Colombia: Four More Years for Santos

By Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: eltiempo.com / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo Credit: eltiempo.com / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Incumbent center-right president Juan Manuel Santos emerged triumphant from yesterday’s second round of presidential balloting in Colombia – giving momentum to his peace talks with the FARC and his efforts to continue improving the country’s democracy.  He defeated challenger Oscar Iván Zuluaga, of the rightwing Union of the Democratic Center, which is led by former President Álvaro Uribe, a polarizing figure remembered in Washington as George W. Bush’s favorite Latin American leader.  Santos prevailed by a clear margin of five percentage points, and Colombia’s technically impeccable vote-counting process virtually ensures that the outcome will not be disputed.  The turnout of 2.4 million additional voters yesterday reduced voter abstention from 60 percent in the first round to a still-worrisome 52 percent.  Regional divisions among the electorate were striking: in some areas long plagued by Colombia’s civil conflict, the President won overwhelmingly, and he achieved substantial gains in Bogota, winning a strong majority, thanks in large measure to the endorsement of leading leftist politicians.  By contrast, in the central and southern parts of the country, particularly in Antioquia, the bastion of Uribismo, the opposition candidate garnered nearly two thirds of the vote.

The candidates’ campaigns focused on the polarizing issue of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which Santos launched early in his administration and have proceeded slowly but steadily in Havana.  The President sought a second term in order to complete the negotiations and end a conflict that some estimate has taken more than 200,000 lives and caused devastating human and material damage over the past half century.  By contrast, Zuluaga, taking his cue from his mentor and chief advocate Uribe – who had spent Santos’ first term and virtually all of the campaign vilifying the President as a traitor for having launched the talks – changed approach in the second round and suggested that he, too, sought peace but would impose far more stringent preconditions before talks.  Most commentators viewed his shift as suggesting a return to the Uribe-era policy of crushing the insurgency before speaking with it.  Ironically, polls showed an electorate that was barely interested in the talks and far more concerned with other issues as elsewhere in Latin America: citizen security, unemployment and public services (such as health, education and transportation) were at the forefront of voters’ concerns.  On these fronts the two candidates offered little to distinguish themselves from one another.  Further assessments of the voting data will indicate whether this may account for low voter participation in an election that outsiders perceived as momentous.

While commentary in Washington and abroad has focused on the implications of the election for the peace process, the longer term consequences may lie elsewhere, particularly in the robustness of Colombia’s democratic institutions.  We will never know the extent to which Zuluaga would have been a pawn of Uribe, but suspicions were widespread that he was to the former President as Dmitry Medvedev was to Vladimir Putin.  Thus, beyond potential reversal of the negotiations for peace, a Zuluaga presidency might have entailed a return to authoritarian practices that had undermined Colombia’s democracy under Uribe and that Santos did much to rectify.  Although he is a staunchly establishment figure, Santos has advanced the spirit and letter of the 1991 Constitution, a progressive charter that emphasized separation of powers, rule of law, a strong and accountable judiciary, as well as minority representation and unwavering respect for human rights and accountability for abuses.  Santos also embodied a spirit of reasoned deliberation both at home and in matters abroad.  His pragmatic dealings with the often troublesome regime in neighboring Venezuela have been a far cry from the saber rattling that the rightwing authoritarian populist Uribe directed toward his similarly bombastic leftwing authoritarian counterpart Hugo Chávez.  Four more years of Santos may or may not produce tangible advances on the issues that seem to preoccupy the Colombian electorate – jobs, public safety and services – but they probably will ensure continued strengthening of democratic institutions and continued opportunities for Colombia to join with sensible governments elsewhere in the region to cooperate productively regarding Venezuela and other regional concerns. It may also pave the way towards a lasting peace and some degree of reconciliation for a country long plagued by civil war. 

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.