For Uribe, it’s strictly personal

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 11, 2014


The results of the legislative election in Colombia confirmed that, among those who bothered to vote, the roadmap championed by President Juan Manuel Santos continues to draw more support than the alternatives. Yet, the high vote received by former president and now senator-elect Álvaro Uribe is a warning call for Santos. Many Colombians are worried that the costs of the peace talks with the FARC guerrillas outweigh the benefits. Fortunately for Santos’ reelection chances at the upcoming May 25 presidential election, Uribe's personalist leadership style will not be easily transferred to his handpicked candidate.


After leading Colombia for eight years, Álvaro Uribe retired from the presidency in 2010. First elected in 2002, Uribe successfully led a constitutional referendum campaign to allow presidents one consecutive re-election. Uribe easily won a second term in 2006. With Uribe’s implicit support, his allies unsuccessfully attempted to further reform the Constitution to allow for indefinite re-election. Despite his high approval, the most transformative Colombian president in the last four decades gave up power. His former minister, Juan Manuel Santos, a political ally and the heir to one of the most powerful Colombian political dynasties, was elected president in 2010.


Owing his victory in no small part to Uribe’s popularity, Santos nonetheless immediately distanced himself from the former president’s legacy. Though he deepened the market-friendly policies championed by Uribe, Santos modified Uribe’s heavy-handed policy against the guerrillas. Instead, claiming that the FARC were cornered, Santos agreed to negotiate a peace deal with the group, the oldest guerrilla in Latin America. Sponsored by the Cuban government, the peace process has advanced at a snail’s pace.


When President Santos launched his peace plan, Uribe soon became his fiercest critic. Formerly perceived as political allies and collaborators, Santos and Uribe became political antagonists. Using his Twitter account — and every opportunity he had in the mass media — Uribe continuously criticized Santos and became the de facto leader of the rightwing opposition. Because he had feared that his strongest opposition would come from the left, Santos had made gestures to labour unions and leftwing leaders as a presidential candidate. When he realized that Uribe was a bigger threat to his presidential leadership, Santos attempted to move to the right. But the ongoing peace talks with the FARC and Santos’ decision to accept an unfavourable ruling on a border dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua by the International Court of The Hague weakened Santos’ position and allowed Uribe to play his card as a strong nationalist and tough-on-the-guerrilla leader.


Having formed a new conservative party — Centro Democrático — comprised of conservative political allies, Uribe led the ticket as a candidate for the Senate. Having won 19 of the 102 seats in the Senate, Uribe successfully denied Santos’ coalition a clear majority in the Upper Chamber. If he teams up with the Conservative Party (17 seats), Uribe will command 36 seats in the Senate. President Santos’ three-party coalition will have 47 seats. Leftwing parties and independents will have the other 19 seats. In the Lower Chamber, Santos’ coalition will retain a majority. Thus, though he no longer has a majority in the Senate, the president has managed to keep his strong legislative support.


Backing for Uribe can be explained by a combination of factors. Having brought the FARC guerrilla to its knees and having presided over a period of economic growth, Uribe is regarded by many as the president who rescued Colombia from a prolonged social and political crisis. His politically irresponsible nationalist rhetoric calling on the government to repudiate the International Court ruling in favour of Nicaragua also scored him some points with public opinion. But Uribe’s biggest source of support comes from the slow progress in the peace talks with the FARC in Cuba. As the stalled peace process has undoubtedly damaged Santos’ popularity, his leading political adversary has benefitted.


The progress made by Uribe in the legislative election is unlikely to become a stepping-stone for his handpicked presidential candidate, former finance minister Oscar Zuluaga. Santos is still ahead and will likely win re-election in May. Uribe is personally popular, but his personalist style makes it difficult for him to pass his support onto his presidential candidate. Moreover, Uribe has gained notoriety because of what he stands against. So far, he has been unable to credibly present Colombians with what he stands for. Undeniably, Uribe was a successful president in winning the war against the guerrillas, but Colombians continue to believe that Santos is better suited to secure lasting peace.


Because Uribe has built his coalition around his persona, rather than seeking to build a political party founded upon principles and institutional strength, the electoral results will be far less favourable for his political party in the May presidential election, when his name is not on the ticket. As his coalition held onto its majority control in the Chamber of Representatives and remained the largest force in the Senate, Santos has more reasons to celebrate than his main political adversary.