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Colombia: The Contemporary Era, 1978–98
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > The Contemporary Era, 1978–98


The agreement to share government positions equally between Liberals and Conservatives expired in 1978. However, there remained a constitutional requirement to give the runner-up party an “equitable” share of appointments, and the next president—a Liberal politician of Lebanese descent, Julio César Turbay Ayala (president, 1978–82)—interpreted this requirement as meaning that he should give Conservatives a quota proportionate to their share of elected members of Congress. That amounted to roughly 40 percent. With two Liberals splitting their party’s vote next time around, a Conservative, Belisario Betancur Cuartas (president, 1982–86), succeeded Turbay and reverted to the system of the two parties each having a half share of appointments. Single-party rule reappeared only when Conservatives declined to accept the slice of patronage offered to them by Virgilio Barco Vargas (president, 1986–90), the Liberal elected after Betancur. Barco was not displeased, feeling that bipartisan government, by diluting responsibility, had contributed to the decline of public confidence in the political system; indeed, he did not really try very hard for Conservative collaboration. In practice, however, there was no sharp difference between Barco’s administration and those preceding it, and neither were there any longer significant policy differences between the traditional parties. The religious question, once hotly fought over, had disappeared from politics. Both parties supported the relative fiscal orthodoxy that spared Colombia the hyperinflation and unmanageable foreign debt afflicting various regional republics; and both were willing to maintain macroeconomic stability even at the expense of further investment in infrastructure and social services. Thus, the radical left was not wholly unjustified in regarding Liberals and Conservatives as two branches of a single establishment party.

Popular election of mayors, provided for in a 1985 constitutional amendment, did not necessarily improve the quality of local government, where entrenched clientelism (see Glossary) and, in most places, extreme fiscal penury were hard to overcome. Even so, local elections were a step toward greater openness, allowing anyone to compete for positions to which incumbents formerly were appointed by the governors, who in turn were appointed by the president. Although Conservatives were shut out of Barco’s cabinet, when the reform first went into effect they won the mayor’s office in both Bogotá and Medellín (thanks to Liberal divisions), while a new Patriotic Union (UP) party, with informal ties to the revolutionary left, picked up 16 mayoralties (out of 1,009 nationwide).

Data as of 2010

Last Updated: January 2010

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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Section 38 of 188


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