President Santos stumbles

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 13, 2014


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 25th. In his effort to build consensus and distinguish himself from the polarizing figure of former president Alvaro Uribe, Santos wants to please everyone. Still, because it is not clear what opposition candidate will make it to the runoff, Santos’s ambiguity in the campaign for the first round vote will turn out to help secure victory in the runoff contest on June 15th.


After four decades in civil war, Colombia came close to achieving piece under President Alvaro 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 leftwing FARC guerillas. Though there were repeated accusations of human rights violations committed by the military and rightwing paramilitary groups, the Uribe administration looked to the other side. 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, Santos showed a special ability to bring together leaders from the entire political spectrum as he ran as the candidate of President Uribe’s coalition. Upon taking office, Santos continued to administer Colombia’s stable economy, but placed more attention in 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 also extended to 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’s policies have been mixed. The country’s economy has continued to expand and inclusion programs 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 discrete. In the view of many, Santos’s efforts have backfired as the guerillas are stronger now than 4 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. Not surprisingly, Uribe mounted an effort to oust Santos from the presidency. Since the constitution prevents him from running himself, Uribe recruited his apt but uncharismatic former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga as a candidate. Since 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 he continues to trail Santos.  As the incumbent president is showing a vote intention near 35%, Zuluaga struggles to reach 20%.


Many Colombians have been turned off by the Santos-Uribe disputes. 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%.  Claiming that Zuluaga stands little chance of defeating Santos in a runoff, Ramírez and Peñalosa are seeking to convince Colombians that they represent better alternatives to challenge the incumbent president in the runoff in mid-June.


Though polls find it difficult to anticipate turnout—which has historically been low in Colombia—most analysts predict that Santos will make it to the runoff and that, regardless of who he faces off in the June 15th vote, Santos will be re-elected.  Because he does not know the name of his runoff adversary, Santos has tried hard to be different things to different voters.  If he faces Zuluagua, the runoff will be a popularity contest between Santos and Uribe.  If Peñalosa ends up second, Santos will need to attract right-of-center and traditional voters. If Ramírez ends up second, Santos will need to cater to moderate and urban workers. 


As he does not who he will run against in the short presidential runoff campaign, 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 his advantage when the first round vote on May 25th determines which of the three opposition presidential candidate will face off with Santos on June 15th.