Cablegate: Overview of Colombian Federal Electoral Issues

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (U) Summary: This is the first in a series of cables
on elections for Congress and President that will take
place in March and May, 2006, respectively. The President
is elected by nationwide vote. Much like the U.S., House
seats are allocated to each department based on
population, but the voting method is notably different.
Senators are elected nationwide, rather than by district.
The number of political parties (currently 60) will reduce
sharply in 2006, as 2003 legislation mandates a minimal
nationwide vote threshold in House and Senate elections
for parties to maintain their official status.
Preferential voting (voter selection of individual
candidates from party-approved lists) and the D'Hondt
method will also come into play for the first time in
Congressional elections. Several proposals to allow some
pre-election public financing are under consideration in
the Congress. Under current law, all campaign spending is
from private sources. Candidates are, however, reimbursed
from government coffers after the election based on the
number of votes received. While spending caps exist for
each electoral contest, individual donations are not
restricted in monetary terms (unless a donation were to
exceed the spending cap). End Summary.

The Stakes

2. (U) Colombians elect the entire House and Senate in
March 2006. There are no term limits. The House and
Senate are made up of 166 and 102 members, respectively.
House seats are allocated to each department (plus Bogota)
based on population, much like the U.S. system. However,
at the polls, residents of a particular department select
only one House candidate from various lists, each
containing a number of candidates less than or equal to
the number of House seats for that department. (For
example, Antioquia Department has 17 House seats; citizens
in that department vote for one person for the House, from
one of various party lists, each of which contains up to
17 names.) Senate races are decided on a national basis.
Each citizen may vote for one person for Senate.

3. (U) Presidential elections will take place in May
2006. If no one candidate receives a majority of the
votes in the first round, a runoff election pits the two
highest first-round finishers. In late 2004, Congress
passed Constitutional reform to permit the President to be
re-elected one time. The Constitutional amendment is
under review by the Constitutional Court. A decision is
expected in September, according to GOC contacts.

First Law of 2003

4. (U) In July 2003, Congress passed the First Law, which
took effect beginning with departmental assembly and city
council elections in October of that year. The law
contains three principal elements:

--Application of a minimum nationwide vote threshold in
Congressional elections for a political party to maintain
its official status;

--Preferential voting to allow citizens to express
preference for one candidate within a party's overall list
of candidates for a particular office, regardless of that
candidate's original ranking on the list (previously a
voter merely selected the party, and could not assign
his/her vote to a particular individual on the party's
list); and

--Use of the D'Hondt method, a highest average system
named after Belgian mathematician Victor D'Hondt (see para

5. (U) In mid-March, the Constitutional Court ruled that
preferential voting was constitutional, ending legal
challenges against it. Preferential voting and D'Hondt
divisor do not apply to Presidential, gubernatorial, and
mayoral elections, which are direct in nature (i.e., no

Vote Threshold

6. (U) Beginning in 2006, in order for an existing
political party (60 at present) to maintain its official
status, it will need to meet a minimum nationwide vote
threshold (umbral in Spanish) of 2 percent in
either/either the House or Senate elections. Two
thresholds will be calculated based on the total number of
votes cast nationwide for House and Senate, respectively.
While projections vary, most estimates hold that only 7-10
parties will maintain their official status after the
March elections.

Preferential Voting

7. (U) Preferential voting, which first came into effect
with departmental assembly and city council elections in
October 2003, will apply in upcoming Congressional
contests. Political parties craft rank-ordered lists of
candidates for each office. The party must decide, prior
to the election, whether to employ the preferential or non-
preferential method. The party's decision will be clearly
stated on the ballot. Under the preferential method, the
voter may cast a direct vote for any individual within the
party's list, regardless of the candidate's ranking on
said list. The vote counts toward threshold and D'Hondt
(see below) calculations for the party in question. Under
the non-preferential method (the only method in use prior
to 2003), the voter merely selects the particular party.
The vote is then awarded to the candidate the party placed
at the top of its list.

D'Hondt Method

8. (U) According to statistical reference materials, the
D'Hondt method allocates seats in proportion to the number
of votes a list received. After the vote count,
successive quotients are calculated for each list. The
quotient is calculated using the formula V/(s+1), with V
being the total number of votes that list received, and s
the number of seats that party has been allocated so far
(initially zero for all parties). The list with the
highest quotient gets the next seat allocated, and its
quotient is recalculated given its new seat total. The
process is repeated until all seats have been allocated.
While a party receiving relatively few votes may still
qualify for a seat under this method, it is considered to
favor the parties receiving the most votes per successful
candidate. These parties will have a larger quotient,
thereby giving them more seats. Generally, these will be
the larger parties.

Campaign Finance

9. (U) While political parties receive small amounts of
public funding for ongoing operations (physical plant,
salaries, and the like), pre-election campaign finance
comes from private sources. Candidates are, however,
partially reimbursed from public coffers after the
election based on number of votes received. The National
Electoral Council (CNE) sets a spending limit for each
race. Donations are limited only in the sense that any
single gift cannot exceed the spending cap for the race in
question. Corporate gifts have traditionally dominated.
The Congress is currently considering three proposals for
campaign finance reform (in the context of implementing
legislation for the recent Constitutional reform to permit
Presidential reelection), each of which would provide for
additional public financing.


10. (SBU) The impact of the pre-2003 electoral system had
been to fragment parties since small parties could still
qualify for seats in Congress. The "reforms" may undo
that and return Colombia to a system of a few strong
parties with highly centralized leadership. It is not
clear, however, that this will actually lead to a change
in the members of Congress, since current members will
generally fall back into the major parties from which they
came. If that happens, the party leadership will be
strengthened and the responsiveness to constituents may be
correspondingly weakened - a reversion to Colombia's
political tradition.

© Scoop Media

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