By Margaret Janelle R. Hutchinson
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Serving members of Colombia’s police and military forces may gain the right to vote in elections if the constitutional amendment proposed by Senate Vice President Edgar Espindola Niño is adopted.
Citizens serving in the public armed forces have been denied the vote for the past 50 years, a legacy of President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-1946 / 1958-1962) who famously cast Colombia´s armed forces as “guarantors of democracy.” Neutrality was expected of these guardians.
Espindola and others who support the proposal argue that Colombia has changed dramatically over the past five decades and that the members of the military and police should be able to cast their ballots like every other Colombian citizen. Though there would remain certain restraints on their political activity.
The proposal states: “Los miembros de la Fuerza Pública podrán ejercer la función del sufragio mientras permanezcan en servicio activo, pero no podrán intervenir en actividades o debates de partidos o movimientos politicos.”
This roughly translates to: Members of the public armed forces may engage in the act of voting while on active duty, but may not take part in activities or discussions of political parties or political movements.
Those who oppose the initiative, say that Colombia´s democracy is not ready for this change; that the possible abuses of power are too great. They fear that allowing the near 460,000 active forces the vote could distort the electoral process.
They claim that the hierarchical nature, size, and “ideological cohesion” of the military would render it a political force unto itself, greater than any other political party or movement. Specifically, there is a fear that the chain of command would dictate to subordinates how to cast their votes.
The language of the proposal makes clear that, legally, officers would not be able to participate in campaigning, but some level of trust would need to be placed in service members’ capacity to act independently inside the voting booth.
Should the current peace process between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) culminate in a legitimate peace agreement, senior military officials are concerned about becoming targets of FARC political action in a post-conflict state.
The demobilized FARC forces would be reintegrated into Colombian society, and, as citizens, would trade the power of the gun for the power of the vote.
Both the FARC and the military have committed atrocities during the five-decades long conflict. The military fears that even if amnesties are granted, their amnesties may end up revoked once the former FARC rise to political power.
Retired Colonel Hugo Bahamon recently stated, “Look at what has happened in Argentina and Chile, where, 20 years on, the guerrillas who threatened the state are in power, amnesties have been overturned and now [former soldiers] of 70 and 80 years of age are being imprisoned.”
To Colonel Bahamon and the rest of the military and police forces, gaining the vote would provide an additional security guarantee to avoid the path of their South American counterparts.
For further information, please see:
Colombia Reports – Colombia’[s] Police and Military to get the vote? – 4 November 2012
NACLA – The Military’s Human Rights Record and the Peace Process in Colombia – 3 November 2012
BBC – Colombia’s military faces challenges over peace talks – 24 October 2012
El Espectador – Fuerzas Militares quedarían facultadas para votar – 24 October 2012