After a first-round scare, Juan Manuel Santos won reelection to a second four-year term as Colombia’s president Sunday, delivering a narrow defeat to Óscar Iván Zuluaga and, perhaps more significantly, Santos’s one-time mentor and now opponent, former president Álvaro Uribe.
Though Santos (pictured above) served as Uribe’s defense minister, and won election as president in 2010 with Uribe’s blessing, the former president broke with Santos by opening negotiations with the leftist guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Uribe won support throughout the 2000s from a wide swath of Colombian voters for his aggressive stand against FARC, other guerrilla groups and drug cartels.
Zuluaga, who won the first round of the presidential election over a divided field, indicated that, if elected, he would impose incredibly harsher conditions on the FARC talks — so harsh that they would almost certainly halt the progress of that FARC and the Santos administration have made.
On Sunday, Santos narrowly defeated Zuluaga by a margin of 50.94% to 45.01%. Santos has the support of a coalition of major parties, including the Partido Liberal Colombiano (Colombian Liberal Party) and the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional (Social Party of National Unity, ‘Party of the U’) that once supported Uribe. Zuluaga was supported by Uribe’s newly formed party, Centro Democrático (Democratic Center) and significant segments of the Partido Conservador Colombiano (Colombian Conservative Party), which had backed Uribe and Santos in the past.
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RELATED: It’s the economy (not FARC), stupid
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Make no mistake — Santos’s reelection is good news for Colombia, good news for the entire region and good news for the United States, which has devoted significant resources to stabilizing Colombia in the past three decades. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the chaos in Iraq over the past week, it’s that insurgencies ultimately require political, not just military, solutions. Military force can subdue and repress internal dissent, but ending a domestic insurgency demands some form of political engagement.
Santos, throughout the campaign, demonstrated that he understands that in a way Uribe and Zuluaga don’t. Though Santos made his fair share of errors as a first-term president, his victory is cause for optimism that the Colombian government will ultimately reach a political settlement with FARC (even on the same day that Colombian security forces launched a successful operation against FARC on election day).
In the final days of the campaign, there was a sense that Zuluaga might, after all, back down from his hardline stance on the FARC talks, which began in late 2012 — 48 years after FARC’s creation.
But you don’t necessarily have to disavow the sometimes controversial aspects of uribismo to acknowledge that the FARC negotiations are a necessary next step. The Colombian military, first under the Uribe administration, and then under the Santos administration, was vital in bringing FARC to the negotiating table, and the current peace talks are, in many ways, the natural progression of Uribe’s successful efforts to marginalize FARC.
From the outset, the FARC talks were never a repudiation of Uribe’s presidency, but an indicator of Uribe’s success. Nonetheless, it was all too easy to imagine Colombia taking a decade-sized step backward under Zuluaga. For that reason, Santos’s reelection is worth savoring.
But it’s also vital to realize that the election was more than just a referendum on the FARC talks — or even on uribismo. As Colombian voters came to know Zuluaga, it was always certain he would come to form an identity and personality separate from Uribe. Moreover, Santos was a flawed candidate, who failed to communicate effectively his administration’s economic and security accomplishments. At several junctures in the past year, not least of which during the ridiculous attempt of conservatives to use a flawed judiciary to oust Gustavo Petro as mayor of Bogotá, Santos has appeared weak and ineffective leading his own country.
Not only did the aloof Santos fail to explain his administration’s successes in making the lives of everyday Colombians better, he abjectly ignored those whose lives actually haven’t improved. Though Colombian GDP has grown in each of the past five years by around 4% to 5%, Colombia is a country accustomed to economic growth. For all the turmoil that Colombians have faced, including a fair share of drug-related upheaval, the economy has contracted just twice in the past century. What’s more, there’s a sense that the economic gains of the past decade have disproportionately accrued to service providers in Bogotá and to the owners of Colombia’s mineral wealth. Farmers, manufacturers and miners haven’t flourished, and at every turn, even during a massive strike last year, Santos ignored them and their worries.
It mattered less to those voters that Zuluaga, a former finance minister in the Uribe administration, generally espoused similar neoliberal economic policies as Santos — pro-business and pro-trade. As the campaign unfolded, Zuluaga improbably became the voice of many of those Colombian voters with so much economic anxiety. Part of that had to do with old-fashioned populism (e.g., promising to exempt agricultural equipment from sales tax), and part of it had to do with old-fashioned anti-incumbent sentiment. But there was a strong sense that enough Colombians were so unhappy with Santos that they were willing to jettison the FARC talks over the greater issue of rejecting his flawed economic stewardship. Clara López, the third-placed candidate in the first round, faced a major backlash from her leftist supporters for her Santos runoff endorsement. Enrique Peñalosa, a former Bogotá mayor, and the fifth-place candidate in the first round, pointedly refused to back either candidate.
Santos’s errors compounded what, even two months ago, seemed like an almost-certain waltz to reelection. (It’s should be a lesson against complacency for some other incumbents, such as Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, whose reelection in October is still more precarious than polls or international investors believe).
Having narrowly avoided a defeat, Santos faces an invigorated opposition in the Colombian Congress, including Uribe, newly elected as a Colombian senator, in legislative elections in March. In order to govern more effectively in his second term, Santos must reach out to his right-wing rivals to bring them on board to the ultimate FARC peace deal, as well as to his left-wing rivals and everyday Colombians to fashion economic policies that project a sense of greater inclusion.