The Green Party in Colombia

A Hope for Healthy Politics

The Green Party in Colombia : A Hope for Healthy Politics - Jimena Serrano


This paper analyses to what extent the Green party challenged traditional political practices that have driven Colombian politics for more than a century. It argues that the Green Party’s presidential campaign for the elections held in 2010 constitutes a significant advance towards the strengthening of Colombian democracy. The Green Party focused on fighting clientelism and involving the citizens as agents of its campaign. However, the weak presence of the Green Party in the rural areas as well as its lack of experience in dealing with the press led to its defeat.


By May 2010, during the presidential pre-election period, a common joke among Colombian social circles was: “You can’t fight the FARC with sunflowers!”1 the statement originated from supporters of Juan Manuel Santos, the presidential candidate for the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional (U Party), whose main appeal was the continuation of Alvaro Uribe’s policy of mano dura (tough hand policy).2 the joke’s aim was to deride the campaign slogan of independent presidential candidate Antanas Mockus, who was running for the green Party, a non-traditional party.3

The Colombian presidential elections of May and June 2010 featured a rather unusual battle for power. Though it is not uncommon to see independent candidates compete in the first round of the election, it is unusual to see one defeat a traditional party nominee and advance to the second round.4 the victory of a non-traditional party not only surprised Colombian society, but it probably also shocked the victorious green Party itself. For the first time, it seemed that the traditional parties’ power over their voters was being threatened. What was the appeal of Antanas Mockus to the Colombian citizens who managed to challenge the hegemony of the liberal Party and the conservative parties?5 This paper discusses to what extent society’s response to the green Party’s presidential campaign posed a challenge to clientelism, corruption, and the political machineries that have prevailed in the Colombian presidential elections for more than a century.

My approach is three-pronged. First, I identify traditional practices in Colombian politics, including a brief political history. Next, I analyze features of the green Party’s campaign in order to address the novelties that the party sought to introduce into Colombian politics—novelties that subsequently became the basis of its leadership in the political game. Finally, I provide some explanations as to why the green Party failed in its bid for the Colombian presidency.

The Birth of the Conservative and Liberal Parties and their Traditional Political Practices

Colombian political history is essential to understanding the hegemony of the traditional political parties in Colombia. Since its independence in 1810, Colombian politics have been tied to either conservative trends, whose ideas were conceived by Simón Bolívar, or to liberal tendencies, based on the political philosophy of Francisco de Paula Santander.6 the formation of political trends had its roots in the economic structure, which featured major landowners called hacendados as well as peasant workers. Traditionally, the Conservative Party base included the hacendados and the Church, whereas the liberal Party represented the interests of artisans, businessmen, and lawyers.7 

While the liberals and Conservatives managed to coexist and achieve political stability for decades, economic as well as social factors led to party radicalization and a wave of political violence in 1948. It took a military coup in 1953 to settle the national disorder; a political settlement between the two parties was finally reached in 1957. This agreement gave birth to a political formula called the Frente Nacional, through which Conservative and liberal leaders would share power for almost 30 years.

The terms of the Frente Nacional, whereby the two parties agreed to share government power, are important in understanding many of the current political practices in Colombia. First, this political pact, far from being representative of the Colombian population, was exclusionary. It assembled the elites of Colombian society, namely landowners, businessmen, and those with access to higher education. As a result, a major part of the Colombian population, mainly the lower classes, did not find its interests represented in the political game.

In addition to the lack of representation inherent to the structure of the Frente Nacional, the political game also limited the access of new parties to the political arena. This feature came from the pact itself, which established that government posts be split proportionally between the two parties.8 Although it was not forbidden to create new parties, complex restrictions made it necessary to obtain the backing of one of the two traditional parties in order to successfully constitute a new one. Consequently, the masses faced many obstacles to participation in the political arena.

The terms of the Frente Nacional, as well as subsequent laws, fostered clientelistic practices that still affect Colombian politics today. Gary Hoskin writes, “the parties gravitated increasingly towards a reliance upon state resources, especially clientelism and auxilios maintain their electoral fiefdoms.”9 for example, government posts were offered in exchange for support from the political party not currently in office. In the case of auxilios parlamentarios (pork-barrel funds), congressmen benefited from financial resources in return for their support of legislative acts that the government wanted approved by Parliament. These practices, which still occur, increased the wedge between the voter and the individuals they elected, and they created ample opportunity for egregious corruption.

