After Surprising First Round Elections in Colombia, Two Candidates to Vie for Presidency on June 20

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As the campaigning period for Colombia’s 2010 presidential elections drew to a close on May 23, the two major candidates, Antanas Mockus of the Partido Verde and Juan Manuel Santos of the Partido de la U, found themselves in the heat of an extremely close race. Virtually every public opinion poll showed that the battle would not be decided in one round of voting, in which a candidate would have to receive a simple majority of the votes to claim victory. The final poll taken, which was published on May 22 by Colombian media outlet RCN and newsmagazine Semana, gave a slight edge to Santos over Mockus (34%-32%) in May 30’s first round, but showed that Mockus would win in a runoff against Santos by a slim margin (45%-40%).

While these predictions were widely accepted as accurate, the results from last Sunday’s first round painted a very different picture of Colombians’ attitudes towards the presidency. Mockus, who was virtually a non-factor in the race a few months ago, still managed to receive the second-highest percentage of votes (21.5%). However, Santos, who is regarded as the ideological successor to hard-line President Álvaro Uribe, received more than twice as many votes as his main opponent (46.56%), and he now seems to hold an insuperable lead going into June 20’s second round. Indeed, Mockus now has no room for error as a new period of fierce campaigning has begun to determine who will succeed the immensely popular Uribe in August.

Throughout the campaign, the two leading candidates have offered their own comprehensive vision for creating a secure, prosperous Colombia. Santos, who is President Uribe’s former Defense Minister and has firm ties to the conservative Uribista political machine, promises to implement a “winning plan” for Colombians by creating new jobs, expanding services like healthcare and education, and improving living conditions across the country. Above all, Santos hopes to continue riding the wave of success enjoyed by Uribe, who has significantly subdued the violent guerrilla movement led by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in his eight years as president. Santos, whom many see as the architect of Uribe’s defense efforts, pledges to continue pursuing the president’s Democratic Security policy, which has helped drastically curtail the FARC’s range of activities.

Mockus, on the other hand, argues that the Democratic Security policy must be complemented by “democratic legality,” a theory which asserts that social change, government transparency, and civic participation will help combat the corruption and violence that too often have plagued Colombian politics. A centrist academic and former mayor of Bogotá, Mockus experienced an astonishing surge in popularity in the months leading up to the election, mobilizing an army of Facebook and Twitter supporters to spread his party’s campaign message in a way that distinguished him from the crop of traditional politicians in the field. He claims, though in rather broad terms, that education and cultural change will be the driving factors in Colombia’s quest to advance his goals of security, the rule of law, and social welfare. As president, Mockus would strive to create a “model government” that could promote a radical transformation among the Colombian people.

In what has been a truly unique election year for the Colombian populace, the end result will largely reflect a clean, democratic process. After President Uribe failed to gain approval from the Constitutional Court to run for an unprecedented third term and accepted the verdict, nine candidates representing a wide range of ideological backgrounds—from proponents of Uribismo like Santos to Gustavo Petro, the progressive candidate of the Polo Democrático Alternativo—emerged in what became the most hotly contested presidential race in years. Although the FARC carried out attacks that claimed the lives of eleven civilians and military personnel last week and Mockus supporters called the initial results fraudulent, most analysts agree that the election has been free and fair.

While a successful second round of voting would further authenticate Colombia’s progress and potential, the issues at stake in the actual election, including the status of Colombian democracy, should prove equally crucial to the country’s future. Without question, Colombians have enjoyed a period of relative security under the Uribe government, as his administration has worked successfully with the United States to mitigate the FARC movement. But this progress has come at a heavy price. Colombia has one of the worst human rights records in the region, huge levels of corruption and a lack of transparency, and a military better fit to serve a dictatorship than a democracy. It also has one of the world’s worst cases of internal displacement, an uneven concentration of wealth, and a faux rather than an authentic level of democracy.

