Thursday, 29 May 2014

The trouble with democracy

An old friend used to say that, because he has neither an interest in nor knowledge of Irish rugby, it follows that he shouldn't have any say in who the national coach is.
The trouble with democracy, in brief.
So is there a better way? (Image from

He used this as an analogy with the universal franchise; that is giving everybody over a certain age the vote. The point he was making is that there are many people out there who display no interest or have no real knowledge of politics, hence why should they automatically be allowed to participate in it? If you don't care and couldn't be bothered to inform yourself, then you shouldn't be given a vote.

However comparing a national sports team with politics isn't exactly like-for-like. Those charged with running a country or district or the like will, for better or for worse, have an impact on your life, whether you like it or not. Take no interest in the rugby team or whatever and it's unlikely that it will bother you – the odd boozy night out apart perhaps.

Yet, there still remains the question: Should you 'show yourself worthy', that is to say display sufficient knowledge, in order to be entitled to your political voice? Should there be a national political test?

In theory, something like that could work. However, deciding on its format would be troublesome. Needless to say it could be open to much manipulation by state authorities and political activists (what isn't?).

Also, when it comes to issues that affect an individual, who is to say a person's opinion is not valid just because he/she failed a 'knowledge test' in a certain area? It's a rights and responsibilities issue in a sense; you may have the right to vote (or not vote) but you should also have the responsibility to inform yourself before you do.

The idea of setting suffrage parameters is unlikely to sit well with many. The argument against it is that it may lead to an elite controlling the masses. Yet, in many 'democratic' countries that pretty much seems to be the case as is. We could just put a degree of legitimacy on it.

Plus, having a ruling elite doesn't have to be a bad thing. There are some people who are natural leaders, others who are just as happy to be led. Problems arise when those leaders don't work for the common good.

Moreover, sometimes the popular politician, elected democratically, isn't necessarily the best man/woman for the job. Just because someone or something is popular, doesn't mean he/she/it is good for you. For example, one of the most popular restaurants in the world is McDonald's. Enough said.

Democracy man: Winston Churchill.
Churchill: Democracy man, at times. (Photo:
So if you had a group of proven leaders, freed from the constraints of having to appeal to the majority insofar as making popular decisions just to stay in favour, and consequently in power, they would govern much more effectively. Or so the thinking goes.

But if you limit the franchise and decision making to a small number of 'qualified' people, can it be guaranteed that you're going to get the right leadership and government each and every time? Obviously not.

Political 'aptitude tests' aside, it could be argued that through political disengagement in many more-established democratic countries, especially among younger voters, a small group of generally elder citizens is calling the shots anyway.

Here in Colombia, anecdotally speaking, this appears to be the case. Not only that, but it also seems that many of these elder voters come from well-heeled, conservative backgrounds, quite removed from the lives of the country's struggling masses. Thus Colombian politics, at least at national level, follows a very predictable pattern. Plus ça change. For some that's good, for many others it's not.

That being said, the inherent problems with democracy and universal suffrage apart, it's about the best we've got for now.

Britain's former prime minister Winston Churchill caught the paradox of it well. “The best argument against democracy”, he said, “is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Yet, he also mused: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Like everything in life where there's a choice, sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. Even that, of course, is subjective. It is nice to have it though.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Four more years: The least worst option?

Right. The time for posturing and talking is almost over. We've known the participants for some time, now we're about to find out which one has what it takes to go all the way. Most of us, more or less, have a pretty decent idea of who the genuine contenders are versus the no-hopers, but in these final days minor hiccups could have a detrimental effect on the eventual outcome. Nobody can take anything for granted.
Colombia's presidential election 2014: A shoot-out between Santos and Zuluaga?
So, is it to the right or to the not so right? (Photo from

Yes, it certainly promises to be some spectacle in neighbouring Brazil when the World Cup kicks-off next month. But before we become engrossed in that, there is the 'small', more imminent matter of Colombia's presidential election to keep us semi-entertained.

In fact, it's pretty much assured that the Colombian electorate will be asked to go the polls twice before it knows who its new top man is (for, if the opinion polls are to believed and barring some almighty surprise, it's going to be a man). That's because the incumbent seeking re-election, Juan Manuel Santos, has let what was by all accounts a rather healthy lead at the beginning of the year slip as polling day (May 25) approaches. Thus none of the five candidates is set to get more than the 50 per cent of votes required to win without the need for a second round.

Santos' nearest challenger has turned out to be, somewhat surprisingly, the Centro Democrático's (Democratic Centre that is; but generally more right of centre) Óscar Iván Zuluaga. His surge in popularity has been surprising given the fact that a few months ago the running joke was that when he arrived home each evening, the security guards at his apartment complex had to ask him for ID because he was so unknown.*

However a mixture of the Centro Democrático getting its political machine into gear and some Santos failings has seen the gap between the two close considerably. On the former, the presence of the divisive yet still hugely popular figure for some, ex-president Álvaro Uribe, has been a major help. A dollop of hacking also seems to have worked wonders. Indeed, in what could be seen as a measure of the pigheadedness of  many Centro Democrático supporters, the sight of Zuluaga 'talking business' with a hacker about delivering a blow to Santos doesn't appear to have done him much harm (see

For his own part, how the current president handled – or not as it appeared to be – the what-turned-out-to-be-temporary sacking of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro was problematic. His lack of leadership in what was a farcical period in Colombian politics has left people from all sides questioning his ability to govern.

