Fight Even On The Fences: The Rhetoric Of The Presidential Campaign In Colombia

Fight even on the fences: the rhetoric of the presidential campaign in Colombia

Bogota historian Juan Carlos Flórez says that he believes in God and often goes against the current. Since 2015, in his campaign for the Capital City Council, he has forgone any spending on advertising. His electoral projects, he repeats in interviews, are “zero cost.” Disenchanted with the deterioration of political rituals in Colombia, he has chosen to spread his proposals through digital channels or, simply, with a method as ancient as word of mouth. In his message, he assures, he must “prioritize content.”

The results at the polls, however, have been modest. And the frequent defeats: on March 13, without going any further, he failed in his aspiration to reach Congress on behalf of the Hope Center Coalition. The electorate did not strongly support the proposal of a guy who offered the unique combination of being a pristine administrator and a figure allergic to the worst practices of contemporary politics.

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His case is a clear reflection of the short circuit between the world of supported proposals, the lack of ingenuity in political propaganda, and the apathy or disenchantment of Colombian voters. Seven sources consulted agree that the noise of the political messages for the presidential and parliamentary campaigns this year have reached unusual levels.

Just take a look at the billboards. In times of social networks and digital tools, such as the micro targetingwhich prepares remote-directed messages to specific audiences, the visibility of these external artifacts continues to play an important role a few weeks before the presidential elections, whose first round is held on May 29 and has the leftist Gustavo Petro as the favorite.

Political communication consultant Juan Fernando Giraldo speaks of “verbal pyrotechnics” and explains that a good thermometer to understand the negative charge of his messages is found in the levels of pessimism and distrust of Colombians with the democratic system.

In a survey by the global agency Edelman, for example, 72% of those interviewed thought last year that the rulers are trying to deceive the population. The AmericasBarometer indicates that only 30% trust the justice system, and 25% trust Congress, according to 2018 figures.

Juan Carlos Flórez underlines the inability of the ruling classes to adapt to the changes demanded by society. “Political interests,” comments the 60-year-old writer, “stopped being genuine a long time ago. And the only way to fill the gap, or the gap between politicians and citizens, has been to fill the public debate with exaggerated promises and propaganda without content or imagination.

Analyst Angie Katherine González adds that institutional weakness has other consequences, such as the fact that voters have distanced themselves from collective projects, from the classic parties, to the detriment of “individual, apparently strong, leadership that generally appears as distant to the institutions”.

The Barometer of Reconciliation of the Universidad de los Andes indicates in 2019 that 95.9% of those surveyed distrusted the parties.

The attacks on right-wing presidential candidate Federico Gutiérrez, 47, better known by the nickname Fico, are a sign of the campaign’s tone. This former mayor of Medellín, who is second in voting intention polls, has been the target of multiple attacks on billboards and memes with slogans such as “No more drug trafficking.” Adolfo Eslava, a professor at the EAFIT University in Medellín, believes that political strategists “have done democracy a disservice with messages that exacerbate apathy and appeal to the most basic emotions of voters without taking into account the grotesque disrespect that it supposes for the voter and for the democratic scenario”.

Another poster, this time from the ruling Democratic Center, announced: “We are the barrier against Chavista socialism,” suggesting that the candidacy of the opposition, and favorite in all the polls, Gustavo Petro represents the road to the Venezuelan debacle.

The National Electoral Commission has already ordered the dismantling of thirty billboards around the country for affecting the reputation, good name or image of some candidates.

“What seems worrying to me,” says the former director of Transparency for Colombia Elisabeth Ungar, “is that the dialectic of fear, of manipulating the discussion by always suggesting that the rival is dangerous, remains so valid in the proposals. All this reflects, deep down, an enormous lack of fresh ideas”.

Another announcement, this time published in the print edition of the newspaper Time de Bogotá shows two images that occupy one side of the page. In the first, a hooded insurgent from the ELN Castro guerrilla appears, accompanied by a legend that reads “Some vote for them.” Further down, in another photo, a soldier from the Colombian army can be seen talking to an old woman in front of the doorway of a rural house. The headband says: “We vote for them.”

The advertising bears the seal of the Democratic Center. The political scientist Elisabeth Ungar sums it up: “the banalization of language is scary”. She also points out that these are “false and malicious messages because they divide between good and bad and stir up issues that have nothing to do with what is at stake in these elections.”

