Thursday, October 27, 2011

Following the Money to City Hall

Ask where the candidates' pesos came from and you will know to whom they belong.
If one thing is clear in the campaign for mayor of Bogotá, it's that whoever wins will have some debts to repay.

The National Electoral Council has done an admiral job of posting candidates' accounts of their campaign donations online. And the numbers are just as depressing as those of United States politicians, with its legal, institutionalized pay-to-play system.

The excellent investigative website La Silla Vacia published this summary of the sources of Bogotá mayoral candidates' money. The three leading candidates, Gustavo Petro, a leftist who leads in most polls, and the (apparently) center-right candidates Enrique Peñalosa and Gina Parody, are all near the 1.646 billion peso limit for mayoral campaign spending.

Wasted money: Petro campaign
cards scattered on a sidewalk near
the Central Cemetery. 
Perhaps Petro's finances have received the most attention. He's a leftist and one-time M-19 guerrilla, but some big businesses nevertheless evidently consider him a good investment. Petro has received money from a leader of farmers, which seem like an unlikely group to be supporting a candidate for big-city mayor, the owner of a transportation company, a construction company, a bank and someone who La Silla Vacia couldn't even identify. Most worryingly, El Espectador columnist Cecilia Orozco Tascón writes that two of Petro's deep-pocketed business donors were created recently, apparently just to donate to Petro. One company, strangely, actually donated more than the financial capital it was created with.

Peñalosa received lots of money from a plumbing fixtures company and the well-known businesses Comcel, Exito and Seguros Bolívar.

For her part, Parody spent family money (her father has maritime and port interests) and received donations from banks and an insurance company.

Interestingly, several big businesses have covered their bases by supporting more than one of the leading candidates. Grupo Bolivar, for example, donated to all three leading candidates, assuring itself an open door no matter who wins.

Some of these contributors might just be friends who happen to believe in the candidates, which is justifiable. But it also seems likely that most people shoveling in millions of pesos will want a payback if their man or woman wins.

Of course, all these finance reports assume that the candidates are actually being honest. And political money is notorious for being duplicitous. How many businessmen and mafiosos have funneled money to politicians thru girlfriends and second cousins' wives?

And money isn't everything. Peñalosa, for example, has received support from evangelical churches - which rightly worries civil liberties advocates.

El Espectador also summarized the finances of mayoral candidates from Colombia's secondary cities, and some of their funding sources are very suggestive. For example, a candidate from Barranquilla accepted lots of money from a construction company, and one from Cartagena from hotel interests. if those candidates win, those businesses will likely be lining up for payback in municipal contracts.

In contrast, many local candidates from smaller parties haven't declared the sources of their money. That's likely in part because those small-town, small-party candidates lack the resources and sophistication to crunch these numbers. But the situation certainly opens the door to dirty business, since many rural areas are notorious for corruption. Suggesting that something fishy's up, in some small towns actually have more voters listed than residents.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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