Though there are few certainties in politics, the broad outcome of Colombia’s impending elections, scheduled for 30 May, appears inevitable: the next government will be conservative, and it will keep in place many of current President Álvaro Uribe’s popular policies.
Most polls show that the two main contenders for the presidency are Juan Manuel Santos, candidate for the Partido de la U (Party of the U) and formerly Defence Minister under President Uribe, and Noemí Sanín, candidate for the Conservative party and formerly Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, making this election a contest between uribistas, as the President’s supporters are called.
But until recently it seemed unlikely that either of them would take up residence in the presidential palace, Casa de Nariño, since it was only in February of this year that Colombia’s Supreme Court blocked a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would have permitted Uribe to run for a third term. The Constitution had already been amended to allow Uribe two consecutive (rather than non-consecutive) terms, and he was widely expected to win the proposed referendum with a sweeping majority, just as he had at both previous elections.
Many were worried that Colombia could not survive without Uribe to protect it against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist terrorist group responsible for a recent car bomb in the Pacific port city of Buenaventura which killed seven people – merely the latest act in a long history of violence. Whatever other criticisms are levied against Uribe, he has been highly successful at keeping his promise to his people to reduce violence: since he was elected in 2002, murders have dropped from 30,000 to 16,000, and kidnappings from 3,000 to 180, per year – hence his near-Messianic popularity.
Had Uribe run, Santos, his closest protégé and currently the leading presidential candidate, would not have contested the election, even though as leader of the Party of the U he would have been assured a viable ticket. For although the ‘U’ stands for ‘Unity’, it implicitly stands for ‘Uribe’: this is a party formed during the Uribe presidency to unify his supporters across a spectrum of political offices. Santos is tremendously admired in Colombia, and he shot to international fame as the mastermind of 2008’s Operación Jaque, in which the Colombian military rescued Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three American contractors and 11 other captives from FARC rebels without a single shot being fired.
Sanín, on the other hand, had to fight to win her candidacy for the Conservative party in a closer-than-anticipated race against Andrés Felipe Arias, Uribe’s Minister of Agriculture, who is commonly known as ‘Uribito’ (‘mini-Uribe’). To Sanín’s advantage, Arias’ reputation had already been damaged by revelations that some of the land and development subsidies meant to both fight poverty and increase Colombia’s agricultural competitiveness had been diverted to some of the wealthiest landowning families in the country.
So now the Conservative candidacy, and the number two slot in the polls, belongs to the charismatic Noemí Sanín, who had to quit her ambassadorial post in London last year in order to run. A third-time presidential candidate, she has almost triple the following of the man in third place: Antanas Mockus of the Green Party. It is not difficult to see why – a tough conservative with a common touch and great compassion, Sanín is a sort of Maggie-Thatcher-meets-Princess-Diana, and very beautiful too.
Sanín’s popularity means that there is likely to be a second round of voting on 20 June. In order for a candidate to be declared an outright winner in the first round, they must win by a clear majority; but according to a variety of polls, Santos and Sanín can expect around 33 and 24 per cent of the vote, respectively. In a second-round election it would be simply Sanín against Santos, and polls on the outcome of that race put them in a dead heat – well within the polls’ three per cent margin of error. Inter-party alliances and smaller parties will therefore become critical in the second round.
Sanín and Santos are already negotiating which parties they will absorb when the other candidates are eliminated. The fifth place Radical Change party, currently led by presidential candidate Germán Vargas, already boasts on its website that it is part of Uribe’s coalition, so it can be expected to support Santos over Sanín, and indeed Santos has already stated that it will form part of his coalition.
But Santos faces obstacles elsewhere to his coalition-building efforts. During the primary race for the Conservative party candidacy between Sanín and Arias, Arias pledged that he would remain loyal to the party even if he lost. However, Arias’ close friend Santos has since offered him a ministerial post in exchange for his support during the campaign (should it prove successful). While Arias is inclined to stump for his close friend, public pressure is building for him to stay true to his word – and the one million people who voted for him in the primaries – rather than switch allegiance to Santos.
The fourth-place Independent Democratic Pole (PDI) could also become a powerful ally, especially without its leader Gustavo Petro, who has been voted the most distrusted of all the presidential candidates. Even the much-diminished Liberal party comes into play for the two leading conservatives, Santos and Sanín, because Uribe was himself a member prior to his first run for the presidency.
Another small but reputable player is the tiny Citizens’ Compromise for Colombia, led by Sergio Fajardo, the successful mathematician-turned-mayor who steered Medellín out of its crushing poverty and violence toward a rebirth that has become a global paradigm. When I was in Medellín in April of last year, everyone spoke with excitement and much gratitude of Fajardo and his administration. So his nascent party would be good branding, adding gravitas and a compassionate touch to either campaign.
There is also talk among the smaller parties of possibly banding together in order to stand a chance against Sanín in the first round and thus potentially run against Santos in the second round. Ultimately, Santos is the one to beat, as captured in the popular campaign slogan ‘Tocosán’, which is short for ‘Todos contra Santos’ (‘Everyone against Santos’).
Yet for all of Santos’s security and FARC-busting credentials, this election is vastly different from the previous two won by his boss: President Uribe has been so successful at reducing guerrilla violence that it no longer tops the agenda for most Colombians. The FARC, while far from eradicated, is embattled and has been mostly pushed out to the corners and borders of the country. Colombians are now more concerned by urban violence (cited as a priority by 9.3 per cent of the electorate) than they are by armed conflict (cited by 6.1 per cent). And as a testament to their country’s growing normalcy, Colombians now consider unemployment, poverty and healthcare to be the top three issues (in descending order). It therefore came as no surprise when, at a recent press conference in Cali, Santos announced that if elected to the presidency he would reinstate the Labour and Health ministries.
If Santos wins, Uribe will no doubt use his remaining days in office to facilitate his successor’s focus on social welfare issues while securing his own historic legacy. Recently in Ibagué, the capital of the department of Tolima, Uribe urged General Juan Pablo Rodríguez, commander of the Army’s Fifth Division, to use the time remaining on the Uribe presidency to aggressively pursue Guillermo León Saenz (known by the alias ‘Alfonso Cano’), the FARC’s supreme commander, who is known to move quickly and quietly among secret jungle camps around Tolima – all of which are located in narrow, densely foliaged valleys subject to heavy fog – under cover of total radio silence.
Regardless of whether Uribe succeeds in capturing Alfonso Cano, there is little doubt that the aggressive military pursuit of drug trafficking and terrorist guerrilla groups will continue well into the next government. Whether led by Santos or Sanín, the next government will be uribista to a greater or lesser degree, and it can be expected to honour the accord for increased military cooperation with the US that President Uribe signed with President Obama last summer. Under the accord, the US leases five military bases in Colombia and its military plays a more active role in the hunt for narcoterrorists, though without either increasing the number of US personnel beyond the previously agreed figure of 800 or allowing US soldiers to participate in combat operations.
The region’s leftist leaders – namely, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales – cannot be happy about the continued strength of both Colombia’s conservatism and its relations with the US, which are in fact part of a growing regional trend: leftist rage and rhetoric are increasingly out of vogue in Latin America, as indicated by the recent election of Chilean president Sebastián Piñera. Piñera is a billionaire tycoon who promises to carry on with the extremely popular social welfare reforms initiated by Michelle Bachelet, who completed her term in office with an 84 per cent approval rating. Likewise, President Alan García of Perú and President Porfirio Lobo of Honduras are conservative and enjoy good relations with the US. This, along with an uribista election in Colombia, ensures the US a solid geographic axis of support and friendship in the continent for at least the next four years.