Despite having built a career as a Liberal Party politician, Alvaro Uribe reached the presidency as an independent running on an antitraditional party platform. Having lived through most of his life under the arrangement initially made in 1957 by the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties to alternate in power, Uribe rejected party elite agreements and instead advocated the direct participation of the people in choosing the national leadership. The demise of traditional parties began in the 1970s with the return of violence to Colombia's countryside and the rise of the left-wing guerrilla movement. The emergence of drug cartels in the 1980s brought violence back to Colombian cities and altered national politics. Difficult-to-understand and always-evolving ad hoc alliances and coalitions between local drug lords, guerilla organizations, paramilitary groups, and the Colombian armed forces have characterized much of Colombia's political life during the 1980s and 1990s. While Uribe built a political career during those decades, the influence of drug cartels in Colombian politics was made evident through leaked information on campaign financial contributions to presidential candidates and notorious cases of government corruption.
The two traditional parties, Conservative and Liberal, were directly associated with corruption. Voters first chose to punish the incumbent Liberal Party in 1998 when conservative Andrés Pastrana easily won the presidency. That year, for the first time in decades, Colombians witnessed the rise of alternative presidential candidates who blamed both the Conservative and Liberal parties for Colombia's violence and widespread levels of corruption. After Pastrana's effort to negotiate with the guerrilla movements to reach a ceasefire accord failed, his presidency lingered on until his term expired. Pastrana did sign an agreement with the United States whereby Colombia would receive more than US $500 million per year to combat drug trafficking and promote alternative crops among Colombian peasants who plant coca leaves. Critics denounced the heavy military focus of the plan and the limited resources for the alternative crop programs.
In any event, Pastrana's failure to bring about peace with the guerrillas and his inability to effectively curb drug production and trafficking substantially weakened the chances of the Conservatives for the 2002 presidential election. In addition, an increase in the level of urban violence, particularly of kidnappings, created the conditions for the rise of a candidate willing to campaign on an anticrime platform, who would promise to use all available means to defeat the guerrillas, combat drug cartels, and eliminate urban violence. Because the Liberal Party candidate entered the campaign with a more cautious approach, Uribe decided to renounce the Liberal Party and become the candidate that Colombians were waiting for. He rapidly rose in the polls and his popularity led many Liberal Party sympathizers to switch sides and support Uribe. When it was clear that the race was between Uribe and Liberal Party's Serpa, the Conservative candidate withdrew and called on his supporters to vote for Uribe. Uribe easily won the presidential election for a four-year term (2002–06).