Colombia: the “green wave” that wasn’t

The first round of the contest to succeed Álvaro Uribe as Colombia’s president produced one big surprise and five lessons, says Adam Isacson.
Adam Isacson
7 June 2010

Even as recently as two months before the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections on 30 May 2010, almost all Colombian citizens assumed that Juan Manuel Santos was a certain victor. A crucial barrier in his way had been removed in late February, when the country’s constitutional court barred President Álvaro Uribe from seeking a third term in office. At that point Santos, the scion of a media family who had served as Uribe’s defence minister, emerged among the field of six candidates to become the clear favourite for the succession (see “The next Colombia”, 31 March 2010).

Then the opinion-polls began to tell another story. Juan Manuel Santos, despite close association with a government made very popular by its hardline security policies, couldn’t seem to rise above the mid-30s in surveys. Then, to compound his predicament, a challenger emerged: Antanas Mockus, who had served twice as mayor of Bogotá (and, though well-liked, had won only 1.3% of the vote when he stood for the presidency in 2006).

The trigger for Mockus’s meteoric rise appears to have been his decision to add to his Partido Verde (Green Party) ticket another popular former mayor, Sergio Fajardo of Medellín. But his political message also worked to his advantage: namely, a promise to continue Uribe’s security strategy within the bounds of “legality” – by adhering strictly to Colombia’s constitution. President Uribe’s second term has been plagued by a long chain of corruption and human-rights scandals; and though these have not affected the president’s popularity, a certain “Uribe fatigue” seemed to be damaging Santos and allowing Mockus’s theme to resonate.

By mid-April, Mockus and Santos were running neck-and-neck in the opinion polls; some showed Mockus narrowly leading. As the former mayor’s momentum continued to build, the Colombian media began to speak of a “green wave”. Even when Mockus’s numbers leveled off, the last polls taken – by law, ten days before the 30 May vote – showed the candidates roughly equal in the mid-30s% each.

Colombia’s diverse geography and social conditions - 45% of the population lives below the poverty-line - present obstacles to reliable opinion-polling. Yet overall, polls have accurately predicted the last few Colombian electoral outcomes. But not this time.

When Colombians’ votes were counted after the 30 May contest, the result wasn’t even close. Juan Manuel Santos won 47%, way ahead of Antanas Mockus’s 21%; four other major candidates split the remainder. Since no candidate won above 50%, these two leaders will compete in a second-round vote on 20 June 2010. Mockus would need to more than double his vote to have a chance of winning; this political mountain means that Santos is virtually guaranteed victory.

The inquest on defeat

The result left Colombian pundits scrambling to explain Santos’s strong showing, and the mismatch between the polling figures and the final result. Many blamed Mockus, either for the alleged flaws in his political character or his rhetorical misjudgments during the campaign. The former Bogotá mayor was criticised for his eccentric stunts; his statements that he would extradite President Uribe if the constitution demanded it or that he “admired” Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president; and his failure to respond to nasty rumours (probably spread by the Santos campaign) that he was, among other things, an atheist.

But the outcome also owed much to Santos’s advantages. His wealthy, pro-Uribe party (Partido de la U) benefited from something that the polls didn’t reflect: the control of a vast network of clientelistic get-out-the-vote (and, on occasion, buy-the-vote) machinery throughout the national territory.

To take but one example, the La Silla Vacía website reported that in Valle del Cauca department, near Cali:

“Santos had buses, vans and taxis taking people [to the polls], with well-established routes. Meanwhile, the Green campaign had a network of volunteers using their own cars, many of whom showed up to take voters, but others no.”

The ingredients of victory

Beyond the candidates’ preferences and tactics, the 30 May elections offer five lessons about Colombia’s current political moment.

First, President Uribe after all turned out to have a large influence on his would-be successors and on Colombia’s political make-up. Three of the six major candidates in the race offered a particular flavour of Uribismo: Juan Manuel Santos, and two other candidates who supported Uribe’s policies but opposed his re-election (Germán Vargas Lleras of the Partido Cambio Radical [Party of Radical Change], and Noemí Sanín of the Partido Conservador Colombiano [Colombian Conservative Party]). The combined support for these candidates was 64% - almost exactly what Álvaro Uribe himself won when he was re-elected in 2006. Four years of scandal notwithstanding, Uribe’s teflon both remains intact and is transferable to his supporters.

