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August 28, 2014
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Zuluaga goes from unknown to likely winner

Colombian presidential candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga greets supporters in a campaign rally in Villeta, last month.
By Carolina Thibaud
Herald Staff
How scandal-ridden campaign has helped Uribe’s candidate take front stage

A series of scandals that shook the campaign of Colombian opposition candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga seem to have helped the Uribista candidate gain popularity rather than hurt his chances of winning the runoff, Javier Restrepo, the Public Affairs director at pollster Ipsos-Napoleón Franco told the Herald. Zuluaga, a relative newcomer to politics, is the hand-picked candidate of former president Álvaro Uribe and, up until recently, was perceived as merely a puppet controlled by the very popular former leader.

The scandals, Restrepo believes, have helped Zuluaga emerge from the shadows and become a candidate in his own right.

“Logic would indicate that the scandals would (negatively) affect the candidate but in practice that didn’t happen,” Restrepo said. “They actually helped him gain notoriety.”

Ipsos polls from recent months show that, up until March, the majority of Colombians — 52 percent — didn’t even know who the right-wing candidate was. “Then came the legislative elections, where Uribe’s political force put in a strong performance, and that gave him an important boost,” the Ipsos director explained. But it was the scandals that raised his profile, Restrepo added.

In a case that is still under investigation, the attorney general’s office accused Zuluaga of hiring an IT expert to hack into the email accounts of President Juan Manuel Santos — who is seeking re-election — and the government’s negotiators in Havana in an attempt to damage the ongoing peace process with the FARC.

Local magazine Semana even released footage, filmed at the offices of IT expert Andrés Sepúlveda, that shows Zuluaga and his campaign chief discussing a “strike” against the president.

Scandals, however, have also marred the incumbent. Santos’ chief strategist, Venezuelan-born J.J. Rendón, was forced to quit the president’s campaign after a drug dealer extradited to the US said he had paid Rendón US$12 million to lobby in favour of drug-cartels. Former president Uribe then claimed that some of that money, allegedly US$2 million, went to funding Santos’ election campaign in 2010. Uribe has so far failed to provide evidence to back up his allegations.

Polarization

If anything, the scandals are a result of the deep polarization evident in Colombian politics, Restrepo said. And even with campaigning finished, it still seems like anything could happenn.

Two polls — one by Ipsos and the other one by Invamer Gallup — have predicted a Zuluaga victory, while three other — Centro Nacional de Consultoría, Cifras y Conceptos and Datexco — have forecasted that Santos will win.

Restrepo attributed the discrepancy to the different methodologies used by pollsters but underlined that only Ipsos and Invamer “got right the results of the first round of voting.”

In the May 25 election, Zuluaga took 29.3 percent of the votes, against Santos’ 25.7 percent, an outcome that surprised many in Colombia.

Conservative candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez, leftist Clara López and Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa were left out of the race.

While Ramírez has sided with the Uribista candidate ahead of the runoff, López opted for Santos, in what she said was “a bid to defend the peace process.” Peñalosa, who favours the talks with the FARC, has given his followers freedom to choose.

But things may not be so simple. According to Restrepo, “endorsing a candidate has proved not to be very effective.” The analyst believes that political polarization has led to many “independent voters,” who won’t follow their candidate’s line or who may refuse to vote for either of the candidates in the runoff.

“Voters of López and Peñalosa seem to be more inclined to vote for Santos, while Ramírez’s voters seem more inclined to vote for Zuluaga,” Restrepo said.

However, he explained that voters who voted for the left and the Green Party in the first round have expressed less conviction when asked if they would cast a ballot in the runoff as compared to Conservative voters.

Only 40 percent of voters cast ballots in the first round, a number significantly lower than Colombia’s historic average, which is closer to 50 percent. Though 75 percent of those interviewed have said they will vote in the runoff, Ipsos calculates that turnout will be just a little over that of the first round — probably around 45 percent.

Santos’ strategy has centred on trying to present the second round as a vote “between war and peace.” But according to the latest Ipsos poll, Zuluaga has managed to convince Colombians that it is actually an election “between two different ways of achieving peace.”

Following his alliance with Ramírez, Zuluaga rolled back on his promise to suspend peace talks if he got to the presidency and said, instead, that he would continue negotiations but impose new, strict conditions on the FARC.

The change of strategy has worked well for him, Restrepo believes.

“Thirty percent of Colombians said they believe it is an election between war and peace, while the majority — 52 percent — think of it as an election between two different paths to peace,” he explained.

Former president Uribe has been the talks’ main critic since they were launched in November, 2012. His attacks against Santos, a former ally, and the peace process have been effective in convincing Colombians that the negotiations will not result in peace for the country.

Restrepo believes Santos made a tactical error by not talking about the negotiations enough when they began and only beginning to give his version of the process once the campaign was in full force.

“Uribe was the only one doing the talking (until then),” Restrepo said. Colombians have “bought” the former president’s arguments.

The only certainty is that, in today’s vote, the future of the current peace talks hangs in the balance.

While a Santos win would test the president’s ability to actually deliver a long-lasting peace deal after five decades of bloody conflict, a Zuluaga victory would mean dealing a fresh hand of cards to both sides and that all bets are off.

@carothibaud

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