An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Brawl in Bogota

A nasty -- and surprising -- election fight is playing out in Colombia. And the recent years of peace and prosperity hang in the balance.


Four years ago, Colombia — Washington’s closest ally on the continent and a nation that a decade earlier had been widely viewed as on the verge of being a failed state — bore all the traces of continuing a remarkable transition to a robust democracy. After nearly a decade of battling the country’s largest insurgency — the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) — the tough, take-charge, and polarizing two-term president, Álvaro Uribe, turned over the reins to his defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos.

Surprisingly for many, given his reputation as a hard-liner, Santos’s tenor was far more conciliatory than his predecessor’s from the moment he was elected in June 2010. He promised continuity on key economic and security policies, but was far more inclined to forge consensus among Colombia’s diverse political forces. His search for governance and a reform agenda led Santos quickly to form the National Unity coalition of parties, which accounted for about 90 percent of Congress when he assumed office.

While Santos sought to lower the temperature from the confrontational politics that characterized the preceding eight years, he initially had nothing but praise for Uribe’s record. The former president’s undeniable success in debilitating the country’s five-decade insurgency and improving the overall security situation led Santos to call Uribe "Colombia’s second-greatest liberator" (behind independence hero Simón Bolívar, of course).

But the mutual goodwill has proved fleeting, and Santos’s tenure has been anything but smooth. An unprecedented feud emerged between the two Colombian presidents, chiefly about how best to sustain the country’s security gains under Uribe and end the long-standing armed conflict. The extent of the bad blood was sharply revealed in the tumultuous first round of the presidential election on May 25.

Uribe, who in 2010 was barred by the Constitutional Court from running for a third term but was elected to the Senate in March, handpicked his former finance minister, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, to represent his nascent Democratic Center party. Defying the polls and surprising most pundits, Zuluaga topped the field of five candidates, garnering 29 percent of the vote, followed by Santos with 26 percent. The runoff will be held on June 15.

In his victory speech, it was striking that Zuluaga framed the final vote as a fundamental choice between continuity and change — or, perhaps more directly, a return to Uribe. The key question, however, is why so many voters are attracted to the "change" option when the country is advancing so impressively on many fronts.

Colombia is indeed performing well — both compared with the rest of Latin America as well as during the Uribe presidency. The economy grew over 5 percent last year, foreign investment is pouring in, inflation is at its lowest point in decades, and levels of poverty and unemployment have been declining. To be sure, serious problems remain: persistent agrarian protests, deficient education and health, and stubbornly high levels of inequality. But the progress is indisputable.

A peace process is also under way — the centerpiece of the Santos government and the chief issue in his re-election campaign. From the outset, Santos’s every move has been calculated to achieve what he hoped would ultimately be his legacy — a peace accord with the FARC and an end to decades of armed conflict. This highly coveted prize has eluded every Colombian president over the past quarter-century. But when Santos took office, conditions seemed more propitious than ever — ironically, thanks in large measure to Uribe’s effective offensive against the FARC.

Since November 2012, Santos’s able negotiating team has reached agreement with the FARC leadership on several key questions, including how to deal with long-standing battles over land and addressing the production and shipment of illicit drugs — an important source of revenue for the FARC. The remaining issues, however, are particularly tricky and contentious: the FARC’s role and participation in Colombian politics and the terms of justice for its past crimes.

The process has moved along, but much slower than the government initially projected. Polls consistently show that while Colombians want to end the nation’s terribly costly war — and would prefer to end it without further bloodshed — they oppose what they view as impunity for the widely despised FARC. Many remain skeptical about whether the rebels are negotiating in good faith and whether this round of peace talks can succeed where so many previous attempts have failed.

Moreover, there has been a disconnect between talk about the peace process — which polls show is not even among the top five concerns for most Colombians — and more quotidian yet pressing issues like health and education. In the campaign, Santos has surprisingly neglected to tout his government’s enviable record on economic and social progress or to explain how he plans to build on such accomplishments in a second term. The result has been a campaign dominated — on both sides — by an issue that for many Colombians seems distant and is viewed as relatively inconsequential.

