de la gente está en el país del rebusque no en el político.

Very interesting, but are there digiVOTES in Colombia? Actually the top hashtags are poverty, unemployment, and Uribe, who has been the top of the tops during 8 years. The top of the sources is the radio, because it is the medium with the biggest coverage in Colombian territory. For citizens who have the money to buy a newspaper or pay internet access, the main source is El Tiempo, a pro-Santos newspaper. On TV, it is Caracol, its newscast is pro-Santos. Since last week there have been no news about Noemí Sanín. In real life there is no search engine, there's no Google. Most people are in the country of seeking how to survive, not the political country.


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