Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

I-CONnect Symposium–Contemporary Discussions in Constitutional Law–Part VII: The Political Parties: From a Two Party System to the Crisis of Representation in Colombia

[Editor’s Note: This is Part VII in our Externado symposium on “Contemporary Discussions in Constitutional Law.” The Introduction to the symposium is available here, Part I is available here, Part II is available here, Part III is available here, Part IV is available here, Part V is available here and Part VI is available here.]

–Luisa Fernanda García López, Profesora Principal, Universidad del Rosario

The Colombian political system is considered to have the largest institutional continuity in Latin America. However, the degree of the political parties’ implication within the political reality of the country has been rigid and without obligation during the country’s different institutional transformations. The political parties have been real participants of the voting and the legislative systems, but not real participants during the political reforms particularly during the one in the 1990s. Between 1958 and 1991, Colombian democracy was well known for being a restricted or controlled democracy because the national agreement closed off political participation to other movements and political parties. Taking turns in office was limited to the two traditional parties. The limitations by both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party created huge unpopularity and promoted high levels of abstention during elections. Repercussions began in the 1980s. During this time of huge instability, strong violence and confrontations among several guerrilla groups started to settle down. On one hand, the Medellin cartel allied with the M-19 a guerilla group that stormed the Court House in 1986 and decimated the Court Criminal Chamber. On the other hand, the Cali cartel interfered in the government elections by funding Ernesto Samper’s presidential campaign who was elected president in 1994. Finally, paramilitary groups were initially named “Convivir” (Cohabit) to fight the guerrillas’ kidnapping and drug trafficking that dominated most of the country. Thereafter, in the early 1990s, these groups entered in the business and culture of drug trafficking, and became illegal groups called paramilitary. This Colombian reality shows the lack of solid institutions, neither leaders nor strong political parties that actually represent the Colombian society.

The 1991 Constitution states that the creation of political parties and movements is considered a citizen’s right and duty in accordance with articles 40 and 95 of the Constitution. The right to create political parties and movements is one of the manifestations of participatory democracy, which results in an active presence in the political and collective life of the country. Likewise, this materializes in the political opposition as a manifestation of pluralism and the right to dissension in the institutions of the state.

The period of “violence” between 1948 and 1958 began with the assassination of liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogotá, a fact that marked the beginning of violence as a violent rivalry between the two parties dominating the national scene. A distinctive sign of this period, the “Caudillismo” (an autocratic government) where political leaders mobilized masses and Gaitán was an example of a charismatic leader who gained followers by his recognition as a leader and less as a representative of the political party. This period of violence was resolved through a pact, the National Front, signed by the two rival parties and confirmed by the 1957 plebiscite that allowed the Liberals and Conservatives to govern for 16 years (1958-1974), in a strict parity and with the distribution of state bureaucracy.

The National Front or Pact was later reported to be responsible for neutralizing Colombian democracy and allowing only the traditional parties of monopoly and the exercise of power, which precluded the constitutional possibility of giving place to other political parties.

The National Constituent assembly of 1991 dedicated the plurality of political parties. It has changed the situation regarding the two party system during the previous Constitution, and it has included different social actors. The electoral reform wanted to give greater legitimacy to political parties in order to achieve an efficient government. In 2003, the political reform sought to strengthen political parties as a source of legitimacy for the system, which was also the case in 2009. In 2004, another political reform took place by the Legislative Act n°2 of 2004 that authorized the Presidential Re-Election. The quest for pluralism is the key word in these reforms, and particularly a barrier against recurring and corrupt sources such as the single list, the threshold, the financing, and the double militancy.

While these reforms aim to give a greater legitimacy to the political parties in Colombia as well as consolidate political pluralism, the political parties do not truly represent legitimate institutions of the common citizens. It is pertinent to emphasize that the 2003 political reform and consequent legislative developments have given a greater discipline and greater control to the organization and functioning to political parties, yet the essential idea of democratic participation and representation is quite weak.

The 2003 political reform brought four fundamental reforms regarding the functioning of political parties: a) The system of “bancadas,” b) the prohibition of double militancy, c) the threshold in order to give a stronger political structure to the strongest parties, and d) to make public funding more useful.

The Colombian crisis of representation puts us in front of a crisis of the political parties confirmed by a multiplication of the political parties that recall more the crisis and the division than the cohesion in the society. The multiplication of political parties demonstrates a lack of credibility with traditional political parties, as well as a danger like the populism. The rise of presidential candidates who evoke this crisis in the institutions, the democracy, and the state are fertile and dangerous grounds for pseudo-political leaders to find followers who believe in their promises. Such a situation shows once again that the notion of representative democracy is far from being fulfilled.

It should be noted that political parties should materialize common ideologies that introduce changes and reforms within democracy and this must be separate from the candidate or his leader at the time. Fulfillment of the political parties is accomplished when the parties assume their function of representation in the Congress and materialize political and legal reforms aimed at giving continuity to their structural ideologies. Thus, Congress’ representation finds its true legitimacy with solid political parties that defend an ideology which avoids reducing the party to the singular form of a candidate, whose disappearance would condemn the political party to its extinction.

Suggested Citation: Luisa Fernanda García López, I-CONnect Symposium–Contemporary Discussions in Constitutional Law–Part VII: The Political Parties: From a Two Party System to the Crisis of Representation in Colombia, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 6, 2018, at:


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