The Union Patriotica (UP), a left-wing Colombian party formed in 1985 during peace talks between President Belisario Betancourt and FARC guerrillas, has regained legal status. But the political landscape has changed since the UP was barred from electoral participation in 2002, and it appears it will not be the political outlet for the rebels that it was in the 1980s and '90s.
On Tuesday, Colombia’s highest administrative court annulled a 2002 electoral court ruling preventing the UP from political participation after it was unable to present candidates that year. The decision grants the party full legal recognition, and allows it to participate in the upcoming March 2014 legislative elections.
There were mixed reactions to the development on Colombia’s left. Some, like Polo Democratico Congressman Ivan Cepeda (whose father was a UP leader killed in 1994), celebrated the news. In an interview with La FM radio, Cepeda called for the UP to serve as a banner to unite all the various left-leaning political forces in the country. Clara Lopez Obregon, the Polo’s president, has suggested a 2014 electoral alliance between the two.
But this may not be possible in today’s Colombia. La Silla Vacia notes that the UP’s emergence challenges the Polo Democratico’s hold on the left in the country. Since 1990 the Polo (a product of the demobilization of the M-19 guerrilla group) has been the only major leftist party with legal recognition, and has used this to exercise a certain control over smaller social movements which make up its base. According to the news site, now that the UP has been revived this power dynamic has shifted. These groups could potentially gain a larger say in the Polo’s affairs by threatening to support the UP instead.
It also seems that new version of the UP will not be the same party as before, which had links to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and in some cases served as the rebel group’s political mouthpiece. While the BBC describes the UP as the “FARC’s political party,” this is inaccurate. The guerrilla group has expressed eagerness to participate in democratic politics if the peace talks are successful, but the UP won’t be its main outlet, according to UP President Omel Calderon. "They [the FARC] have their own organizations with which they can do this," Calderon said in a recent interview with Semana magazine.
This is a likely reference to the Marcha Patriotica, a campesino movement which emerged in late 2012. Though its leaders deny any ties to the rebels, it is widely expected to become the FARC’s main voice in politics.
The fact that the UP will have to negotiate a new role for itself in Colombian politics is a testament to the country’s democratic progress. When the UP emerged nearly three decades ago, it was the first democratic political movement to unite the left in years. It was also a significant threat to the political establishment, dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties. This challenge to the two-party system was met with violence, and some 3,000 of its members are alleged to have been killed in a brutal paramilitary assassination campaign. As Steve Dudley writes in his book Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia:
“They were unionists, teachers, students, housewives, and children […] They'd given up on the democratic process as long as the Liberals and Conservatives dominated the government. Before the UP was founded in 1984, they'd believed all politicians were corrupt, and voting didn't seem to change this fact. But for a brief time the UP had given them hope, and many of them had returned to politics with a renewed vigor. They all paid for this choice with their lives.”
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