The country’s next president will certainly be expected to implement policies that prevent any setbacks with respect to a hard-line form of security, the kind in which first round victor Juan Manuel Santos specialized as Defense Minister. He will have to do so while confronting recent rivals like Venezuela and Ecuador on issues like state sovereignty and the U.S.’s involvement in Colombian military and anti-drug trafficking affairs. However, perhaps more important is the fact that, in spite of Santos’s landslide victory, Colombians have grown tired of a government that has not confronted endemic corruption. In the wake of Uribe-era scandals involving politicians’ relationships with paramilitary officials and the wiretapping of opposition journalists and politicians, the Colombian electorate is looking for a fresh take on politics. While it has been afraid to take a chance and back Mockus, the public’s newfound desire to elect an official who would put Colombia’s democratic ideals into practice may be a deciding factor in the second round. Although Santos currently boasts an overwhelming lead, only the final results will show whether the electorate prefers his plan for “good government” or Mockus’s powerful commitment to “democratic legality.”

Domestic Security: Old Issues, New Problems

Before Álvaro Uribe took office eight years ago, Philip McLean wrote in The Washington Quarterly that Colombia “[was] not providing the security its citizens have a right to expect, which is a fundamental failure.” Indeed, violence driven by the drug trade and FARC guerrilla activities shook the country, and thousands were kidnapped, killed or displaced as a result of the conflict. Since 2002, however, Uribe has cracked down on the FARC, ordering a series of operations that have killed commanding rebel officials, reduced the number of insurgents under arms, and freed longstanding captives. While the FARC remains a significant force (The Los Angeles Times reported in April that there are still between 6,000 and 8,000 FARC soldiers on the ground in Colombia), the situation has been contained and is no longer spiraling out of control.

Given the success that Uribe has had in combating the FARC during his presidency, it is unlikely that either Santos or Mockus would dramatically stray from his policies as president. Santos has consistently stated that as Uribe’s former Defense Minister, he is the most prepared to continue executing the current president’s Democratic Security strategy. Additionally, Santos praises Uribe’s efforts in his electoral platform, stating, “We will maintain the successful policies of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who combined the outstretched arm and the steady pulse.” While it seems clear that Santos would work to uphold the status quo as established by Uribe, Mockus has taken a more nuanced stance on the issue. He has been careful to note that he is not soft on security: the daily El Tiempo reported that Mockus has said that we would be “very tough with the FARC,” and he has emphasized that he would refuse to negotiate with the rebels unless they ordered the release of hostages. However, Mockus stresses in his platform the need to act within the limits of the Colombian Constitution and to protect human rights when confronting national security issues, a declaration that digs at Uribe’s and Santos’s heavily compromised policies and reflects the former mayor’s views as a self-proclaimed pacifist.

On May 26, the daily El Espectador reported that Mockus again criticized the Democratic Security strategy, stating that Uribe and Santos were morally responsible for a series of extrajudicial executions known as ‘false positives’ that were uncovered in 2008. The civilian killings, which were carried out by Colombian armed forces and covered up as reputed guerrilla casualties, were orchestrated in order to drive up the number of rebel deaths in Uribe’s war against the FARC. Mockus expressed deep concern over the scandal, in which as many as 2,000 innocent Colombians were killed during Santos’s time as Defense Minister. The article notes that Mockus had called the executions “a tragic case of the incentives system” which represents “an extreme expression of the shortcut” that military personnel have taken to inflate results in the conflict. Although the Democratic Security strategy has proven to be successful in restraining the FARC, Mockus’s distinct perspective on the issue—that the conflict must be addressed through the appropriate legal channels in order to preserve lives—would greatly help to create a healthier security environment in Colombia than the currently fated human rights situation.

Foreign Policy: An Escalating Regional Situation Poses a Strategic Dilemma for Both Candidates

Much has changed with respect to Colombian foreign policy since President Uribe took office in 2002. Since the conflict with the FARC has approached a level of control, Colombia has become Washington’s most important strategic ally in the region. As president, neither Santos nor Mockus would be expected to abandon the nation’s strong military relationship with the U.S., and they both have expressed a desire to pursue the pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. However, Colombia’s alliance with Washington and its tendency to act unilaterally regarding international security matters have fueled deep and divisive rifts with neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador. In important ways, the two candidates differ on how to deal with Presidents Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa, and the election will likely determine the future of intra-regional politics.