These practices persist despite efforts to bring them to an end. Current laws have made it possible for political parties to face fewer restrictions to access the political arena and have allowed independent political parties to proliferate. However, most of them have fallen into what Hoskin has called the catch all model.” According to this model, “parties move towards the center of the political spectrum, becoming less distinct in terms of ideology and policy distinctiveness, [they] rely increasingly upon the mass media to mobilize voters, and [they] appeal to the policy preferences rather than social identities of the electorate in order to win elections.”10 In fact, the parties’ platforms are not clear, and it is difficult to differentiate them. Moreover, political campaigns are based on the individual candidate’s name rather than personal or party ideology. For example, Andrés Pastrana, a candidate of the Conservative Party and winner of the presidential elections in 1998, had “Andrés Presidente” as his campaign slogan.

The political machinery that traditional parties developed throughout Colombia plays an important role in vote buying. The long existence of the Conservative and liberal parties has allowed them to establish pacts with landowners known as caciques electorales or gamonales.11 this kind of patronage has deep roots in the countryside, where landowners can exert huge influence over the peasants that work for them and have the capacity to mobilize resources to suit their political interests. For example, a gamonal might sponsor a lunch for peasants in order to obtain their vote for the candidate he supports.

Given these attributes, politics in Colombia have usually kept citizens from making political decisions that satisfy the country’s long-term interests or even their own. Whether through clientelistic practices or patronage, political decisions have generally benefited the same elites. Consequently, the lower classes have made decisions out of the necessity to satisfy their immediate needs—here, the gamonales played an essential role. In the case of the middle and upper classes, their interest lay in receiving government posts or other political benefits.

The Green Party and its Campaign: an Effort to Introduce Political Consciousness

By May 2007, an environmental political party called Partido Verde Opción Centro (referred to hereafter as the green Party) had been created with the intention of building a new independent political power.12 However, this party gained little political weight until it received support from four ex-mayors of Bogotá and Medellín, who had won popularity because of their achievements in office. In October 2009, former Bogotá mayors Antanas Mockus, Luis Eduardo Garzón, and Enrique Peñalosa, and ex-Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo joined the green Party’s presidential campaign.

The nomination made by the green Party to select Antanas Mockus and Sergio Fajardo as presidential and vice-presidential candidates created a historic first—a combination of independent candidates that represented a legitimate political option. Though previous presidential elections in Colombia involved independent candidates, aspirants did not have enough political weight to stand as leaders and make a difference in the electoral outcomes. Mockus and Fajardo, however, managed to build the foundation for their leadership not because they had previously belonged to one of the traditional parties, which has been the conventional way to become a significant political player, but because of their successes as mayors of Bogotá and Medellín.

In fact, Mockus and Fajardo were not traditional politicians, and they had rather unusual backgrounds for the careers they were pursuing. Both were mathematicians and former professors. This latter commonality undoubtedly marked their political priorities during their time in city hall. Mockus introduced peculiar policies to teach the citizens of Bogotá, which was one of the most dangerous cities in the world during his first term in office (1995-1997), how to behave.13 According to Mockus, the propensity to commit illegal acts was linked to a lack of civic culture. For example, by drawing stars in the streets where fatal car accidents had taken place, he managed to reduce the number of car accident deaths due to alcohol consumption. His excellent management skills made it possible for him to overcome the deficit faced by the Bogota city government; he left it with a financial surplus.

As for Fajardo, his success during his tenure in Medellín’s city hall (2003-2007) was due mainly to the emphasis placed on education and transparency of public resources. To promote education, he embarked on the construction of several public libraries in the most dangerous areas of Medellín, highlighting employment opportunities outside of criminal activities. As for transparency, he reinforced accountability by creating spaces called Feria de la Transparencia (transparency fair), where the citizens could witness the signing of contracts between the city government and the private sector. As a result, he was recognized as the Best Mayor in Colombia for the period 2004-2007.14

These significant accomplishments allowed Mockus and Fajardo to build their own support base, which was a constituency for whom accountability and violence-reduction were at the top of the political agenda. This base was composed of citizens governed by Mockus and Fajardo, within Bogota and Medellín, who benefited from their policies. Furthermore, they managed to build a staff of highly educated individuals independent of traditional politics, which was exempt from the paramilitary and corruption scandals that affect traditional parties and that continue to challenge the legitimacy of Colombian democracy today.

