Colombia Presidential Elections 2014: Unpacking the Complexities of Peace

October 13, 2016

On June 15, 2014, elections were held for the second time in Colombia in two months to determine who would serve as president for the next four years.  Colombian elections, like presidential elections in many Latin American countries, take place in two rounds, if no winner can secure over 50% of the votes in the first round.  In 2014, the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, of the center-right Party of the U, faced off against four challengers:  Óscar Iván Zuluaga, of the Democratic Center; Clara López Obregón, of the Polo Democrático Alternativo; Marta Lucía Ramírez, of the Colombian Conservative Party; and Enrique Peñalosa, of the Green Alliance.  The election centered on one key issue in 2014:  whether or not to continue peace talks with the FARC, a group with which the Colombian government has been fighting for the past 50 years in rural areas of the country. 

At the end of the first round, the final three of the aforementioned candidates split 45% of the vote roughly three ways.  That left Zuluaga and Santos, members of the same political movement but of different parties, to contend for the presidency in the second round.  The two sides differed over one key issue:  how to continue with the current peace negotiations with the leftist FARC guerrillas in Havana.  President Santos spoke in favor of maintaining the talks as a legitimate path towards peace, while Zuluaga was deeply critical of working with the FARC, and vowed to end the talks in favor of a new counterterrorism campaign against them.  Colombian voters who did not vote for either Zuluaga or Santos faced a difficult choice, then:  even if they were not satisfied with the performance of President Santos during his first term, were they prepared to vote against him in the second round, in favor of a candidate against continuing peace talks?

How did the election arrive to this point?  As mentioned before, Zuluaga and Santos are still members of the same political movement, known as Uribism.  The term emerged during the 2000s, inspired by Álvaro Uribe, president of Colombia between 2002 and 2010.  While its ideology is not as clearly defined as that of a Colombian Conservative or that of the Green Alliance, Uribism values democratic security and further diversification of the Colombian economy.  It also tends to support a more extensive welfare state, consistent with presidents since the constitutional reforms of 1991.  To give a more recent example, President Santos claims that his social policies are consistent with a “Third Way” approach, advocated by Tony Blair and the British Labour Party of the late 1990s.  This political stance tries to integrate aspects of right and left to form a model that promotes capitalist development, while creating a stronger social safety net for those less fortunate.  Supporters of Uribism come from various political movements, hopeful that Uribism will unite right and left in the political system or tired of the usual political bickering and corruption. 

In spite of its unity throughout Uribe’s two terms as president, the entrance of Santos raised concerns for Uribism as a political force.  While Uribe won over crowds with his charisma and steps towards decisive action against the FARC, Santos emerges as a president much more aloof and distant.  His positions on various issues in Colombian society mirror more of what he sees in polls than firmly held views.  For instance, when it comes to foreign trade, he has in the past worked to promote trade in Colombia.  Not coincidentally, he served as the first Minister of Foreign Trade with the creation of the office by then-President Cesar Gaviria.  However, he also tries to placate interests such as the Colombian coffee industry, once representative of Colombia’s most extensive export market.  Santos’ choice of Angelino Garzón, a former trade unionist and member of the left-wing Patriotic Union, marked an attempt to integrate various sides of the Uribist movement, but did very little to define the direction of his administration in terms of policy.

As a result of his perceived distance and indecisiveness, many Colombian voters do not have a positive view of Santos.  From the left, he represents the interests of the rich and powerful in Colombian society and works above all to protect their wealth in a country that ranks among the most unequal in the Western Hemisphere.  His views are not consistent at times with the estado social de derecho concept promoted by Colombian social democrats led by Horacio Serpa and Cesar Gaviria.  From the right, he does not act with any conviction against the FARC, nor does he value traditional Colombian interests.  Moreover, he tried to create diplomatic bridges with the late Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president and not a popular figure among Colombians.  As the second round drew near, one could hear the chatter developing on social media and in opinion columns throughout Colombia asking voters to “hold their noses” to vote for Santos, if they as voters wanted peace in their country.  Uribe, on the other hand, still popular with right-wing Colombians and rural areas with FARC presence, backed Zuluaga, and used his clout and political resources to urge Colombian voters to support him, once a Minister of Finance during the Uribe government.  Uribe and Zuluaga created a new political party, known as the Democratic Center, which still supported the tenets of Uribism but placed more value on democratic security than the Party of the U. 

