Colombia went to the polls to elect its new President on May 29 (first round) in a major election and turning point for the country’s political history. Indeed, after eight years in office, incumbent President Álvaro Uribe is ineligible to run for a third term, even though he did try (and was rebuffed by the courts). Even after eight years in office, the pro-American “democratic security” policy of Uribe vis-a-vis the FARC rebels and the drug war has earned him continuously high marks from the public, with his approvals still over 60%. Uribe’s tough policies against the FARC but also his belligerent attitude with Colombia’s neighbor, Chavist Venezuela, is very popular in Colombia. However, his wide coalition unraveled ahead of the elections. Overall, the Uribist coalition split three ways ahead of the presidential ballot.
Uribe’s personal party, the so-called Party of the U (no prize for guessing what the U really stands for), nominated Uribe’s well-known former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos for President. Santos comes from an old wealthy family of the Bogotan elite which notably owned the newspaper El Tiempo and whose ancestors held high political office in the country in the past. Santos, who as foreign trade minister in the late 90s was responsible for a number of free-trade deals, won most fame as defense minister (2006-2009) for presiding over a military raid inside Ecuador to kill FARC leader Raul Reyes, the liberation of FARC hostages most notably former presidential contender Ingrid Betancourt and a number of scandals in the Colombian military. He is seen to be Uribe’s closest ally, and Chavez notably intervened in the campaign to describe him as a quasi-gangster and a threat to peace in the region. The Conservative Party, one of Colombia’s old parties, nominated former ambassador and 1998-2002 presidential contender Noemí Sanín in a primary over a closer Uribe ally, former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias. The Uribist Radical Change Party, rumoured to be a front for the right-wing paramilitaries, nominated Germán Vargas Lleras.
The main opposition to Uribe’s re-election in 2006 (he won 62.4% in the first round) came from the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), a socialist party which is widely thought of as Chavez’ party in the country. It nominated Gustavo Petro. The Liberals, which were, with the Conservatives, the other major party for most of the twentieth century, and now oppose Uribe, nominated Rafael Pardo, an Uribist-turned-anti-Uribist.
Standing outside the old Uribist and anti-Uribist dichotomy was Antanas Mockus, the candidate of the new Green Party. Mockus, a former two-stint mayor of Bogota and the son of Lithuanian immigrants, was well known for his clownish personality as mayor (dressing up as a superhero, hanging a carrot around his neck) but his policies were very successful in cracking down on crime and poverty in the capital. Mockus, who is far from a conventional Greenie (his political idol is Angela Merkel), says that his party’s main goal is the fight against corruption (to be fair, anti-corruption has been a major guiding point for Colombian Greens, most notably Betancourt in 2002). He is not anti-Uribe per se and does not support any deal or prisoner exchanges with the FARC, though he did condemn the 2008 military raid to kill Raul Reyes. Chavez said that he did not know much about Mockus. Mockus’ candidacy quickly gained ground in the polls and was narrowly ahead in either the runoff or both rounds thanks to his success in the debates, his flashy personality and his centrist middle-ground views. What happened next wasn’t as great.
Juan Manuel Santos (Party of the U) 46.56%
Antanas Mockus (Green) 21.49%
Germán Vargas Lleras (Radical Change) 10.13%
Gustavo Petro (PDA) 9.15%
Noemí Sanín (Conservative) 6.14%
Rafael Pardo (Liberal) 4.38%
Jairo Calderón (Liberal Aperture) 0.23%
Róbinson Devia (Voice of the Conscience Movement) 0.22%
Jaime Araújo (Afro-Colombian Social Alliance) 0.1%
blank votes 1.55%
2010 was not a good year for Colombian pollsters, who messed up on practically every aspect of this race. Something went quite wrong for Mockus, who was polling 32-38% right before the vote. His GOTV effort was likely weaker than Santos’ effort, who commands the Uribist machine. Furthermore, there might have been a swing at the last minute by voters close to Mockus who thought that his clown-like attitude might not have been fitting for the President of Colombia. In addition, he should have been tougher against Chavez’ intervention in the election to come out to the Uribist base as clearly anti-FARC and anti-Chavez. Chavez obviously doesn’t command much approval in Colombia.
Mockus is likely dead on arrival for the runoff, which is turning out to be a formality for Santos, likely Colombia’s next President. Seeing the wind change in Santos’ favour, the nominally anti-Uribist Liberals switched their support to Santos. The Conservatives and Radical Change are also strongly behind Santos. Some had hoped that a Mockus victory could have ended the stranglehold of personalist politics, of which Uribe is a leading member of, in Colombia. However, the victory of the Uribe name with Santos with his renewed alliance with the patronage machine (Liberals and Conservatives) has made that a lost cause. Not much will change with Santos in power, and Chavez’ attitude towards him isn’t exactly a good sign.