Tomorrow, May 25th, are the first-round of Presidential elections. If the winner does not gain a majority, there will be a run-off in which the leading 2 candidates will face-off in June.
Although initially unpopular, the two main contenders seem to be the incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon with the National Unity party, and right-wing ‘Democratic Centre’, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga Escobar. Zuluaga’s political movement is comes from the opposition that former President and Senator-Elect Alvaro Uribe Velez (2002-2010) has presented to Santos.
Santos, Uribe’s Defence Minister, was elected in 2010 on a promise of continuity of Uribe, particularly with respect to security policy. However, the right-wing ex-President has felt ‘betrayed’ by his successor given Santos’ normalization of relations with Venezuela, and his opening of a peace process with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC. Uribe, who became popular because of his hard-line military stance towards the demonized guerrillas, sees the process as a ceding the nation to ‘terrorism’.
Santos in turn emphasizes, rightly so, that this is the most promising peace process with the FARC in Colombia’s history. Out of 5 points on the agenda, agreements have already been reached on controversial items such as agrarian reform, opening the political system, and an agreement on drug trafficking (with the FARC for the first time partially recognizing their involvement in the illicit business). In a sign of confidence, the FARC and the ELN have declared a unilateral ceasefire during elections.
More Scandals than Peace
Over the lats few weeks, scandals have dominated the national imagination concerning the elections. In particular, there are accusations from Uribe that Santos’ campaign, through his Venezuelan campaign advisor JJ Rendon, received $12 million from narcotraffickers. Santos is starting legal proceedings against Uribe for these accusations, and Uribe has yet to provide evidence to authorities.
On the other hand, a video surfaced in which Oscar Ivan Zuluaga appears to be meeting with a hacker, Andres Sepulveda, that is spying on the peace negotiations in Havana. Zuluaga and Uribe have claimed that the video is a fabrication, whereas the Fiscalia/Attorney General has verified that the video is real.
An election over peace
The rift between Uribe and Santos has become one of the key substantive issues in the elections – the peace talks with the FARC. Uribe’s US-funded counterinsurgency largely successfully routed the FARC, and it seems that they are willing to sincerely negotiate with the government. However, many sectors of Colombian society, particularly the right-wing, still view the guerrillas with suspicion and prefer a military solution to the conflict. This sector is largely represented by Uribe and Zuluaga. Santos has made this a key narrative within his own Presidential campaign, saying that this election is about choosing between “war” (implicitly meaning Zuluaga and Uribe) and “peace” (him). Santos is selling his re-election as a promise of being able to finalize an agreement with the FARC, and build on the progress of the last two years.
Key questions for voters are whether they trust the Peace process in Havana (which many Colombians do, but many have memories of the failed process from 1998-2002/The Caguan negotiations). If they don’t, then Zuluaga is the obvious choice, but if they do, the next question is whether or not Santos is necessary for the peace process. Leftist Senator Piedad Cordoba Ruiz has announced that she will be “voting for peace” in the Presidential elections, an implicit nod to Santos.
For their part, the centre-left Green Alliance candidate and former Mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa Londoño has said that he will keep the current negotiating team, as would Left-wing Democratic Alternative Pole Candidate Clara Lopez Obregon. Conservative Party candidate Martha Lucia Ramirez Blanco, who also served as a Defence Minister to Uribe and partially designed his security policy, said that she would condition the talks on human rights concerns such as the FARC ending the recruitment of minors/child soldiers. Zuluaga, for his part, said he would give the FARC a week to suspend ‘all criminal activities’, or that he would end the peace talks.
Zuluaga’s position is rooted in Uribe’s stance towards negotiation during his Presidency. Uribe claimed to want a negotiated settlement with the FARC, but strictly under the condition that they cease hostilities. Given that a unilateral cessation of hostilities and ‘criminality’ was a non-starter for the FARC, critics of Uribe claimed that he was merely opting for a FARC military defeat. Zuluaga’s choice of language in the campaign seems more open to a negotiated settlement, but only as a reaction to the ‘peace and reconciliation vs. more war’ narrative promoted by Santos. After 50 years of war, no candidate will win points for projecting an image of war-mongering and intransigence.
And the rest of the issues….
According to recent polls, most Colombians seem to be skeptical about Presidential re-elections. Moreover, the peace talks with the FARC actually rank low on list of priorities for everyday Colombians (most of whom live in the city or in regions where the guerrillas have been routed, or where common criminals or paramilitary successor groups are the cuase of insecurity). As evidenced by recent mass protests, key issues that have taken a backseat to sensational headlines and the peace talks are education, health care, and Free Trade Agreements and mining. On mining, in the RCN Presidential debates, nearly all candidates agreed with vague platitudes about striking a ‘balance’ between the environment, the desires of affected communities, and the need to ‘develop’ natural resources.
In terms of Free Trade Agreements and the economic model, the only candidate that seems to be offering an alternative to trade liberalization is the Polo’s Clara Lopez.
A Historic Election?
Despite the clear problems with Santos’ economic policies (one of the sources of his declining popularity), Colombia does have a historic opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement with one of the most powerful and longest standing insurgencies in the contemporary world. Zuluaga’s recent surge in some polls represent a threat to the talks, and the generalized distrust of the FARC may see Uribe come back to power through Zuluaga as his proxy. However, the hacker scandal has hurt Zuluaga. Shockingly, Uribe during the congressional elections made claims of fraud, and is saying that he may not accept the result of the Presidential elections. Santos is correct to a certain extent to say that this election is about peace over war, but it is unclear whether it will be his peace.
A few years ago middle and upper-class Colombians marched en masse (a rarity) against the FARC in a protest organized by social media-savy University students (One Million Voices Against the FARC). This protest could be interpreted as a validation of Uribe’s then-counterinsurgency strategy. However, as was evidenced last April 9, and the April 9 before that, Colombians are now marching in favour of peace and a negotiated settlement. This Sunday it will be seen if what Santos and Zuluaga are saying is what Colombians are hearing, if Colombians are ready for peace over war, and more importantly, if a deal with the FARC is worth all of the potential social and economic problems that a second Santos term might bring.