In order to understand Colombian voters’ behavior in the second round, one must look more closely at the other three candidates to understand which candidate they would want their supporters to back.  Clara López Obregón comes from a center-left party supported mostly by academics, students and rural workers, many of whom take a more sympathetic view of the FARC than other Colombian voters.  This party urges the continuation of peace talks.  Enrique Peñalosa, representing the Greens, also supports peace, and his party tends to be of a similar ideology to that of López Obregón’s Polo.  At the same time, Peñalosa did not take as hard of a stance against issues such as the free trade agreement of 2012, signed between Colombia and the United States.  Moreover, many Greens are supportive of capitalist-run development, provided that it is done in a sustainable way.  Finally, Marta Lucía Ramírez and the Colombian Conservatives appeared to be the only one of the three smaller parties likely to support Zuluaga.  Sitting to the right of the Party of the U and the Democratic Center, the Conservatives value traditional linkages in Colombian society, such as with the Catholic Church and traditional regional economic interests.

In the end, most voters who supported third parties backed Santos, as they valued the continuation of the peace talks more than further war with the FARC, a conflict that has lasted now for 50 years.  Colombian dissatisfaction with the candidates, however, was evident as well, as turnout for neither round of the presidential election surpassed 50%.  In addition, around 700,000 Colombians in each round cast “blank votes” (voto en blanco), as a protest against the candidates presented.  Anger about the Colombian electoral system revolves around the typical corruption and backroom deals, alongside scandals associated with each of the two front-runners, which soured public support for Zuluaga and Santos.  The Zuluaga campaign found itself in the middle of a hacking scandal pertaining to the Santos administration’s continued peace talks with the FARC, and Santos was forced to fire his campaign chief after allegations that the man had received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from narco-traffickers. 

While Colombian politics has exhibited a clear Conservative/Liberal split for much of its democratic history, the current make-up of the Colombian government pits pro-peace Uribists against anti-peace Uribists, and the smaller parties have lined up behind their preferred side.   Former President Uribe and his Democratic Center represent the largest single party in the new Colombian Senate, and he will operate as the main opposition to Santos as the new government forms.  Santos must choose whether to work with Uribe, and risk the pitfalls of a broader coalition of political interests, or work in spite of the former president, making deals with opposition lawmakers as different pieces of legislation arise.  Members of the traditional Conservative and Liberal parties have long been disintegrated into factions, which gives an opportunistic Santos administration the chance to pick off supporters with each new step the administration wants to take.  With very little accountability for a political candidate towards his/her political party, particularly if the party is large, Colombian politicians face little political costs to defect from the typical party line on a given issue.

Looking ahead, the pressure is on Santos in his second term.  While he won the second round with a decisive 51% of the vote, Colombians are still looking to his administration’s leadership in the peace talks.  Colombians want peace and accountability for the actors responsible for the violence that has killed over 300,000 of their fellow countrymen in the past 50 years.  At the same time, Santos is the head of an unwieldy political coalition that integrates classical liberals, social liberals, social democrats and political conservatives.  Citing an earlier example, some want him to continue pursuing global trade agreements, as others find the relationships detrimental to the welfare of Colombians.  While Colombian politics has depended heavily on coalition rule since the 1991 constitutional reforms, sometimes the coalition can be too broad to get anything done.  The Colombian people seek action; in the end, Juan Manuel Santos is going to need to bring together many facets of Colombian society in order to push a political agenda that brings prosperity to more, and justice to all.

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Richard Hill