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August 1, 2014

COLOMBIAN ELECTIONS

Monday, May 26, 2014

Álvaro Uribe, a shadow candidate in the race

Colombian former president and elected senator Álvaro Uribe speaks to the media before casting his vote during presidential elections in Bogotá yesterday.
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post

Influence of former president, still Colombia’s most polarizing figure, was key to campaign

BOGOTÁ — During the Colombian presidential campaign, the debate was not an ideological one.

Both incumbent Juan Manuel Santos and his rival Oscar Iván Zuluaga are conservatives who would preserve Colombia’s close ties to the United States and further free-trade policies for Latin America’s third most populous country.

Instead, the race pivoted on two other, related factors: the controversial peace negotiations with the FARC and the abiding influence of ex-president Álvaro Uribe, now a senator, who remains the country’s most polarizing figure.

Santos is Uribe’s arch-rival. Zuluaga is Uribe’s hand-picked protegé.

“Voters saw this as a battle between Santos and Uribe, not Santos and Zuluaga,” said a Javier Restrepo, a pollster with Ipsos, noting that Zuluaga was so unknown that more than half of Colombians had never heard him as recently as January.

Peace talks

Few doubt that the evolving peace deal with the FARC, the country’s largest insurgent group, is at risk of collapsing if Zuluaga wins.

“Peace is close at hand,” Santos says in campaign commercials. “We can’t go backward.”

But surveys show deep ambivalence about the negotiations. While most Colombians want peace, said pollster Restrepo, “they’re pessimistic about the talks with FARC because they don’t believe they’ll lead to a good agreement.”

Santos represents the negotiated solution. Zuluaga, like Uribe before him, represents a military one.

When Uribe was president between 2002 and 2010, his aggressive anti-insurgency campaign cut the FARC’s ranks by half and severely weakened the guerrillas, pushing them into more remote jungle areas.

“Peace without impunity,” is Zuluaga’s campaign pitch, and he insists that the FARC lay down its arms before continuing any talks.

This is a non-starter for the guerrillas, tantamount to surrender.

But defeating the FARC on the battlefield could take many more years, especially because the organization has begun to profit from a mining and oil boom in remote jungle areas under its control. It retains an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 armed fighters and continues to conscript children into its ranks.

After more than 18 months of formal negotiations in Cuba, the government and FARC leaders have agreed on three points of their five-point agenda: agrarian reform, the ability of FARC leaders to participate in electoral politics and an end to drug-trafficking.

A ‘horrible marriage’

The last point, announced in Havana on May 16, is considered especially significant, because it is the first time the FARC has acknowledged its role in the drug trade. The group committed to implementing crop substitution programmes in rural areas, replacing the coca and opium fields that have long helped finance its war-making ability.

But coming just 10 days before the vote, the FARC announcement injected an extremely awkward dynamic into the race — criticized by other candidates as unseemly — in which Santos is both fighting the guerrillas and needing their help to push back against perceptions that the talks are a waste of time.

María Victoria Llorente, a security expert who directs the Ideas for Peace think tank, called it “a horrible marriage.”

Ties with Venezuela

Yet another wild card is the increasing instability of Colombia’s neighbour to the east, Venezuela. In a debate this past week, Zuluaga said flatly that the country “is not a democracy” and harbours FARC “terrorists.” He said Santos has been “silently complicit” in allowing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to erode democratic rule, and he said he would tighten border controls.

When Uribe was president, he and then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez often clashed, even bringing the countries to the brink of war. But Santos has declined to engage the blustery Maduro in verbal jousting and said that effective diplomacy requires “prudence.”

If Zuluaga wins and the embattled Maduro senses a political advantage in ratcheting up tensions, it could affect regional stability, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“There is a high probability that Zuluaga would take Colombia back to a time when relations with Venezuela were more volatile,” Isacson said. “And if Zuluaga pulls the plug on the peace process, the presence of FARC on Venezuelan soil goes right to the top of the agenda.”

FARC commanders ordered a unilateral cease-fire through Wednesday to avoid “disturbing” the election.

@nickmiroff

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