Colombian President Santos’s Challenges Now … and Later

By Fulton Armstrong
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Colombian polls continue to give President Santos a comfortable margin in a second-round re-election victory, but the gap is closing – and an array of issues plaguing his campaign suggest serious challenges ahead for a second term.  The economy grew 4.3 percent last year, and optimism about future growth is so strong that the central bank is implementing measures to keep inflation under control.  The peace process with the FARC has been tedious – yielding agreements on only two of five main agenda items over 17 months of talks – but the fundamental drivers of the talks, including fatigue on both sides, remain strong.  But a number of political messes are swirling around the President:

  • The Army was caught red-handed spying on Santos’s top advisors in the FARC negotiations, suggesting disloyalty to him as Commander in Chief.  (The intercept center that police last week [6 May] raided was not the Army’s.  It was staffed by contractors reporting to the Centro Democrático, the party of former President Uribe and Santo’s leading rival in the election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga.)
  • Uribe, who in March won a seat in the Colombian Senate, has been a relentless critic and drawn Santos into public spats.  Santos recently called on the former President to “stop causing the country harm” and to stop politicizing the Armed Forces.
  • An agricultural strike launched in late April has revived memories of a nasty confrontation last year and threatens food supplies in the run-up to the election.  Santos has mobilized police and military assets to keep highways open, but a political solution has eluded him.
  • In late April, the courts forced Santos to reinstate Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, whom he had removed a month earlier because the nation’s inspector general, an Uribe partisan, found that the mayor’s decision to cancel private garbage-collection contracts did not follow proper procedure.  Santos had gone ahead with the firing over the objections of a unanimous Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • Santos’s political message has been off target.  He has made the peace talks his top priority and proclaimed that “the second term will be about peace,” but polls indicate that only 5 percent of voters say the peace process is their top concern.

If the polls are correct, Colombians voting in the first round on May 25 and second round on June 15 feel little enthusiasm for Santos, but even less for Zuluaga and Uribe’s party.  A recent surge in support for former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa suggests, on the other hand, that voters could turn on both candidates.  Behind the numbers is a country eager to consolidate its democracy, maintain stability and – probably – end the 50-year insurgency.  But the red flags – such as the security service’s continued penchant for spying on government officials – are not inconsequential.  Santos, who was Defense Minister during Uribe’s presidency, should have earned the military’s confidence, will have to decide how far to push the military to respect democratically elected civilian leadership.  The farmers’ demands, including relief from low-priced, low-quality imports facilitated by Colombia’s free trade agreements, will also be difficult to satisfy.  A peace deal with the FARC will be an historic achievement, but the political reality is probably that any assistance to demobilized combatants will be minuscule compared to that given to the former paramilitaries – increasing the likelihood that ex-insurgents, like the paramilitaries, will join the bandas criminales (BACRIM) who continue to maraud throughout large swaths of the country.  Santos’s second term, should he win one, will not be easy.

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2 Comments

  1. Great piece, though this week the latest polls show a Santos defeat to Zuluaga. Check out my blog for the stats at vbouvier.wordpress.com.

    Reply
  2. Fulton

     /  May 16, 2014

    Ginny, you’re right! Thanks! … The media seem to be giving the Gallup poll different spin — ranging from “a statistical tie” to an indication that Zuluaga would win in a second round. … What do you (and our readers) think? … Insofar as Uribe rises, is it fair to say that Santos falls (making our scenarios even worse for him)? Or is Santos’s style — which seems quite distinct from Uribe’s all-or-nothing approach — flexible enough that he’ll do fine if reelected despite these bumps in the road? … And what would a Zuluaga victory in the second round look like?!??!?!? … COMMENTS WELCOME, as always!

    Reply

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