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Santos slips in Colombia’s first round

Santos slips in Colombia’s first round

Casa Nari?o, Colombia

It?s no surprise that Colombia?s presidential elections are headed for a second round. What has stunned observers, however, is Oscar Iván Zuluaga?s impressive performance (30% of the vote), defeating President Juan Manuel Santos (25%), and three other candidates in the first round of elections. The election?s record low turnout (only 40% of Colombians bothered to vote), the lowest in 20 years, is also pretty shocking; although, given the deafening cynicism regarding the political system that can be heard every day here, it is difficult to be overly surprised at that.

Colombia?s strong economic performance over the last few years and its projected growth of 4.5% in 2014 and 2015 would be the envy of many presidents seeking re-election. But despite this growth, not to mention the lowest unemployment rate since 2000 and inflation at a six-decade low, Santos has demonstrably struggled to cash in. As has been widely reported in the international media, much of this is due to suspicions felt by many Colombians that the ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC, initiated by Santos, are on the wrong track, with too many concessions being offered to the insurgents.

However, there is more to it than that. There is discontent about Santos?s health reforms and a feeling that he has failed to make progress with his huge infrastructure investment program, improvements to education and a whole series of other policy areas. Beyond that, Santos has so far clearly suffered more than Zuluaga from the highly negative campaign tactics used on both sides, with juicy spying scandals and mudslinging between candidates attracting as much attention as the issues.

The second round run-off vote will be held on 15th June.

President Santos is clearly betting his reelection on peace, claiming that ?Colombians will have two options, between those who prefer an end to the war and those who want a war without end?. His efforts have largely seduced the international community and foreign investors who are keen to see the country do away with its violent conflict once and for all, but most Colombians struggle to have faith that a lasting deal is likely, and some sections of the country ? inspired by former President Alvaro Uribe ? remain implacably opposed to any deal.

Zuluaga is Uribe?s designated heir. He has promised to suspend the peace talks and engage in ?a full-frontal assault on terrorism?. And he, like Uribe, appears to be made of Teflon, as he survived the recent #Zuluagate spying scandal that failed to dent his popularity, despite calls for him to resign. As of Sunday's result, the momentum clearly lies with Zuluaga, but there are a number of unknowns which means this contest remains wide open:

1. Who will the losing candidates support? - Zuluaga can expect to collect the 15 percent of voters who cast their ballots for Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez while Santos will court those who voted for left-of-centre Clara López (Alternative Democratic Pole Party) and Enrique Pe?alosa (Green Party)

2. Will they get more of the vote out? ? 60% of the electorate didn?t cast a binding vote. In the second round, voting ?en blanco? (none-of-the-above) is not allowed and more people may be drawn to a straight shoot-out between Santos and Zuluaga. This may favour Santos as the better known incumbent, but it will depend on who can get the voters out most effectively

3. Is it a referendum on peace or competence? ? A two-man Santos-Zuluaga contest makes the second round vote seem more than ever a preliminary referendum on the peace process. We are not convinced though. Arguably, the main problem Santos faces is with his lack of a record of landmark achievements ? quite apart from the incomplete peace negotiations. Like him or loathe him, Uribe was known for getting stuff done. Could Zuluaga?s close association with the ex-President?s successes benefit him in the final count?

4. Will the winning strike come from Brazil? ? The second round ballot takes place just a day after Colombia?s first World Cup match since 1998, against Greece. The result is bound to have an impact on the mood of Colombians, but it is anyone?s guess as to how this will affect voting behavior


Ian Herbison


Josh Bayly


Photo credit: (cc) Miguel Olaya
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