The formalization of an alliance between Mockus and Fajardo was solid evidence of the desire for this political independence to continue. They were aware of how much had been done to achieve their political goals, particularly in a country where traditional parties had held a monopoly of power for such a long time. By April 2010, Mockus and Fajardo signed an agreement to name Fajardo as Mockus’s vice-presidential candidate for the elections taking place in May 2010.15 the significance of this agreement had two facets. First, it proved that independent parties could work together and make strategic political moves. It allowed Antanas Mockus to gain votes in Medellín, the second most important city in Colombia and a place where his political support was weak.16 Second, it showed that independent candidates were capable of building and leading a true political coalition. Fajardo’s movement stated, “this is not an electoral business...We don’t want to be an opportunistic sum.”17 the union demonstrated that the coalition wanted to abandon any personalistic features in the campaign.18

The new political force represented by the green Party lay on principles that attracted those tired of traditional party leadership. The first message conveyed by the green Party was that it stood against the classic clientelistic practices that had distorted the political decision-making in Colombia for many years. To highlight this shift in political practices, the campaign focused on three elements of its movement. The first one spells out the conditions for joining the party: any potential member had to agree not to demand governmental posts in exchange for contributions made to the party.19 this had never been made so explicit in Colombia. Though the political parties had established ethical rules, none had established such a restriction.

Second, one of the main pillars of the green Party’s presidential campaign was to convey the importance of the public resource management to support healthy political practices. Mockus adroitly appealed to the Catholic religion.20 He stressed the importance of public resources in religious terms by declaring them “sacred.” Consequently, he managed to convey to the Colombian population the importance of being responsible with the government’s money and the need to reject any form of corruption involving such resources. He even declared that were he to win the presidency, he would go to the Central Bank to bless the government’s coffers.21

In a third sign of a shift in political practices, the green Party proved willing to make concrete changes, thereby gaining credibility with voters. Some scholars have attributed the proliferation of clientelistic practices to the lack of credibility of political parties and political leaders.22 the green Party gained credibility by refusing to accept more than half of the money that it had the right to receive based on the amount of votes won during the party’s candidate nomination. The reasoning behind the refusal of such resources was that the campaign did not spend much money and that those funds should be used in other state projects. This astonished the media, the politicians, and the Colombian society as a whole.23

In addition to winning credibility with the voters, the green Party emphasized inclusion and participation as main objectives of its campaign. In fact, the green Party’s presidential campaign not only asked the electorate to vote for Antanas Mockus, but it also made a plea for all citizens to exercise their right to vote and to get involved in the country’s decision-making. Besides asking for its vote, Mockus asked the Colombian electorate to make informed decisions when choosing its presidential candidate. Such sober-minded analysis had not been requested of the voters by any other presidential candidate. The green Party managed to awaken the political conscience of Colombians, especially the youth. This had a positive impact on the green Party’s campaign for the presidency as many teenagers below the voting age persuaded their parents to vote for Mockus.24

The green Party’s messages, which had a positive impact on many voters, were effectively conveyed to the electorate through three separate means, which involved thousands of citizens. First, most of the green Party’s presidential campaign was constructed using social networks and other online resources. Colombian society’s response to the use of Facebook and Twitter was overwhelming; social networking contributed to people’s awareness of the political process, while strengthening the green Party’s leadership in the race for the presidency. People participating in these social networks were easily persuaded to show their support because the party actively used these channels to campaign.

Second, Mockus’s presidential vision of public transparency and legality, and his view of public resources and human life as sacred inspired many intellectuals and artists to contribute to his campaign. These influential Colombians were pivotal in spreading Mockus’s message. Many of them made public their intention to vote in order to convince others to vote for the green Party.25 Intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas and other scholars from Harvard, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of technology publicly declared their support for Mockus to demonstrate what they saw as the importance of his leadership for Colombia’s political and economic future.26

Third, the green Party fostered citizen participation by providing them easy access to campaign materials such as its brand, its slogan, and its membership cards. The green Party’s website made all of these materials easily printable on shirts, bracelets, and any other instrument that could be imagined by its supporters. The green Party successfully turned the common citizen into an agent of its campaign. The involvement of the common citizen was without a doubt a key factor to the green Party’s construction of leadership. However, these signs of success failed to materialize in the first round.

The Green Party’s Failure to Cope with Competition

Though the vast number of voters reached by the green Party’s campaign was reflected in the polls for the first round, it was not enough to win the second round. Juan Manuel Santos, the U party’s candidate, obtained more than 60 percent of the votes while Mockus obtained only slightly more than 30 percent.27 What prevented Mockus from becoming the president of Colombia?

Many have tried to explain what caused the green Party’s loss of support after the first round. The green Party started with a very high level of popularity but quickly lost it when it did little to fight its contender during the second round. What accounts for the decline in the party’s momentum?

