Colombia’s Choice: Peace or War

Exclusive: Colombia’s future may be decided by the June 15 runoff election between a far-right candidate who favors a renewal of counterinsurgency war and the incumbent president who has staked his political career on a negotiated outcome, as Andrés Cala explains.

By Andrés Cala

The outcome of Colombia’s May 25 presidential elections paints a grim picture. The 40 percent of voters who bothered to turn out is almost equally split between those who oppose and support peace talks. The rest of the electorate appears so disenchanted with politicians that they didn’t cast a vote.

A runoff vote on June 15 will pit the first round victor, the extreme-right candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga, and the surprise loser and incumbent center-right President Juan Manuel Santos. So, it boils down to a matchup between the extreme-right and the center-right with the only substantive issue that is being debated: whether to negotiate a comprehensive peace and implement accompanying structural reforms to address Colombia’s chronic inequality. In practice, the runoff becomes a referendum on war or peace.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.

Yet only Colombians and their leaders are to blame for ending up at this juncture which may determine the future of generations. Other than conflicting and simplistic narratives portraying the other side as evil, there has been basically little to no intelligent debate about what’s at stake.

Zuluaga has promised to unleash a scorched-earth campaign against what he depicts as a secret plan negotiated by Santos to impose Venezuelan-style socialism in Colombia. With that conspiracy theory at the center of his campaign, Zuluaga won almost 3.8 million votes, or 29 percent. Santos, who ran a poor campaign that pleaded with voters for another four years to pursue peace, won 3.3 million votes, or 26 percent. The Left captured 2 million votes and the center-left 1 million, while another conservative candidate garnered 2 million.

But a more significant message may have come from the silent majority of Colombians who stayed home. Nearly 20 million Colombian chose not to vote, or 60 percent of eligible voters. Another 1 million cast blank or null votes. What this silent majority does in the runoff will determine much of Colombia’s future, and with it possibly South America’s.

The Power of Uribismo

Behind Zuluaga’s strong showing was former President Alvaro Uribe, who governed between 2002 and 2010. Uribe has a bleak human rights track record, especially from his ideological war against the Left. But he undeniably remains the country’s single most influential political leader. He is Colombia’s very own caudillo reflecting a populist resurgence across the continent, albeit coming from the Right rather than the Left, the orientation of most other South American populists.

In fact, Zuluaga won the first round for essentially the same reason Santos won his first election: because Santos had Uribe’s blessing then and Zuluaga has it now. Santos lost almost two-thirds of his 9 million votes from 2010, most of which went to Uribe’s new favorite, Zuluaga, a little known figure before the elections.

The first-round campaign was down-and-dirty and lacking real issues other than the peace negotiations occurring in Havana, Cuba, with the Revolutionary Armed of Colombia, or FARC for their Spanish acronym. Energized and disciplined, Zuluaga has the bulk of the extreme-right voting power. In his victory speech, he read a message from Uribe to the crowd’s cheers, and he promised to end the peace process and use all available firepower to pacify the country.

To win the first round, Zuluaga successfully boiled down the choice to his promise to fight back and defeat the FARC once and for all, a familiar yet hardly realistic pitch. But it’s nonetheless an effective one in a country that has been at war for half a century with the FARC and other armies, killing more than 250,000 mostly civilians and leaving generations of direct and indirect victims, most of them in the last two decades. Anti-leftist rhetoric has a long legacy in Colombia.

Two days after the elections, Zuluaga flipped and – in an effort to attract more votes – said he would be willing to negotiate. But that may cost him votes among the extreme-right, so his net gain is uncertain. Plus, the negotiation terms that he set are a non-starter.

Santos, on the other hand, has asked for patience with the peace talks but he can’t offer any guarantees of success, a message with its own familiar ring to Colombians who have been through three failed peace efforts with the FARC only to endure bloody resurgences.

It’s understandable why a big part of the population prefers the simplistic, yet heavy-handed repression offered by Uribismo, which did superficially pacify the country at the cost of serious human rights violations. But it’s also true that the majority of Colombians prefer peace, implying that Zuluaga’s potential gains in a second round may be limited. But that doesn’t mean Santos will win.

Missing a Slam Dunk

Politically, Santos dug his own grave. To start with, instead of making peace negotiations part of a broader vision, Santos tied his reelection to the peace process with the FARC, just as Uribismo wanted. Then, Santos failed to deliver on an overly optimistic timetable for negotiations. That left Santos vulnerable to an aggressive campaign by Uribe’s party. Zuluaga portrayed Santos as a weak but arrogant president who was negotiating a surrender to the FARC. Some attacks depicted a covert socialist takeover of Colombia in terms reminiscent of Cold War paranoia.

But the warnings struck a nerve as populist messages tend to do, especially when Santos responded evasively and with his own dirty politics, fear mongering about Zuluaga’s war path rather than defending his own economic and social record, which has in fact been good despite the various headwinds including the lingering civil war and the global economic struggle.

The result was that Uribe’s followers mobilized in mass, while many voters who once supported Santos stayed home, especially those disappointed with the peace process and tired of the political establishment that offers more of the same.

Colombia’s silent majority, 60 percent of voters across the political spectrum except for the extreme right, has the most at stake in the next round, whether the nation will be torn by escalating violence or whether the country can build on its economic progress.

The future will depend on whether Santos energizes enough of these disgruntled voters and gets them to the polls. If the only issue is peace, Santos might have an edge because – in the first round – the “peace” candidates garnered slightly more votes than the “hawks.” Those voters who skipped the first round also are more likely to favor the peace process, according to opinion surveys. So, Santos’s ability to inspire this silent majority could be the key to the second round.

The Silent Majority

Santos acknowledged his campaign’s failings and promised an overhaul. His best option is to reassure enough voters that the peace process, on top of his economic and social program, is a better option for the country than a hardline Uribe-dominated government managed by Zuluaga.

But the peace process as it stands probably doesn’t offer enough to excite voters. Some observers think that the FARC should announce a ceasefire to demonstrate more concrete results, but that might play into Zuluaga’s narrative that Santos is in bed with the FARC to divvy up the country.

Santos’s challenge is to explain how much Colombia has to lose if the difficult negotiations are abandoned now. The FARC and the government have agreed on the most prickly issues, including eradicating drugs and FARC’s political participation after the war.

Still pending is the negotiation of a unilateral ceasefire by FARC and its militants’ full reintegration into society. But the FARC has said it will not move on those issues until after the elections. It’s also clear that the FARC will not surrender to Zuluaga if he wins and another bloody counterinsurgency campaign begins.

Santos has been prudent in negotiations, as he should be, but incapable of reassuring society about the outcome. It’s up to Santos, the commander-in-chief and top elected official, to show that peace and its benefits are within Colombia’s grasp if he is reelected. So far, he has failed to make the case.

But he must also convince Colombians that he will deliver more economic growth, social investment and stability. The peace process must catalyze a broader redressing of historically divisive issues, starting with wealth distribution, which is the worst in Latin America.

In that sense, a Zuluaga victory would be a step back for Colombia, back to the free-market ideology of neoliberalism, back to more human rights violations (and impunity from accountability), and back to hostile relations with its neighbors who are in line with the Chavista movement of Venezuela. In short, Colombia would be going back to Uribe.

With revival of Urbismo, thousands of more lives would surely be lost and Colombia’s best chance for peace in its modern era would be dashed. Peace also would be likely to bring economic structural changes that could benefit millions, albeit gradually.

But all of that is riding on whether Santos can reach Colombia’s silent majority and defeat this latest manifestation of caudillismo.

Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.

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