Election preview: Colombia

Colombia votes today in the second round of its presidential election. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos, who nominally represents the centre-right but has drifted leftwards during his term in office, was runner-up in the first round, in which he faced four challengers. The runoff is therefore a straight fight against his former right-wing colleague Óscar Zuluaga.

Zuluaga’s Democratic Centre split with the president over his policy of peace talks with the left-wing FARC rebels. In the first round he had 31.1% of the vote to Santos’s 27.3%. Another centre-right candidate, Marta Ramírez, secured 16.5%, fractionally ahead of the left’s Clara López Obregón on 16.2%. The Greens’ Enrique Peñalosa completed the field with 8.8%. (I’ve recalculated the percentages to factor out the informal vote.)

The runoff is expected to be neck and neck. If supporters of the more left-wing candidates rally to Santos, then he should be able to edge ahead. The first round turnout, however, was very low – just 40.1%, down from 49.2% in 2010 – and the areas with higher turnout tended to favor Zuluaga. That could help Zuluaga if the numbers pick up, although it could also mean that Santos has more room for improvement.

There’s also a possibility that Colombia’s victory over Greece in the world cup yesterday may improve the incumbent’s standing with soccer-mad voters.

The FARC talks have been a long-running saga, but in recent months it seems that significant progress has been made. Three of the six subject areas have reached provisional agreements, and both FARC and another armed group, ELN, agreed to a truce for the election period. If Santos is re-elected, there’s a real chance that one of the world’s longest-running and most violent insurgencies could be brought to a close.

But that has antagonised Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, whose attitude to FARC was much more uncompromising. Santos, who had been Uribe’s defence minister, had been expected to follow the same line; the peace moves came as a surprise, and Uribe’s supporters – among them Zuluaga – have accused the president of conceding too much ground. Zuluaga may not actually break off the talks if he wins, but he will certainly set conditions that would make an agreement much less likely.

It’s quite possible, of course, that without Uribe’s hardline approach (and its associated human rights abuses), FARC would never have been brought to the negotiating table in the first place. But it’s also possible that if conciliation had been seriously attempted earlier then it would have paid dividends earlier.

Sadly, there are few unequivocal lessons in international relations. But it does seem that if Santos loses it will be a vote against peace, reminiscent perhaps of Mahinda Rajapakse’s victory in Sri Lanka in 2005.

Polls close at 7am Monday, eastern Australian time (at least according to the BBC, which is not always totally reliable about these things), so we should have results by mid-morning.

 

 

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