In March of 2008, then-Defense Minister Santos led a controversial bombing attack against FARC rebels in Ecuadorian territory that killed Raúl Reyes, a highly sought-after rebel leader. With the assault’s success, a deeply aggravated President Correa cut Ecuador’s diplomatic ties with Colombia, terming the attacks a “mockery of the truth and of the Ecuadorian people.” Although Ecuador has since grudgingly restored relations with Colombia, the invasion resurfaced as a source of tension during the campaign. According to El Espectador, Correa noted on May 19 that it would “undeniably [be] a problem” if Santos was elected. Hugo Chávez also referenced the situation and its potential implications for the region on his show Aló, Presidente, stating that “a President Santos could generate a war in this part of the world, in addition to following orders from the ‘yanquis.’” Colombia-Venezuela relations are still strained due to the incident and because of Colombia’s ongoing military relationship with the U.S., it remains uncertain whether they will improve after the elections.

In a highly publicized debate in April led by Caracol Radio, Santos maintained that he was “proud” of his decision to coordinate the assault against Reyes on Ecuadorian soil, claiming that “the people expect me to act firmly… Acting firmly is to pursue terrorists where they are and in any way possible.” Santos’s statements affirm his hard-line stance on security, though El Tiempo reported that he has insisted that “we don’t want war [with Venezuela],” a nation whose leaders have been accused of providing support for FARC insurgents. Santos’s security strategy would also shape Washington’s relations with Bogotá, and the Colombian electorate must wonder what would happen if Santos took a dramatic step against the FARC that somehow pulled U.S. ground forces into a mushrooming conflict between the guerrillas and the Colombian military. Under Santos, Colombia’s regional affairs would remain tense at the least, and they could potentially reach critical levels if he reverts back to his hawkish tendencies.

In contrast to Santos, Mockus has stressed that straightforward, diplomatic dealings with Venezuela would help ease pressures between the two nations. According to El Tiempo, Mockus would also want to work with his Ecuadorian counterpart to fully restore relations in a manner that “wasn’t influenced by either side.” Furthermore, Mockus again emphasized the limits of the Colombian Constitution, arguing that the “end did not justify the means” in the 2008 assault against Reyes.

As the campaign came to a close, Mockus was asked by BBC Mundo what else he would do to simultaneously promote good relations with Venezuela, Ecuador, and the United States. In response, Mockus said that he would model his foreign policy after Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s strategy, as he has developed a balanced relationship with all three nations. When asked the same question, Santos reiterated that he would look to foster strong relationships “by all possible means.” In any case, Colombia can ill afford to misstep with its left-leaning neighbors, upon whom it depends heavily for trade. Given Chávez and Correa’s tendency to use Colombia’s aggressive actions as a propellant for their anti-Western rhetoric, a policy focused on jumpstarting diplomatic talks seems like the wisest strategy.

A New Priority: Building a Corruption-free Colombia

In spite of Colombia’s progress over the past eight years, at least in the narrowly defined area of security, President Uribe’s legacy will undoubtedly be marred by the incessant number of scandals that plagued his administration. In its 2010 World Report on Colombia, Human Rights Watch claims that some 80 members of the Colombian Congress have been accused of making political deals with paramilitary officials since 2006. Many of the congressmen caught participating in this “parapolitics” scandal belong to either Santos’s Partido de la U or the broader Uribista coalition, a situation that has cast a jaundiced light on Uribe supporters’ ability to run a transparent government.

Moreover, a scandal involving Colombia’s intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), emerged in 2009 and has further scarred Uribe’s reputation. According to various reports, DAS officials were caught spying on opposition politicians, journalists, and embassy officials in a massive illegal wiretapping operation. In addition to tarnishing Uribe’s reputation, the DAS scandal rocked the campaign trail when W Radio accused Santos of being aware of the intelligence agency’s activities during his time as Defense Minister. This accusation clearly linked Santos to a political machine known for its continuous corruption, and Mockus will certainly seek to further expose Santos’s alleged complacency regarding the scandal during the second round campaigning period.

