Letter From Colombia

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The rise of the first left opposition in Colombia for 20 years is having an impact throughout Colombian society, argues Paul Haste

President Uribe's supporters in congress have recently proposed a "presidential coup" aimed at closing congress to avoid the opposition taking control.

It is an indication as to how far to the right political debate is in Colombia. The interior and justice minister thought the proposal "interesting", but it also reflects a concern among this elite that for the first time in decades a leftist opposition is rising.

The Polo Democratico Alternativo is a coalition that unites all the significant leftist political parties and factions in Colombia. It has dramatically realigned politics and displaced the traditional, clientelistic Liberal Party as the principal opposition to Uribe.

Carlos Gaviria, the Polo's presidential candidate, achieved an unprecedented 2.6 million votes in the 2006 elections, despite Uribe demanding that Colombians choose between his militarisation and authoritarianism or "the disguised communists" in the opposition.

Against increasing state paramilitarisation the Polo has continued to fight for a different Colombia that prioritises the poor, workers and desterrados (the dispossessed).

The political realignment that has taken place all over Latin America has isolated Colombia on the right. Only Peru, Mexico and some Central American republics still openly adhere to Washington's line.

The Polo's success has been evident in uniting the splintered left opposition into a coherent political force that even the elite newspaper El Tiempo considers a "credible option with the possibility to take power".

The coalition has overcome the left's historical sectarianism to include Communists, former guerrillas and organised workers in the CUT union confederation. The Communist Voz newspaper commented that the dissident liberals attracted to the coalition meant the Polo represented "the first time in Colombia that the revolutionary left and the social democratic left have united together".

Proposing similar social policies to Venezuelan President Chavez's Bolivarian revolution, the Polo is organising among Colombians who have never participated in politics. "The Polo should not be just an electoral party," Senator Antonio Navarro insists. "It must have a presence in all Colombia."

Organising at a local level, on the streets in the barrios and proposing redistributive policies that favour the poor, the Polo has encouraged democratic participation to avoid association with the patronage and clientelism that have discredited the traditional parties. "No-one in the Polo will accept an ambassadorial or ministerial position," Gaviria declared, citing a favourite tactic often used by Colombia's political elite to co-opt opposition. "Our party is not opportunist and cannot be bought."

President Uribe has also contributed to the left's resurgence. Originally a Liberal, he continued the Liberal's opportunistic tradition, standing as a Conservative-supported independent in the 2002 elections. The president's "undisciplined coalition", according to El Tiempo, has since had an unintended effect - scattering and splintering the right.

"The elite's traditional parties, their similar policies and patrician leaders have been replaced," comments Alfredo Molano, one of Colombia's most prominent dissidents. "Colombian politics are now like Venezuela - left and right oppose each other and could never compromise."

Ever more increasing political polarisation in Colombia since the election has made the Polo's challenge clearer. It has started to organise the millions who did not vote at all in 2006-55 percent abstained in the presidential elections - with policies prioritising the poor, indigenous and workers.

These threats to Colombia's complacent elite have led the president's supporters in Congress to propose the "coup" in an attempt to avoid further opposition advances. But should that happen, the Polo's organising among Colombia's workers and in the barrios has ensured that it will not need congress to be heard. The opposition will be in the streets, and Colombia will be a step nearer to joining Latin America's left turn.

Paul Haste is a T&G union organiser, currently in Bogota