Oligarchic defects of democracy in Colombia

Colombians are growing increasingly frustrated at their government's failure to produce progressive advances. This failure signals a peculiar democratic deficit: oligarchic modes of rule. Jan Boesten, Lerber Dimas Vásquez, Daniel Llanos Ramírez and William Andrés Mesa Cárdenas argue that oligarchy offers new insights into Latin America's democratic delinquents

In government, but not in power

The election of Gustavo Petro in 2022 could have been a watershed moment for Colombia. Petro was a relative outsider to the traditional political elite. He is a former guerrillero who enjoys the firm backing of social movements; a first in Colombia. But two years after Petro took power, there is growing dismay that though the left may be in government, it is not in power. The opposition is stalling legislative projects in Congress, and the solicitor-general has conducted open legal warfare against Petro’s government. All this has raised fears of a silent (i.e. judicial) coup.

Most damaging of all is that Peto's much-vaunted Total Peace is failing to materialise. After several years of relative decline, violence at subnational level has flared up again. So, what explains this lack of political advancement? We contend that oligarchic modes of rule impair republican elements of democracy and weaken the rule of law. This contention is gaining increasing traction to explain democratic deficits not only in Colombia, but throughout Latin America.

Defining oligarchy: the imperative of Marx and Weber

Oligarchy is not a new concept. It has already proved itself surprisingly adept at detecting defects that undermine the responsiveness of democratic institutions in Latin America, as well as in the global North. Jeffrey A. Winters argues that the surprise stems in part from an underappreciated element of our conceptualisation of oligarchy. As the philosopher Aristotle insisted:

Wherever 'some rule on account of wealth […] this is necessarily an oligarchy'

Thus, rule, and the production of wealth, underwrite oligarchy. Marx, as well as Weber, inform its conceptual resurgence. Opportunely, this theoretical combination gives us tools to differentiate modes of oligarchic rule. We can divide such regimes according to the gains produced (profits or rents) and the degree of involvement in coercion (directly engaged warlords or fully disarmed plutocrats).

Populism, organised crime, and oligarchy

From Aristotle’s 2,000-year-old description of oligarchy as a deviant regime, we now seek to discover how oligarchic modes of rule relate to other phenomena.

Latin America’s political history is rich in 'waves of populism', from classical to neoliberal eras, democratic and authoritarian. However, it is not clear how those waves causally relate to oligarchic modes of rule. This is surprising, given that populism and oligarchy are relatively symbiotic. Populism in Latin America arose in the 1930s from the grave of the oligarchic state. All populists since, whether neoliberal, conservative, or Bolivarian, have defined themselves and their movements in juxtaposition to a national oligarchy.

Examining how modes of oligarchic rule interact with organised crime reveals valuable insights

Populism under oligarchic rule is not the only combination that requires more exploration. Examining how modes of oligarchic rule interact with organised crime also reveals valuable insights. Crime and violence unparalleled in the world have arisen in Latin America. A huge variety of armed non-state actors exhibit an equally large variety of violence portfolios and local governance structures.

Armed actors in Colombia — particularly those with FARC or Paramilitary (AUC) pasts — have maintained something akin to standing armies over extended periods of time. They have developed correspondingly deep knowledge of how to build governance systems that exert control over populations. Yet, even within Colombia exist numerous other armed groups with much shorter histories, which cannot rely on strong links with local populations. Small-time gangs in Bogotá, for example, do little more than extort local businesses. They provide almost nothing in terms of tangible public goods. Do these armed groups have the same effect that institution-builders in FARC or AUC had on democratic institutions?

Colombia's defective democracy

In Colombia, local systems of wealth defence are differentiated internally into civil and warring modes of oligarchy. This leaves little space for transformative capacities to thrive, and it blunts politics that aim to alter the status quo. The government is thus unable to induce change, and Colombians grow increasingly frustrated. In the electoral component of Colombian democracy, some elements, such as the active and passive right to vote, and adherence to electoral results, are exemplary. Other elements, however, are defective: citizens cannot form their electoral choice free from coercion.

Colombia's oligarchic rule leaves little space for transformative capacities to thrive, and it blunts politics that aim to alter the status quo

Elections in territories where armed non-state actors 'campaign' on behalf of their candidates usually involve more than one candidate. We can, therefore, describe them as competitive. These elections, however, are neither free nor fair; armed actors will strongly 'recommend' a particular candidate over others. Oligarchy helps explain this, because we can identify the benefits for each side: votes for civil-oligarch politicians, and legislative support for warlord oligarchs. Crucially, each side, though informally linked, remains autonomous.

This blog piece is part of a joint research project initiated by Jan Boesten on oligarchic modes of rule in Latin America

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Jan Boesten Jan Boesten DFG Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Latin American Studies (LAI), Freie Universität Berlin / Associate Member, Nuffield College, University of Oxford More by this author
photograph of Lerber Dimas Vásquez Lerber Dimas Vásquez Anthropologist, Universidad del Magdalena / Master's Student, Anthropology of the Americas, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn More by this author
photograph of Daniel Llanos Ramírez Daniel Llanos Ramírez Scientific Researcher, Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK) More by this author
photograph of William Andrés Mesa Cárdenas William Andrés Mesa Cárdenas PhD Candidate, Rule of Law and Global Governance, University of Salamanca / Researcher, Gruppe für Interdiziplinäre Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, Freie Universität Berlin More by this author

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