Perhaps what most negatively affected the green Party’s campaign was the disappointing outcome of the congressional elections only three months before the presidential ones. In fact, the green Party managed to win only eight places in the Colombian Congress.28 this is likely an explanation as to why the green Party did not win the majority of voters’ support in almost any of Colombia’s regional departments in the presidential elections. The green Party seems to have underestimated the power of traditional politics in rural areas, where the conservative parties have their political machinery and patronage ready to tilt the balance to satisfy local interests. Mockus overlooked both the fact that Santos had almost the full support of Congress and that the Conservative Party, which was influential in the countryside, backed him.

Not only did the green Party fail to grant enough importance to the traditional political machinery, but it also made a mistake in overestimating online resources. The appearance of mass support obtained from Facebook and other social networks, likely accentuated by misleading national polls, made Mockus believe that support for the green Party was stronger than it actually was. The reason for this overconfidence may have resulted from the widespread success of a march against the FARC organized through Facebook. This march had taken place a year earlier, when a group of young Colombian citizens called for a mass manifestation against this illegal group’s acts. The event was a success and thousands of people marched in many cities.29 However, there is a difference between supporting a civic march against terrorism and making an important political decision by casting a vote. In an entry posted in a Spanish-language blog entitled The man in the hatch, the writer noted on May 31, 2010 that it is “[o]ne call for a march against the FARC with the support of the media and without any electoral purpose and [it is an]other campaign for the presidency.”

In addition, it seems that the green Party’s inclusionary success was largely an illusion. Though it engaged the youth more than ever in the electoral process, which was essential to diffusing the party’s ideas, the green Party did not give enough attention to its lack of support in rural areas, where peasants were not active Internet users. This provided an opportunity for the conservative parties to successfully employ traditional patronage and clientelistic practices.

Finally, a factor that hindered the green Party’s campaign was the inexperience of its presidential candidate in dealing with the press. In fact, one of Mockus’s perceived advantages, his lack of any political experience, turned out to be one of the most harmful shortcomings of the party’s campaign. Mockus was unable to skillfully answer controversial questions, likely stemming from both a lack of experience in Congress and his academic background, which did not train him to deal with these politically delicate situations. For example, when he was asked his opinion of President Chávez, Mockus answered that he admired the democratic process through which Chávez had been elected. When this declaration went public, in the midst of a major political crisis between Colombia and Venezuela, Mockus had to clarify the meaning of his words by stating that he respected the Venezuelan electoral process.30 However, Colombians were extremely sensitive to this issue, and Santos reaped the benefits of his opponent’s lack of experience in addressing highly controversial topics.


The presidential elections of 2010 proved that clientelism and patronage are practices that remain widespread and accepted in Colombia. The countryside is the area most sensitive to this electoral manipulation. Here, the Conservative and liberal Parties have managed to maintain a structure that allows them to manipulate voters to their advantage. As a consequence, voters are incapable of responding to their long-term interests and are forced to vote for a candidate they believe will satisfy their immediate needs. By the same token, voting based solely on immediate needs perpetuates the same political behavior that has prevented people from making informed and conscious political decisions in the first place. 

Nonetheless, the green Party’s presidential campaign constitutes a significant advance towards the strengthening of Colombian democracy. With the presence of the green Party, Colombia witnessed for the first time the rise of a serious and independent political force willing to demonstrate that politics can be a game played with transparency. Though defeated in the second round, the green Party demonstrated significant progress towards political independence and the abolition of clientelism. More importantly, it proved that neither corruption nor political favors were necessary to have influence in the political arena. The green Party showed the emerging importance of voters’ political consciousness, and that parts of society are ready to respond to this realization. This effort to change the basis of voters’ political choices demonstrates that, without a doubt, new styles of party leadership can significantly change citizens’ voting habits. The green Party’s hard work provides hope for a renewal in Colombian politics. It may be possible to transform the relationship between voters and their choice for a candidate from a patron-client relationship based on personalistic and patrimonial features, as suggested by Martz, to one where citizens make decisions that reflect their long term and rational interests.31 the green Party’s achievements have given hope to Colombian citizens that they can have real political power.

Whether the green Party will be able to consolidate its political force depends on its leaders’ decisions. The lesson learned in this campaign is that a new political force does not mean rejection of all the traditional political practices. The green Party has to reinforce its presence in rural areas, where the traditional parties are especially strong and learn to more effectively deal with the press in order to convey messages that will not be misunderstood by the public. Otherwise, it will not manage to become a national force, as its popularity will remain restricted to urban areas. The green Party’s main challenge is to demonstrate the benefits of being active and aware in electoral politics to a population that has long felt alienated from the political process or that does not even believe in it. The green Party must take advantage of the fact that it maintains the support of the most vital and active segment of the population: the youth.