In a contest where there is no stand out choice, small things matter.

It's also effectively a first-past-the-post system. The stipulation that there must be a second vote between the top two candidates should no one receive more than 50 per cent first time out is just a delay on that. So bearing in mind the conservative nature of Colombia's electorate (those who vote that is anyway), reflected in the opinion polls, this election is a straight shoot-out between Santos and Zuluaga.

President Santos on the campaign trail.
President 'As Cool as it Gets for Now'? (Photo:
The others at this stage are just also-rans. In any case, the only one who is arguably offering any real alternative to the type of president Colombia has consistently returned is the (mild) leftist Clara López. The rest are very much 'as you were' with really only superficial differences.

Thus, Colombia, is it to be four more years of the 'devil you know', best described, at a push, as steady? Or do you go with the slightly unknown, but of the arrogant, brash Uribe school and party, Zuluaga?

Now the argument can be made, with reason, that all in the running have Uribe links (as mentioned, for some Colombians that's a good thing). Even 'the darling of the left' López is tainted in this regard; and in a much more intimate way than the other candidates.

But old romances apart, the Zuluaga ticket represents the most potent political link to Uribe. In power, that basically means more division and discord, much less consensus.

Santos' decision to open up peace talks with the country's guerillas – the inherent problems in them apart – shows he is willing to compromise and make sacrifices. After more than 50 years of internal, zero-sum strife, 'the exterminate rather than communicate' line still favoured by many in the Uribe faction needs readdressing.**

There is also the theory that a second and final term president has a little more freedom and can be more daring when released from the re-election straitjacket. Perhaps the best is yet to come from Santos?

Finally, taking it as a given that this election really is just a Santos-Zuluaga head-to-head, there is another strong reason to opt for Santos first up. The date for the second round, should it be required, is fixed for the weekend Colombia gets its World Cup campaign under way. And with elections here comes the 'dreaded' Ley Seca ('Dry Law' i.e. a ban on selling alcohol).

Perish the thought of having to watch the opening salvoes in Brazil from the mundaneness of an apartment.

Colombia, the choice is yours.
*See the earlier Colombia's presidential election: The candidates (and their Irish 'equivalents') for a more of an 'understanding' of all the hopefuls.

**For more on the peace talks, check out An unwanted peace?

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Colombian Nazi delusion

Have you heard the one about the Colombian Nazis? No? Well, somewhat worryingly, it's not actually a joke. In this land of incredulous contradictions, there exists a rather confused bunch of adherents to the Adolf Hitler branch of fascism.

Even Peru has got in on the Nazi act.
Latinos go Nazi. (Picture from

Perhaps they were missing the day when Nazi eugenics policy was explained in history class – that's if they went to school at all of course. For needless to say that if Hitler and his cronies were around today, Latinos wouldn't exactly be their idea of people worth supporting. In a Nazi dominated world, not just having the movement's support would be the least of their worries though, you'd imagine.

Yet racism is alive and well in these parts. I know a number of, lets say 'well-coloured' locals, who would move if a black person sat beside them on a bus or wherever. The thing is, in some parts of the world these same well-coloured folk could be prejudiced against just because of their appearance. If only we could all see the bigger picture.*

But hey, in a country where anything with just the appearance of being to the left of the political spectrum is despised by many, the Nazis vehemently anti-Communist stance is more than agreeable. Reaching out to find common ground with people who might like to exterminate you; how commendable. (Let's just not mention the whole Aryan issue.) Not only that, but the hatred of capitalism – tied up with anti-Semitism – espoused by leading Nazis also fits in well with our Colombian fascists. A not too neutral syncretism you might say.

However, herein lies another contradiction. You see many of these Colombian Nazis support the country's paramilitaries, or paracos as they're not very affectionately called. And where have these paracos looked for (and found) support in their bid to rid Colombia of the leftist threat? Why that bastion of capitalism the United States of America.
The swastika: A symbol of good or bad, or both?
Bargain swastikas.

Indeed, the 'doyen' of the Colombian paramilitary, the late Carlos Castaño, was enamoured of the U.S. and apparently had aspirations to live there. He once remarked: “I've always considered the U.S. as a nation that has worked as the police of the world, that keeps an eye out so nothing happens to it.”** Moreover, he received training from mercenaries in Israel; skills he brought back to Colombia with deadly results.

Yet some of the Nazis/paracos I've had the 'pleasure' of encountering, most recently in a downtown Bogotá tienda, one that has coincidently but innocently been named 'Nazi bar' (see Bogotá's simple pleasures II as to why that is), are not exactly following the Castaño line when it comes to the U.S. Well, they actually take the complete opposite view. 'Gringos go home' is more their approach. Oh aren't we so terribly confused?

Though in this land of contradictions and flaky reasoning, it's par for the course. 'Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer'; we're just not sure which 'one' that is.

*The 'extranjero-files' – that is, not a xenophobe looks at the racism topic in more detail.

**Quote taken from: Dudley, Steven. Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia. New York, Routledge, 2006, p. 201.