For Uribe, the direction Santos has moved since becoming president — first his rapprochement with Uribe’s bête noire, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and then the peace process with the FARC — are acts of personal betrayal. Uribe believed that his successor would faithfully carry his agenda moving forward. As soon as Santos shifted ground, Uribe launched a relentless campaign to discredit him and deny his re-election ambition.

More than anything else, the peace process has infuriated Uribe and sustained his feud with Santos. And so he chose a proxy to bring Santos down. Among Uribe’s close associates, Zuluaga was the candidate who had the best chance of beating Santos. Many of Uribe’s attacks against his former defense minister have been intemperate and baseless, with warnings about the possible "Castro-Chávezisation" of Colombia. Uribe has also charged — largely without foundation — that security gains under his administration have been reversed under Santos.

But Uribe is nothing if not wily and shrewd, a consummate politician. An inveterate Twitter user, he has his finger on the pulse of Colombian public opinion. True, he is a divisive figure, and there is some "Uribe fatigue." But his followers are loyal, passionate, and ready for a restoration behind Zuluaga. As gratuitous as Uribe’s attacks have been, they have clearly resonated with broad swaths of the Colombian public.

This widespread wariness about the way the peace process has unfolded help accounts for the election results. Zuluaga — with Uribe at his side, doggedly pounding away — has lambasted what he sees as Santos’s excessively soft approach in dealing with the rebels. He has insisted that the FARC cease criminal activity before any further negotiations take place and has vowed that, as president, he would suspend the current process.

Santos, who knew the peace process wa
s a huge gamble, lacks Uribe’s popular touch. Having served as minister in three administrations, however, Santos may be Colombia’s best-prepared president. He commands key policy issues, from security to the economy to the social agenda, and is the scion of a political family (his great uncle was president in the 1930s). Yet despite his pedigree, he has struggled to consolidate his political leadership. His polling numbers are over 60 percent negative. And, as Sunday, May 25’s results confirmed, just slightly more than a quarter of all Colombians favor his re-election.

It is doubtful that in the less than three weeks before the second round, the campaign will be elevated. Instead, it is reasonable to expect that what most analysts agree was an unusually dirty campaign will degenerate even further. Colombians are bracing themselves for another round of scandals, mudslinging, accusations, and personal attacks between the Santos and Zuluaga campaigns (with Uribe as the principal political operative of the latter). Meanwhile, both contenders are scurrying to get support from the three other vanquished candidates on the right, left, and center.

The biggest casualty of first-round voting was public confidence in Colombia’s politics. As a measure of apathy and disenchantment with the degradation of the electoral process, abstention was at a record high. Despite significant levels of violence and criminality, Colombia has been known for its comity in the political sphere. Its former presidents have traditionally transcended partisan squabbling. This campaign, however, has been far from ennobling. There were charges, for example, that Zuluaga commissioned a hacker to spy on the peace talks and that drug traffickers had bribed a key Santos campaign advisor. There are bound to be serious, long-term institutional costs for South America’s oldest democracy.

Indeed, no matter who wins on June 15, it is likely that the next administration will find governing extremely difficult. Santos would start his second term with scant public enthusiasm and would face a formidable opponent in Uribe and his supporters in the Senate. Zuluaga, on the other hand, would have Uribe at his side, but would need to work with a congressional majority that has supported Santos. Absent reduced tensions and some measure of reconciliation, it is hard to be optimistic that much will be accomplished under either scenario.

For Washington, which considered a second Santos administration nearly a foregone conclusion, the current uncertainty is worrying. Although the United States must figure out how to work with either candidate, it had planned to cooperate with Santos to implement an eventual accord with the FARC. (The FARC hasn’t yet officially weighed in on what it might do if Zuluaga were elected.) But having provided Colombia with some $9 billion in security aid since 2000 — far more than any other country in the Western Hemisphere — the United States has a huge stake in one of its few strategic partners in Latin America

After Santos was elected resoundingly in 2010, he remarked that since Uribe had built a runway, Colombia could now fly. In many respects, Colombia has taken off. But Santos has encountered turbulence halfway into his flight plan. And behind it is his tenacious predecessor who is intent on being the pilot once again.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.