Since the mid-nineteenth century, the most consistent features of Colombia's political system have been the elitism and dualism of party politics. Elites from the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL) and the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC), which in 1987 changed its name to the Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador--PSC), have dominated the nation's political institutions. Consequently, the majority of Colombians had little input in the political process and decision making. The formation of the life-long party loyalties and enmities of most Colombians traditionally began at an early age. Campesinos adopted the party affiliations of their master or patron (patrón). Being a Liberal or a Conservative was part of one's family heritage and everyday existence. During the period of la violencia, party membership was sufficient reason to kill or be killed. Families, communities, and regions have identified with one or the other party. The PL traditionally dominated, the main exception being the period of Conservative hegemony from 1886 to 1930. For most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives have been able to gain power only when the Liberal vote was split.
Until the 1957 Sitges and San Carlos agreements, the parties had consistently used the perquisites of government to create and maintain popular support through a patronage relationship with members. The party that won an election rewarded party members by appointing them to public positions or by funding special projects. The party in power controlled the national budget, government jobs, and most of the economy. The party out of power did not necessarily lose support, however, because unemployed members in need of assistance often had nowhere else to go other than to the local party boss, who was usually a large landowner.
The cohesiveness of Colombia's nineteenth-century-style parties depended more on traditional patron-client ties than on elaborate organization. Party structures were complex, informal, and weakly institutionalized, extending vertically from the national to the local level. The two parties were multiclass (policlasista) alliances traditionally capable of high levels of mobilization at election time. Nevertheless, they were not genuinely mass parties that served to integrate individuals and groups into the politics of the nation. Members of the elite held all national leadership positions. The Liberals and Conservatives have continued to shape the traditional pyramidal structure of Colombian society as a whole by thwarting the emergence of modern parties organized around common socioeconomic interests.
Support for the two parties stemmed from traditional loyalties and identifications, rather than organizational activity and ideological or class differences, and required mobilization at the local level. In the larger cities, the parties were detached from any popular base. As a result, opinion polls indicated that party identification in the larger cities was beginning to diminish in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The two major parties were confederations based on regional party organizations headed by, and dependent on, the gamonales, who acquired their positions through birth or connections with the wealthy and prestigious families that made up the national party leadership. Although the gamonales retained their positions through personal loyalties, their role diminished somewhat as the country became more urban and literate. Nevertheless, local leaders acted as power brokers by trading votes and electoral support for programs from the national government.
The highly personalized nature of Colombia's political culture resulted from the patronage and brokerage patterns that were dependent on the subordination and loyalty of the lower classes. The elites felt that government leadership should be the prerogative of a paternalistic upper class, whose members made decisions and cared for the nation and its people. Within these elites, loyalties were as much to one's class as to the nation. Acceptance of paternalism by the lower classes, however, eroded further in the 1970s.
The political parties reinforced the traditional attitudes by demanding and receiving intense loyalty from their members in exchange for favors granted by the parties and party leaders. The National Front modernized the party system by institutionalizing elections, a mass base, and special representation for youth, women, and labor. Nevertheless, the front merely limited the traditional aspects of party structure, such as the gamonales and personal ties. Observers noted that the National Front arrangement closed off access to political power to all the forces not aligned with the traditional bipartisan structure.
Despite their similar moderate and elitist orientations, ideological differences existed between the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Liberal Party was oriented toward urban areas, industrialization, and labor; it was also more pro-welfare state and anticlerical, and less private property-oriented than the Conservative Party. The latter had its greatest support in rural areas and favored the military, large landowners, and the Roman Catholic Church. The Liberals traditionally carried almost all of Colombia's significant cities, although the Conservatives' percentage of the urban vote increased in the 1980s. Until the May 1986 elections, the notable exception was the Conservative and industrial department of Antioquia. Another exception was Bogotá in the 1978 presidential election, when Betancur, a Conservative, won a plurality in that city.
In general, each party had interests and support among groups and classes associated with the other. The memberships of both parties included merchants, landowners, professionals, peasants, artisans, and workers. Interparty differences were largely personal, political, and pragmatic. For example, Liberal Party membership was more upwardly mobile than that of the urban Conservative members traditionally derived from old families of high social status. Of the two parties, the Conservatives had a more effective hierarchical structure at the regional and municipal levels.
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