In response to critics of corruption and the allegations against Santos, both he and Mockus have made a concentrated effort to put forth a plan that would help tag dishonest politics. In Santos’s platform, which is entitled “Good Government for Democratic Prosperity,” he states that Colombians feel insulted and violated by corrupt officials who have pilfered public funds. Santos has emphasized that his “Good Government will be a watchdog over these sacred resources.” In order to further monitor the problem, Santos would implement a corruption monitoring system with intelligence functions similar to those of the DAS. However, with that agency’s current record for running crooked schemes, and the Partido de la U’s widespread affiliation with scandal, it remains far from certain that Santos would be capable of abiding by his promises.

If a persistent, hardnosed security effort was the true theme of Santos’s campaign, then Mockus’s primary focus was on halting corruption and promoting government transparency. Mockus consistently has stressed that implementing “democratic legality” will cause a dramatic social transformation in Colombia, both within the government and among its citizens. In his platform, he promises to fashion a new type of politics, stating, “We propose a policy based on confidence between people and institutions, in which transparency, participation, the exchange of ideas, social control and admirable public management are the pillars of an authentic democracy.” Mockus would alter Colombia’s approach to government and his plans in this direction would be sweeping, but critics note that they may be too broadly defined. While this may be the case, Mockus’s record as two-time mayor of Bogotá reflects his skill in running a clean, efficient government. During his tenure, Mockus realized a series of initiatives which managed to transform the notoriously corrupt and violent capital, drastically reducing the homicide rate and trimming down on rampant cronyism. By taking his pragmatic municipal strategy to the national level, Mockus would hope to create a just government that would be more capable of responding to the needs of its citizens while presiding over them in a lawful, but highly managed manner.

In a country that has been severely shaken by politicians’ illegal actions, the future stability and legitimacy of the Colombian government will rest on the shoulders of the victor in the June 20 runoff. According to Elisabeth Ungar, Director of the nonprofit Transparency for Colombia, “Restoring the country’s confidence in politics and institutions is one of the biggest challenges that the next president of Colombia will have to confront.” Ungar argues that Colombia’s institutions are crumbling and that the nation’s citizens have lost faith in their elected officials. Indeed, Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the extent to which citizens believe that corruption exists in their nation, ranked Colombia 75th out of 180 countries and gave the government a dismal score of 3.7 out of 10 for overall transparency. The study puts Colombia behind a host of other Latin American nations, including Cuba, and signals that the nation’s next president must take on a new direction with respect to strategic decision making.

Conclusion: Looking to June 20 and Beyond

In what was a shocking first round of voting results given the polls’ predictions for an extremely tight race, it is clear that Colombians cast their ballots in favor of the status quo, and were very embarrassed to do so. While Mockus has crafted an inspiring vision for the future of Colombia through idealist proposals, Colombians’ fears about the economy, security, and the future of U.S.-Colombian relations drove them to vote more pragmatically. In Santos, they saw a candidate who will maintain Uribe’s policies by taking a firm stance against the FARC, directly confronting the ailing economy, and working with Washington to help advance its security and geopolitical interests in the region. Because of this renewed desire for continuity, all signs currently point to a Santos victory in the second round despite the strength shown by Mockus before the first round; however, Mockus already has shown that he is capable of overcoming incredible odds, and his charisma could magically help him win over newly undecided voters.

Although Santos is now the clear favorite to succeed Uribe, he is actually a candidate with few redeeming qualities. Pundits note that he lacks Mockus’s personal appeal and is both uninspiring and uninventive as a politician. If he is elected, his strong ties to the Uribe coalition and its penchant to protect corruption at high places could lead to the further deterioration of Colombia’s democracy. Other than participating in free elections, Uribista officials have largely operated under the guise of democracy, making political deals behind closed doors and carrying out unwarranted acts of violence that have harmed the Colombian people. Owing to Uribe’s unyielding hard-line agenda, his administration also has allowed human rights abuses to go by unnoticed: Human Rights Watch released a report in February which argued that the Colombian government has not worked to prevent executions, forced displacements, and other crimes carried out by the 4,000 plus remaining members of supposedly “demobilized” paramilitary groups. Though Colombians might experience another period of security under a President Santos, it would likely come at the expense of greater government transparency and equitable human rights practices. If the Colombian electorate does choose to vote for continuity on June 20, it would unfortunately have to deal with the same series of unsettling issues until 2014.