Notes & References

  1. According to the green Party’s website, the sunflower slogan is a symbol of tolerance and solidarity, values which the Party seeks to foster through its program.
  2. The U Party stands for Partido Social de Unidad Nacional (Social Party of national union). It is identified as President Uribe’s political party, and the “U” in the party’s name is often associated with Uribe’s last name.
  3. Though Mockus’s green Party has an environmental issues platform, the green color also refers to the hope he wants to convey for changing the way of doing politics in Colombia.
  4. For the purpose of this paper, we consider the u Party a traditional party, given the fact that its members previously belonged to either the Conservative or the liberal Party, and that its ideology did not differ substantially from that of the others. In any case, during the second round of these elections, the U Party had the support of the Conservatives.
  5. Whenever conservative parties are mentioned, both the Conservative and U Parties are included.
  6. Bolívar propounded political and military centralization and saw himself as president for life of the “gran Colombia.” In turn, Santander believed in federalism as the most convenient way of political organization and was against the monarchic trends that Bolivar’s political ideas seemed to endorse.
  7. Gary Hoskin, “the State and Political Parties in Colombia,” in Colombia: The Politics of Reforming the State, ed. Eduardo Posada-Carbó (London: Palgrave Macmillan,1998), 51.
  8. Ibid., 56.
  9. Hoskin, “the State and Political Parties in Colombia,” 56.
  10. Ibid., 58.
  11. Jorge Orlando Melo, “Caciques y gamonales: Perfil político,” Revista Credencial (August 1998), 25.
  12. Partido Verde Colombia. “Historia del Partido Verde,” accessed December 11, 2010,
  13. “Bogotá, la ciudad más peligrosa de América,”, June 20, 1996, accessed March 11, 2011,
  14. Partido Verde, “Perfiles Partido Verde,” accessed November 22, 2010, newperfiles.aspx.
  15. Sergio Fajardo has his own political movement called the “Compromiso ciudadano” (“Citizen’s commitment”).
  16. Juanita León, “ ‘la unión hace la fuerza’: Mockus y Fajardo,” La Silla Vacía, April 4, 2010, accessed December 12, 2010,
  17. Ibid.
  18. All the major leaders that joined the green Party agreed not to use the party to make personalistic parties for themselves. Germán Darío Espejo, “Arranca trabajo conjunto de los ex alcaldes de Bogotá para elegir candidato único,”, January 21, 2010, accessed December 6, 2010, impreso/articuloimpreso183434-arranca-trabajo-conjunto-de-los-ex-alcaldes-de-bogota-elegir-candidato.
  19. Partido Verde Colombia, “Deberes, Derechos Partido Verde,” accessed November 22, 2010,
  20. According to some studies, more than 90 percent of the Colombian population is affiliated with the Catholic Church. ColombiaInfo, “religión,” accessed December 12, 2010, colombiainfo/infogeneral/religi%f3n.asp.
  21. Salud Hernández-Mora, “no fue la noche de Antanas Mockus,” El Mundo, April 28, 2010, accessed December 12, 2010,
  22. Philip Keefer, “Democratization and Clientelism: Why are Young Democracies Badly governed?,” Social Science Research Network (May 2005), accessed November 21 2010, abstract_id=748364.
  23. “Mockus renunció a $4.500 millones otorgados por el estado por reposición de votos,”, April 7, 2010, accessed December 12, 2010,
  24. Antanas Mockus, “A votar desde más jóvenes,”, August 31, 2010, accessed December 6, 2010,
  25. For expressions of intellectuals and artists’ support for the green Party, see: “Actores, Actrices, la cultura con Mockus y Fajardo,” and “Intelectuales invitan a votar por Mockus,”
  26. “Intelectuales del mundo apoyan la candidatura de Antanas Mockus a la Presidencia,”, May 25, 2010, accessed february 11, 2011,
  27. “Juan Manuel Santos sale ganador de las elecciones en Colombia,”, June 20, 2010, accessed March 22, 2011,
  28. “Colombia Politics: a green Party President?” EIU ViewsWire, May 13, 2010, accessed March 22, 2011, country_id=1510000151&channel_id=210004021&category_id=500004050&refm=vwCat&page_title=Article.
  29. “Marcha contra las FARC: Mayor desmovilización en la historia del país,”, february 4, 2008, accessed December 12, 2010,
  30. Cesar Paredes, “Por qué ganó Santos y por qué perdió,”, accessed December 6, 2010, http://
  31. John D. Martz, The Politics of Clientelism: Democracy & the State in Colombia, (new Jersey: transaction Publishers, 1997), 66.
Jimena Serrano is an M.A. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center, and she is currently enrolled in the Latin American Studies program. She graduated from Universidad de los Andes in Colombia in 2006 with a degree in Law.