May 23, 2014

Colombia will hold presidential elections this Sunday, as President Juan Manuel Santos vies for a second term as the leader of the South American nation. Just a few months ago, the reelection of Santos appeared to be a sure thing. He was riding high on the polls, while many were writing off his contenders. But as often happens in politics, a few months may well have been a few years. Things have since changed dramatically.
 
Polls show a close contest between President Santos and Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, with neither candidate expected to receive the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff. A poll released last week by Caracol, Colombia’s leading broadcast conglomerate, shows a close race in the initial round of voting this Sunday. Santos is expected to garner around 27.7 percent of the vote and Zuluaga 23.9 percent. In a hypothetical second round election, the polls show Zuluaga ahead of Santos with 34.2 percent vs. 33.6 percent, with a whopping 32.2 percent of undecided voters.
  
Observers point to the tightness of the election as a direct result of Santos’ lackluster campaign. By all accounts, Santos has been a successful president. Colombia’s economic growth has been steady; inflation is low and unemployment in single digits. Colombia has become Latin America’s third largest economy, and the government cites a two million drop in citizens classified as poor since taking office. Besides its economic record, the government has bet heavily on the start of peace negotiations with the FARC rebel group, in an effort to end the decade’s long armed struggle.
 
Zuluaga has been buoyed mostly by the strong support from former President Alvaro Uribe who has campaigned heavily for his former Finance Minister. Zuluaga, like Uribe, opposes Santos’ negotiations with the FARC. They have positioned it as a betrayal of the democratic security agenda implemented by Uribe while in office, which successfully weakened the FARC rebels significantly.
 
The campaign has been mired by a myriad of accusations that have taken attention away from the issue of the day. On the Santos front, his principal and high profile political consultant, JJ Rendon, was accused of receiving $12 million from drug lords to lobby President Santos. Zuluaga, on the other hand, had to deal with his campaign employing hackers to listen in on secret military intelligence conversations regarding the FARC. Zuluaga himself has appeared in videos sitting along the hacker. 
 
In the most likely scenario of a second round election among Santos and Zuluaga, a few big questions remain. One is who will receive the support of the large chunk of undecided voters. Post first round, political alliances will also play a big role. Two left-of-center candidates, Clara Lopez and Enrique Peñalosa, as well as Conservative Party candidate, Marta Lucia Ramirez, will surely be courted by both candidates in an effort to gain their support in the second round. Many expect the second round campaign to focus strongly on negatives. As a political analyst and colleague in Colombia told me this week, “the election will be decided by who the voters find less appealing, not more.”
 
Whoever wins the presidency is likely not to affect the economic policies of the country. The market oriented reforms will continue, but the government’s approach toward the FARC guerrillas will be dramatically different. Zuluaga is likely to return to the Uribe iron fist policies toward the rebel organization. A victory by Santos, however, will be received as a vote of confidence on the ongoing peace talks. The likely second round election will take place on June 15.