Second, the “new politics” of Facebook failed to trump the “old politics” of consultants and clientelism (see Catalina Holguín, “Colombia: networks of dissent and power”, 4 February 2008). It was predicted by some analysts that the internet-focused fervour behind Mockus’s campaign would make up for what he lacked in party machinery. Colombia’s status as a country where a quarter of citizens has a Facebook page has propelled Mockus into the top-twenty of world leaders in the world in terms of the number of his “fans” (and the ex-mayor had about four times as many as Santos). On election day itself, “twitter” users all over the world saw the word “Mockus” sitting at the head of the message-facility’s “trending-topics” list.

But at the last, Santos – whose campaign included consultants such as James Carville, the former advisor to Bill Clinton - won the old-fashioned way: with the help of a superior electoral machine and ruthless tactics. These included veiled threats that the “wrong” result could lead to citizens losing government benefits). “There were subtle pressures - some less so - over the millions of beneficiaries of official subsidy programmes”, observes María Teresa Ronderos, a former editor of Colombia’s most-circulated newsmagazine Semana. She notes the “night-time distributions of pamphlets under the doors of people’s homes” predicting that “if the pro-government candidate didn’t win” it would mean the end of popular welfare initiatives such as the “families-in-action” programme and the national job-training service.

Third, the wealthy and middle class did not turn away from Uribismo - a right-wing political movement which at heart can be defined as adherence to one man’s personality and ideas. The polls had showed Santos winning only among the poorest - those with the most to lose, and those whose security from violence is most tenuous; but in the end he carried the upper classes as well.

This solidifies the coalition that Álvaro Uribe managed to create in 2002, in the first such achievement by a Colombian politician in a generation. That year, Uribe enjoyed the strong support of the urban, cosmopolitan, service-sector-oriented elite that had usually dominated Colombian politics; and of the group with which he (a rancher from the departments of Antioquia and Córdoba) had a closer affinity - the rural, landowning, ultra-conservative (and sometimes narco-tied) elite whose influence in Colombia had been growing.

The apparent shift of loyalties towards Antanas Mockus among that urban class seemed to indicate that Santos was losing this group. But it turned out that Santos – the very image of the traditional Bogotá elite – held onto this important constituency on 30 May.

Fourth, Hugo Chávez’s strategy backfired - or did it? Juan Manuel Santos’s tenure as defence minister was marked by his outspoken criticism of Venezuela’s president, whom he accused of actively supporting Colombia’s leading guerrilla militia, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc). Chávez warned repeatedly during the election campaign that a Santos victory would worsen still further Colombia’s already tense relations with Venezuela; he called Santos “a threat to all of us” in the region, and promised to cut trade ties with a Santos-ruled Colombia.

Colombian voters were not deterred by Hugo Chávez’s threats. To the contrary, departments bordering Venezuela gave Santos a large margin of victory. But here is the reason for the above question: for it could well be that this is the very outcome Chávez wanted. The Venezuelan president is facing a stiff opposition challenge in legislative elections in September 2010. The presence of an outspoken militarist on his western border - rather than an intellectual former mayor offering a different style of radicalism - could help Chávez rally a domestic political base at a time its enthusiasm is being tested by a period of shortages, electricity rationing and rising crime.

Fifth, what is next for Álvaro Uribe? Although constitutional rules prevented him from running, this is Uribe’s election victory as much as Juan Manuel Santos’s. If he wins the runoff on 20 June 2010, Santos will govern with the solid backing of the pro-Uribe congressional majority elected on 14 March. Uribismo remains Colombia’s dominant political force (see “Álvaro Uribe, otra vez? Colombia's re-election debate”, 29 May 2009).

But can there be Uribismo without Uribe? Will a seasoned politician like Juan Manuel Santos be content to govern in the ex-president’s shadow, or will he distance himself from his predecessor and seek to be his own man? Will Uribe, as a very popular former president, seek to govern Colombia from the sidelines – even seeking once again to change the constitution to allow him to compete again for the presidency?

It is impossible to answer these questions now; Uribe and Santos themselves may not be able to. But if Santos does win in the second round, there is no guarantee that his alliance with his predecessor will be smooth. Even a result that suggests fundamental continuity in Colombia’s politics could be a prelude to turbulent times. 

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