October 25, 2019 / 1:06 PM / 18 days ago

Colombian political clans seen set to win at Sunday's polls

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombians go to the polls on Sunday to choose provincial governors, mayors and regional legislators in elections that could influence the 2022 presidential contest, following campaigning marred by violent attacks on candidates.

A supporter holds a flag of the candidate for mayor of Bogota, Miguel Uribe, in Bogota, Colombia October 24, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

The vote is likely to emphasise the power of regional political families rather than parties, analysts told Reuters, especially as many candidates are backed by coalitions composed of rival factions.

The winners will be well-placed to influence national contests in 2022, experts said.

Unlike last year’s presidential elections, when voters largely split between left and right-wing candidates, President Ivan Duque’s Democratic Center party and leftist parties will have only limited wins, said Ariel Avila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation thinktank.

“Everything seems to indicate that political machines have aligned, organised and political clans will win,” he said.

It is not unusual for disparate factions to unite behind candidates for local elections in Colombia, giving regional power-brokers more sway with presidential contenders to negotiate benefits for their areas.

About 36.6 million people are eligible to vote for their choice of 32 governors, more than 1,000 mayors and thousands of regional and local legislative positions, government figures show.

Seven candidates have been killed, a dozen attacked and more than 100 threatened, says voting rights group the Electoral Observation Mission (MOE).

That compares with the five candidates killed in the last round of regional and local elections in 2015.

“Local elections are really where political power in this country is in play,” said the MOE’s Alejandra Barrios. “They are the start, what structures the next elections, which are legislative and presidential.”

The elections would show the power of political clans, she added.

Colombia’s best-known clan is the Char family of business tycoons who dominate politics in the coastal province of Atlantico and its capital, the port city of Barranquilla.

Their candidates have held the mayor’s office for more than a decade and their current pick is leading the polls.

The diverse local alliances backing candidates make the election “atypical”, Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutierrez told Reuters, adding that about 142,000 police and military will safeguard Sunday’s voters.

The government has blamed attacks on candidates on rebels of the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), dissident guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected a peace deal and crime gangs founded by former right-wing paramilitaries.

“There are organised armed groups interested in capturing territory through (political) leaders who facilitate illegal activities,” Gutierrez said.

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Armed groups, like political dynasties, may also want to use influence with mayors and governors to win lucrative public contracts, said Avila.

Once clans have power they are often loathe to surrender it, he said, instead bringing in relatives or allies as successors.

“Whoever has control of the mayor’s office or the province has a 50% probability of leaving a successor because of the levels of contracting and the economic resources that gives,” Avila said.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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