Colombian archenemies

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 27, 2014


The presidential election run-off in Colombia between two unlikely political adversaries will not redefine the roadmap for the country in the next four years, but it will settle the dispute between former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2014). Regardless of who wins, the June 15 vote will bring a much-needed end to the very personal confrontation that has dominated Colombian politics for the past few years.


In 2010, after eight years in power, controversial president Álvaro Uribe was forced to step down after efforts by his allies to change the Constitution to allow Uribe to run for a third term failed. Reluctantly, Uribe threw his support behind his former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos. Santos went on to easily win in the run-off. Though the two men were never close, Santos behaved as a loyal member of Uribe’s Party and paid his dues to get his party’s presidential nomination. Because Uribe would have preferred to stay for another term, Santos’ nomination inevitably generated tensions between the two men.


Though they share market-friendly values and right-of-centre political views, Santos and Uribe have very different origins and trajectories. Whereas Santos belongs to a traditional, liberal, oligarchic family from Bogotá, Uribe comes from a landed upper middle-class family in Medellín. Santos is a worldly intellectual whereas Uribe is a no-nonsense intuitive politician. Santos is a consensus builder, whereas Uribe pushes forward in uncompromising ways.


Uribe was a very popular president, as he led his country through a period of economic growth and effective military action against the FARC guerrillas. Yet, if Uribe was better at winning the war against the FARC, Santos is probably better suited at winning peace.


Elected president mostly due to Uribe’s popularity, Santos sought to establish himself once in power. Claiming that he was building on — rather than reformulating — Uribe’s democratic security policies, Santos convened peace talks with the guerillas. The fall-out with Uribe was instant. Since then, Colombian politics has revolved around the confrontations between the two men. Uribe seems obsessed with forcing Santos out of power. The current president seems to be more preoccupied with responding to the former president’s criticisms than with governing. The rest of Colombia watches on as the two men compete over who will lead the country down the same path.


In the first-round vote, Uribe’s handpicked presidential candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga finished first with 29.3 percent of the vote, ahead of President Santos (25.7 percent) and three other candidates.


Though the polls anticipated a close race, Zuluaga’s first-place finish was somewhat unexpected. The low 40 percent turn-out — a record low since 1994 — might have helped Zuluaga, as Uribe’s supporters have stronger views than moderate Colombians who were more likely to vote for Santos.


On Sunday night, Santos quickly went on television to build bridges between his campaign and the Conservative Party’s Marta Lucía Ramírez (15.5 percent), who campaigned against corruption and whose votes will likely go to Zuluaga.


Santos also had friendly words for left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole candidate Clara López (15.3 percent) too, whose supporters despise Uribe more than they dislike Santos. Finally, Santos reached out to Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa (8.3 percent) whose votes might end up being decisive.


Zuluaga and Uribe will also seek to attract some of the 29 million (60 percent) voters who did not show up at the polls. If turn-out increases marginally in urban areas, Santos should come up ahead and secure a second term on June 15.


However, if turn-out decreases even more, then Zuluaga stands a good chance of defeating the incumbent and becoming Colombia’s next president. If Santos were to lose the run-off, he would be the first sitting president in recent Latin American history to be defeated in a re-election bid.


As the short run-off campaign gets underway, Santos will try to build support among anti-Uribe voters. By claiming that the choice is between those who want an end to the war and those who want an endless war, Santos has chosen to run against Uribe. His low first round score has made it clear that if he wins, he will only be the lesser of two evils for many voters. After four years in power, Santos cannot win re-election solely on his record.


Zuluaga will reach out to conservative voters. After all, the Conservative Party used to belong to Uribe’s coalition. Uribe’s former Finance Minister welcomes the move by Santos to turn the election into a referendum on the former president.


Zuluaga is a dull campaigner and lacks personal appeal and leadership. If the election turns into a referendum, Zuluaga will need his ally to mobilize his supporters and dissuade detractors from voting.


Most analysts anticipate that Santos will prevail in the end, but the fact that Zuluaga came out ahead in the first round vote has given him momentum. Yet, for Zuluaga to win, Uribe’s supporters will need to turn out in higher numbers than those who want to reject the former president’s effort to regain control of the Nariño presidential palace.