For Mario Riorda, an Argentine political scientist and political communication analyst, there may even be a “denial of democracy.” The expert, who has participated in some 140 electoral processes, affirms that in this type of message the legitimacy of the opponent is completely erased: “Recognizing otherness is a basic axis of democracy. But when you fall into these radical strategies, reciprocity disappears because I don’t know the adversary who challenges me and argues with him. On the contrary he humiliated them”.

The tension has also invaded sectors of the political center, as is the case of the elected representative to the Chamber Inti Asprilla, who displayed a billboard that read: “Paraco, the people are boar!”. The phrase is part of a chant that became popular during the latest social mobilizations and that points out, on the one hand, the alleged link between former President Álvaro Uribe and the bloodthirsty paramilitary squads, and on the other, the discontent of thousands of protesters.

In Colombia it is not possible to know the details of the campaign accounts. There are official reports that can be consulted, but where there are always gaps and unknowns (despite the fines for non-compliance) in a hybrid electoral financing system, which by law allows contributions from individuals and public financing.

The RCN radio network published in March an estimate of the investments made in advertisements for digital advertising, where 30-40% of the resources are usually allocated. The campaign that has spent the most so far would be that of the right-wing Federico Gutiérrez, “Fico”, with an average of 164 million monthly, or 41,000 euros, on the Meta platform (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp).

Meanwhile, the rent of a fence can range between 3,000 and 12,000 euros per month depending on the city and location. Campaigns usually rent these outdoor billboards for about four months and cannot install more than 16 per campaign in the capital, and a maximum of eight in the rest of the country. A few weeks ago, for example, the Fico campaign had to dismantle 18 of the 26 that were irrigated by Cali, the third most important city.

For Adolfo Eslava, it is clear that the path of high-voltage rhetoric is a mistake with high costs for democracy as a whole. Moderate ideas have a dark outlook in this context. Mario Riorda assures from Argentina that there is sometimes a “self-silencing” of measured positions that do not enter the carousel of radicalization.

The changes are also reflected in the motivations of the voters: “The interests of the people are no longer focused on looking for the candidate that most convinces them, or that best fits their convictions, but on voting against the option that more rejection awakens them. In a political context where disaffection proliferates, it becomes a punishment vote”, says Angie Katherine González, a researcher specializing in political marketing.

Several candidates for the next legislative period presented themselves, in the words of analyst Juan Fernando Giraldo, with “serene messages or weighted programs.” An important part of them failed in their aspiration. “Colombians”, continues Giraldo, “no longer feel identified with the proposals that provide solutions to everyday problems, or more or less homogeneous agendas. Today, incivility, hostile language, is much more effective at the polls.”

Lawyer Diana Rodríguez experienced it firsthand. At 39 years old, he decided to run for the first time for a popularly elected position in Congress. Sponsored by Juanita Goebertus, one of the parliamentarians best rated by opinion polls, and with the endorsement of the centrist Green Party, she wanted to promote a program that favored women’s rights and the application of the peace agreements.

But as the weeks went by, the metrics and other gauges did not bode well. “A member of my party told me: ‘You have to look for controversy,” says the expert on gender and human rights issues. The decision of Diana’s team was to seek more visibility through a fence that used as a lure a play on critical words with some statements by the presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in which, supposedly, she had mistakenly incurred a Gallicism: “Women they get raped”, the Franco-Colombian candidate released in a debate.

The Diana Rodríguez campaign stamped the phrase on a billboard, crossing out the word “rape” with a green cross and highlighting the word “choose” at the bottom in a larger green typeface. “Juanita Goebertus uploaded the photo of the fence to Twitter and right there they started calling me from all the media in Colombia. The networks exploded. But they also started calling me from women’s organizations, the feminist groups with which I have worked to tell me ‘what happened to you?’ that is not you’. That night I went to sleep thinking that not only was it not me, but also that I was going to lose the trust of people with whom I had worked and who had trusted me.

Rodríguez believes that to stand out in politics it is necessary to abide by certain rules that are part of the world of entertainment: “If you are not willing to do anything to attract attention, it is unlikely that you will arrive. In fact, we installed another billboard with an equally strong message: ‘Who abuses 38 girls a day? The male chauvinism’. But nothing happened with that one, nobody commented on it.”

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