Santos stumbles in Colombia
Vagueness of president’s campaign will help him in run-off
NEW YORK — The presidential election in Colombia has turned out to be more competitive than expected. Despite the solid economic growth, real progress in poverty reduction, growing social and economic inclusion and limited (but not negligible) progress in peace talks with the weakened guerillas, incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos will fall short of the absolute majority needed to win re-election on May 25. In his effort to build consensus and distinguish himself from the polarizing figure of former president Álvaro Uribe, Santos wants to please everyone. Still, because it is not clear what opposition candidate will make it to the run-off, Santos’s ambiguity in the campaign toward the first round vote will help secure victory in the run-off contest on June 15.
After four decades in civil war, Colombia came close to achieving peace under president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). A strong and stubborn leader who liked to concentrate power in his own hands, Uribe was able to restore economic growth and, with decisive leadership, cornered the left-wing FARC guerillas. Though there were repeated accusations of human rights violations committed by the military and rightwing paramilitary groups, the Uribe administration turned the other cheek. For Uribe, the policy of democratic security (or fighting the guerillas at any cost) was a necessary condition before full-blown democracy could take hold in the country.
In 2010, after Uribe unsuccessfully tried to stay in office for a third presidential term, Santos showed a special ability to bring together leaders from the entire political spectrum running as the candidate of Uribe’s coalition. Upon taking office, Santos continued to administer Colombia’s stable economy, but placed more attention on promoting social and economic inclusion. Santos also departed from his predecessor in promoting peace talks with the guerrilla. For Santos, legitimizing lasting peace was more important than seeking to annihilate the guerillas. His pro-inclusion policies extended to the guerilla fighters who would be less of a threat if they were incorporated into society rather than exterminated.
Four years into his term, the results of Santos’ policies have been mixed. The country’s economy has continued to expand and inclusion programmes show concrete results. Poverty has gone down and the benefits of economic growth have reached a growing number of Colombians. However, progress on the peace talks has been discreet. In the view of many, Santos’ efforts have backfired as the guerillas are stronger now than four years ago and seem more interested in delaying the peace talks than in discussing the terms of their surrender.
Shortly after taking office, Santos and Uribe became adversaries. Uribe spent a good part of the past four years criticizing his former minister. Accusing Santos of mismanagement and even corruption — and being accused by Santos of stubbornness — Uribe turned into the leading opposition figure. Unsurprisingly, Uribe mounted an effort to oust Santos from the presidency. Since the Constitution prevents him from running himself, Uribe recruited his capable but uncharismatic former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga as a candidate. After Uribe’s newly-created party did well in the legislative election held in April, Zuluaga had a good starting-point in the campaign. Yet, his lack of charisma has prevented him from capitalizing on the support Uribe continues to draw among Colombians. In recent weeks, Zuluaga has improved in polls, but continues to trail Santos. With the incumbent president polling voting intentions near 35 percent, Zuluaga struggles to reach 20 percent.
Many Colombians have been turned off by the Santos-Uribe dispute. As a result, alternative presidential candidates Marta Lucía Ramírez, from the Conservative Party, and the former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, of the Green Alliance, are polling at around 10 to 15 percent. Claiming that Zuluaga stands little chance of defeating Santos in a run-off, Ramírez and Peñalosa are seeking to convince Colombians that they represent better alternatives for challenging the incumbent president on June 15.
Though polls find it difficult to anticipate turn-out — which has historically been low in Colombia — most analysts predict that Santos will make it to the run-off and that, regardless of who he faces in the June 15 vote, will be re-elected. Because he does not know the name of his opponent, Santos has tried hard to be different things to different voters. If he faces Zuluagua, the run-off will be a popularity contest between Santos and Uribe. If Peñalosa ends up second, Santos will need to attract right-of-centre and traditional voters. If Ramírez ends up second, Santos will need to cater to moderates and urban workers.
Therefore, Santos has purposely stayed away from stating explicit political views. As his presidency was characterized by his efforts to build consensus, many Colombians do not know what Santos really stands for. Ironically, that lack of definition on key political issues might turn out to be his advantage when the first-round vote on May 25 determines which of the three opposition presidential candidates will face off against Santos.