For many years, the Colombian constitution allowed only two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative, to participate in the national government. These two parties consistently dominated Colombian politics. Recent changes allow for more parties, and several have emerged, but the Conservative and Liberal parties control a majority of elected offices.
The Liberal Party (Partido Liberal—PL) continues to support religious toleration and a positive response to the social and economic demands of the masses. The Liberals theoretically support separation of church and state, though in practice a strong church is accepted. Federalism, while important in theory, has been abandoned in practice by Liberal leaders. In general Liberals have been more successful in elections than the Conservatives, having won all but one post-National Front presidential elections, and controlling a majority of seats in both houses. In 1998, the Liberal Party lost the presidency but retained control of both Chambers.
The policy of the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Social—PCS) has been characterized by close cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, a lack of tolerance for non–Roman Catholic religious beliefs, maintenance of class privileges, and highly centralized government, with local authority strictly subservient to national rule. Before universal suffrage, the Conservatives sought to allow only heads of families to vote. Under the leadership of Andrés Pastrana, the son of former Conservative president Misael Pastrana, the PCS regained the presidency in 1998.
Despite the spread of suffrage and the rise of industrialization and a middle class, both parties continue to be dominated by a wealthy oligarchy. Both are controlled at the national level by a convention and a directorate, and congressional discipline is strong. Since the National Front agreement of 1958, the two parties have become increasingly similar ideologically.
Congressional and presidential elections from 1958 through 1982 primarily constituted votes of confidence in the National Front. Perhaps as a means of protest, 60% of eligible voters abstained from the presidential election in 1978, and 80% of the electorate abstained from the municipal and local elections of March 1980. In 1982 and 1986, however, Colombian voters turned out in record numbers, with 55% of the electorate participating in the presidential ballot in 1982 and 57% in 1988.
The Colombian Communist Party (Partido Communista de Colombia—PCC), a traditional, Marxist-oriented party, combined with the nation's largest guerrilla group, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC, to form the Patriotic Union (UP); the group has not become major force in electoral politics.
There is considerable independent party activity in Colombia, and it has been increasing. Traditionally, the third force in Colombian politics was provided by former dictator Rojas Pinilla, whose National Popular Alliance (Alianza Nacional Popular—ANAPO), now defunct, was a strong party movement. The election of 19 April 1970 gave rise to the extremist rebel group M-19, which stood for the April 19th Movement. After over two decades of military actions against the government, M-19 demobilized in 1991 and fielded candidates in the 1990 elections. Currently, M-19 is part of a coalition of leftist parties and other dissident groups, called Democratic Alliance M-19.
Several militant leftist groups remain outside the political system, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Although officially a member of the Patriotic Union, the FARC also refuses to demobilize. The People's Liberation Army (EPL) began to demobilize in 1993, but a dissident faction refused orders to lay down arms, and returned to the field.
Ernesto Samper Pizano of the Liberal Party was elected president in 1994 with 50.4% of the vote, defeating PSC candidate Andrés Pastrana. Following the 1994 elections, 59 Senate seats were held by the Liberal Party, 31 by Conservatives, and 12 by other parties; in the House of Representatives, the Liberals had 89 seats, Conservatives 53, AD/M-19 had 2, and other parties had 17. In 1998, Pastrana obtained 52% of the vote and became Colombia's first Conservative president in more than a decade. The Liberal Party retained control of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies with 98 of 161 seats in the Chamber and 51 out of 102 seats in the Senate. In 2002, the Liberal Party obtained 31 and 54 seats in Senate and Chamber respectively, consolidating its leading position. But many more parties gained seats and party fractionalization became the rule rather than the exception. The traditional parties have lost so much power that even the president, for the first time since 1957, was not elected under the Liberal or Conservative party tickets.