Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement recognises the the need to address root causes of conflict in order to consolidate a stable and lasting peace in the country. One of these was the historic state abandonment, poverty and political exclusion which imposed dreadful social conditions on many communities, particularly in rural zones. To address this, the peace agreement created 16 congressional seats to provide political representation for conflict victims in some of Colombia’s poorest and most marginalised communities.
However, the creation of the 16 seats, known as Special Districts for Peace, encountered strong political opposition which prevented their enactment. They will finally become active in the 2022-26 term, with candidates from the designated regions standing for election. While their entry into congress raises hopes that historic problems in these regions will finally be addressed, aspiring candidates are reporting a series of obstacles which are impeding them from standing.
Firstly, while candidates are stipulated to receive state funding for their campaigns, they must pay a fee of close to £1,300 in order to receive this. As candidates represent some of the poorest communities in one of Latin America’s most unequal countries, this sum is far beyond the reach of most people. Communities therefore face a difficult task to put preferred candidates forward.
There are also concerns that some political groups are seeking to influence the selection process and ensure candidates are amenable to their interests. Banks have reportedly refused to open bank accounts in some cases unless candidates can demonstrate political accreditation, which has submitted them to the interests of these political actors.
Furthermore, a reported lack of voting booths in various regions makes it extremely challenging for some communities to exercise their voting rights: one community of 150 people apparently faces a 1.5 hours trip by boat either way to reach the closest voting booth, while they have not received any instructions or advice about the process. Another community is said to be five hours on horseback from a polling booth.
There are also reports that paramilitaries are demanding communities vote for specific candidates, such as in Ovejas, Sucre. Elsewhere, authorities’ refusal to recognise some victims’ organisations, such as the REDEPAZ human rights organisation, has impeded their members from standing.
Elections for the 16 seats are scheduled for 13 March. However, with the registration deadline for candidates on 13 January, fears that many communities are once again being excluded from genuine political participation appear well-founded.