The next Colombia

A vital constitutional decision and a party-primary vote have blown wide open the electoral campaign to succeed Álvaro Uribe as Colombia's president, says Adam Isacson

The approach to Colombia’s presidential election on 30 May 2010 is gathering pace. The shape of the unfolding campaign became a little clearer on 14 March. That day, the opportunities to vote included legislative elections to elect the congress that will serve from 2010-14, as well as presidential primaries to choose a candidate for the venerable Partido Conservador (Conservative Party / PCC) and the new Partito Verde (Green Party / PV).

The results carried a mixed message for Colombia’s popular two-term president, Álvaro Uribe. Pro-Uribe parties won a strong majority in the legislative elections; the PCC vote was won by Noemí Sanín, a former foreign minister (1991-94) and twice presidential candidate (1998 and 2002). The latter result represented a modest setback for the president, who had endorsed Sanin’s rival, the 36-year-old former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias.

Arias’s admiration for Uribe was such that Colombians commonly call him Uribito. Sanín herself supported the president throughout his eight years in office; but she is more politically moderate than the deeply conservative Uribe, and - crucially - did not back his attempt to clear a vital constitutional hurdle that would have allowed him to run for a third consecutive term in office (see “Álvaro Uribe, otra vez? Colombia's re-election debate”, 29 May 2009).

The key decision here was made on 26 February 2010 by Colombia’s constitutional court when it struck down a referendum on amending the constitution that would have permitted Uribe to seek to extend his rule to a twelve straight years. The court’s verdict was a stunning blow for judicial independence and checks on executive power in a region where both are in short supply; it also blew wide open the campaign for the presidential election on 30 May.

Álvaro Uribe, whose opinion-poll approval-rating is consistently around 70% had looked unbeatable. The incumbent president’s tough security policies in particular have ensured him a solid base of support by weakening leftist guerrilla groups which have sustained their armed struggle since the 1960s (see Ana Carrigan, “Colombia's guerrillas: between past and future”, 2 July 2008). Now, Uribe’s removal from contention has created a new political space. After the court’s decision, seven candidates have at least some chance of becoming Colombia’s next president.

The field of battle

The current frontrunner is Álvaro Uribe’s former defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos. This Harvard-educated scion of a newspaper-publishing family is a stalwart of Colombia’s political scene who has served as a cabinet minister in three governments. He now heads the largest pro-Uribe party, the Social Unity (or “La U”) party. Santos is scoring around 34% of the vote in current opinion-polls, around 10% ahead of Noemí Sanín (see “Santos Leads Colombian Presidential Race”, Angus Reid Global Monitor, 29 March 2010).

Santos’s tenure as defence minister coincided with some of the Colombian military’s biggest victories against the country’s main guerrilla movement, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia / Farc). These include the killings of top Farc leaders, and the daring ruse in July 2008 that bloodlessly rescued fifteen of the group’s highest-profile hostages (see Colombia: a miraculous rescue, and what comes next", 7 July 2008).

Juan Manuel Santos was closely identified with these successes, and more generally with President Uribe’s policies which doubled the size of the security forces since 2000 and kept them on the offensive against the guerrillas. But he also ran Colombia’s defence establishment at the height of one of its worst human-rights scandals, the so-called “false positives” cases in which many hundreds of civilians were allegedly killed by the army, their bodies later presented as those of armed-group members killed in combat (see Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?", 9 April 2008). Santos made headlines too for his outspoken criticism of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez; even President Uribe, whose relations with Chávez are turbulent, was occasionally obliged to step in to avoid diplomatic damage.

Santos will now be splitting the uribista vote with Sanín, the Partido Conservador nominee. Andrés Felipe Arias had been the most rightwing candidate in the field, and was viewed as likely to serve as a virtual stand-in for Uribe had he reached the presidency. Sanín’s narrow defeat of Arias changes the political permutations, not least as the ex-foreign minister - who spent much of the Uribe years as an ambassador in Europe - is less identified than Santos with Uribe’s security policies. (see “Arias asks allies to support Sanin for president”, Colombia Reports, 26 March 2010).

This may become even more important after the presidential election, especially since one of the parties which performed well in the congressional vote on 14 March 2010 is the Partido de Integración Nacional (National Integration Party / PIN). This was formed in November 2009 and is composed of relatives and supporters of dozens of politicians currently in jail for joining forces with narco-traffickers and rightwing paramilitary death-squads. The president’s coalition still includes some dark elements that use their ill-gotten wealth and influence to exert great power at the local level (see Jenny Pearce, “The crisis of Colombia's state”, 14 May 2007).

But the results of the 14 March vote also showed that there was life in Colombia’s non-Uribista political currents. A surprise result was the respectable performance of the new Partito Verde, led by three popular former mayors of Bogotá. This party’s presidential primary on the same day was won by Antanas Mockus, who has served two terms as mayor of Colombia’s capital. Mockus presided over important improvements to Bogotá’s quality of life, and his innovative approach to governing based on cultivating a culture of citizenship has won him a worldwide reputation - though he may also be too much of a maverick to broaden his support-base to the degree necessary to become president.

The 14 March vote was tougher on another charismatic former mayor, Medellín’s Sergio Fajardo, who presided over a sharp drop in the city’s notorious crime-rate during the mid-2000s - only to see his reputation somewhat damaged as crime once more is on a rising curve (see Andrew Stroehlein, “Medellín: revival and risk”, 8 July 2008). His centre-left political movement won only one seat in the lower house of Colombia’s congress, damaging what had been seen as a promising presidential bid.

Another critic of Uribe with an uncertain future is Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement (disbanded in 1990) who became a senator very popular for denouncing corruption, particularly links between Uribe supporters and paramilitary groups (see “Colombia's imperilled democracy”, 6 March 2009. Petro had been a distant second to Juan Manuel Santos before the PCC primary, and is now further hampered by the disappointing performance of his leftist Polo Democrático Independiente (Democratic Pole / PDI) in the legislative vote. The party is also hobbled by infighting and the unpopularity of the current mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno. Petro’s prospects of facing an uribista in a runoff vote are fading.

Two more candidates with solid credentials are having trouble getting out of the starting-gate. They are Germán Vargas Lleras, a rightwing senator who broke with Uribe over the re-election issue; and Rafael Pardo, the opposition Liberal Party’s candidate and a respected former defence minister. Each gets a respectful hearing in Colombia’s media but so far this is not reflected in their polling-numbers (Lleras’s are around 6.2% and Pardo’s around 5.1% at the time of writing).

The arena of change

Much could happen between now and the first-round vote on 30 May 2010. It is very unlikely that any candidate will win an absolute majority, as Uribe did in 2002 and 2006; thus a second-round where the top two candidates compete against each other in late June is almost certain. The most solid prediction now is that Juan Manuel Santos will be one of them.

All candidates, despite differences of emphasis which (for example) make Noemi Sanín less of an obvious hardliner than Juan Manuel Santos, have pledged to keep in place the essence of the Uribe approach to security. Beyond that, however, the candidates diverge on important questions.

Colombia’s political predicament after the election, whatever the outcome, will test the skill of its new leader to the utmost. An urgent issue is whether he or she will seek to expand economic opportunity in one of the world’s most unequal countries, where wealth has been concentrated further in the Uribe years.

The enduring security and foreign-policy questions will remain unavoidable too: human-rights abuses, and the complicity in these of the armed forces; the possibility of dialogue with the guerrillas; relations with Venezuela; and whether the bilateral relationship with the United States will continue to dominate Colombia’s foreign policy. Much is at stake as Colombia enters its post-Uribe era. It’s going to be an interesting campaign.