In Colombia, it’s easy to tell when election season is in full swing.
Potholes are suddenly filled with cement, stretches of roads are paved and local officials rush to inaugurate often unfinished public buildings. It's one way to show that public funds have been well spent under their watch as a way of helping the political party they represent to do well at the polls.
Election campaign posters and pamphlets stuffed in postboxes say “no to corruption” and “public funds are sacred”.
Yet election-rigging scandals, allegations of election fraud and vote-buying are an all too common feature of the political landscape in Colombia.
In Colombia’s parliamentary, local and presidential elections over the decades, local media have reported ineligible voters casting ballots, including some using fake or stolen identity cards, and tampered electoral registers that include the names of dead citizens or have names listed twice.
In past elections, local camera crews in slum areas have shown how votes are exchanged for a plate of meat, rice and plantain, or for bricks, roof tiles and other building materials. Local media have reported votes being allegedly bought for around $15 a go.
There’s also the so-called “pregnant ballot box”, which involves extra ballots being included to boost the vote tally for a particular candidate.
Free buses are known to transport people to polling stations on the condition they cast their vote for a particular candidate.
In the run up to election day, candidates are also known to deliver food parcels door-to-door in poor areas and throw lavish street parties in the hope of getting more votes.
And there are always claims being made about some candidates having alleged ties to illegal armed groups and drug traffickers.
It’s likely the upcoming parliamentary elections on Sunday, March 9, won’t be much different when nearly 33 million eligible voters can elect who will sit in the country's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and the Senate.
The Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), an independent monitoring group based in Bogota, has warned about wads of cash circulating on the campaign trail in the run up to the parliamentary elections across some of Colombia’s provinces.
“The main risk during this last week ahead of the elections is the moving around of resources in cash. This is an issue that has not been possible to control and can trigger crimes like the buying of votes,” Alejandra Barrios, head of the watchdog, told El Tiempo newspaper in a recent interview.
She singled out the provinces of La Guajira and Caqueta, “where we have found that a lot of money is going around and that many candidates are fishing for votes.”
Nearly 2,500 candidates are competing for a total of 268 seats in Colombia’s lower house and senate.
VOTING UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Like in previous elections in Colombia, the so-called “dry law” will be put in place over the coming weekend. It means the selling of alcohol is banned the night before, during and a day after elections.
The law aims to stop candidates throwing parties in the run up to elections as a way of encouraging people to vote for them, stem violence and avoid people voting while being drunk.
It’s not difficult, though, to find an obliging shopkeeper who is willing to sell a few beers during the elections.
Much is at stake in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos will be looking to maintain his big parliamentary majority and gauge voter support before presidential elections scheduled for May 25.
If Santos and his coalition parties do well in the parliamentary elections, it will be seen as an endorsement for the ongoing peace process in Havana, which his government started with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2012.
Meanwhile, former president Alvaro Uribe, who has become Colombia's de facto opposition leader, will be looking to secure up to 30 seats in the senate from candidates running for the conservative Democratic Center party he created. In such a way, he’s looking to form a kind of Colombian version of the Tea Party.
DRUGS FINANCE CAMPAIGNS?
Another issue looming over the forthcoming elections is the lack of transparency in campaign financing, poor controls to prevent drug money bankrolling election campaigns and inadequate oversight about the origin of donations given to candidates.
Last year, Colombia passed a law requiring candidates to report in real time from whom and how contributions to their election campaign are being spent.
So far, 60 percent of candidates running for the lower house and senate have not yet posted their campaign financing online, according to El Tiempo newspaper.
Corruption in election campaigns is a problem that has got worse since the 1990s, says Colombia’s former attorney general Viviane Morales, who is now running for senate.
“The rising cost of political campaigns goes hand in hand with the rise of corruption,” Morales is quoted as saying in a recent interview with El Tiempo.