By: Maggie Joyce, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
With a white dove pin on his jacket lapel and the word paz (peace) written on his hand, newly re-elected Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed a crowd of supporters in Bogotá as the ballots closed on June 15. After the results of the second electoral round became official, President Santos’ victory speech to his nation stressed that with his re-election, peace would finally prevail in Colombia after 50 years of internal armed conflict.
Though center-right President Santos defeated far-right challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election, he has yet to prove himself in the eyes of many Colombians. This election proved quite the departure from President Santos’ landslide victory that elevated him to the presidency in 2010. This time around, Santos narrowly beat Zuluaga, as the incumbent leader obtained 50.9 percent of the vote as opposed to the contender’s 45 percent. Undoubtedly, the populace is less supportive of the Colombian leader’s agenda than it once was. Moreover, only 52.11 percent of eligible voters took the effort to cast a ballot. This suggests that the Colombian people are disenchanted with President Santos’ peace talks and politics in general. Legally, President Santos won the election. However, due to a low voter turnout and his slim victory, President Santos’ legitimacy in the eyes of the Colombian people is questionable.
While the election is now behind him, President Santos still faces formidable challenges, which will likely persist throughout his second four-year term. Both candidates’ campaigns revolved around the ongoing peace negotiations in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, this issue was not the most salient for voters. According to The New York Times, the average Colombian voter prioritizes crime reduction, health care reform, and other social programs over achieving a peace deal with the FARC. In order to implement the government programs which Colombian citizens desire, President Santos will need to alter his fiscal policy and increase taxes; these moves will undoubtedly be met with robust resistance.
President Santos’ largest challenge lies in the political arena. His comfortable hold over the Colombian legislature was considerably reduced after the congressional elections in March. Santos now faces a more hostile Senate that is largely occupied by supporters of former president Álvaro Uribe, his harshest critic and fiercest opponent regarding the ongoing negotiations with the FARC. Uribe’s party, Centro Democrático (Democratic Center), currently controls 19 Senate seats. In an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Colombia’s Presidential Elections: Results and Impacts” on June 17, Carl Meacham, Director of CSIS’ Americas Program, expanded on Uribe’s current role in Colombian politics. “It will be difficult [for Uribe] to have the influence to which he is accustomed. He has his relevance, but not his dominance,” explained Meacham. Uribe’s power has been notably diminished; however his influence in the Colombian legislature still remains a threat to the peace talks between President Santos and the FARC. This is largely because the Senate must approve any accords; therefore, as a freshly elected Senator, Uribe now has a vehicle with which to challenge the policy proposals of his adversary.
Moreover, the very coalition that helped President Santos regain the presidency may hinder his policy goals in the future. Members of Colombia’s left, particularly of Polo Democrático (Democratic Pole), led by first round presidential candidate Clara López, supported President Santos along with his traditional conservative base in the second round of elections. Yet it remains to be seen whether or not President Santos’ unlikely coalition will be able to remain a united front advocating the peace process, or if competing ideologies will devolve his base of support. President Santos must tread lightly so as not to fracture his fragile coalition.
Furthermore, while President Santos’ re-election ensures he will be able to continue his peace negotiations with the FARC, the election has served as a wake-up-call. The peace talks, which began in 2012, have been hotly contested. Even though Zuluaga lost the election, his strong campaign represents the sentiments of many Colombians. The close results demonstrate that a significant number of Colombians agree with Zuluaga and remain frustrated with the slow pace of the peace talks and the accords’ potential inability to enforce appropriate punishments for FARC leaders. President Santos must find a way to deliver on his peace promises while still ensuring that the Colombian population feels that justice is served.
In spite of these challenges, Colombia’s future under President Santos is promising. The head of state has made the expansion of free trade agreements a defining feature of his first term. For example, he established free trade agreements with both the United States and the European Union, and is currently working on establishing the Pacific Alliance with Chile, Mexico, and Peru. If he continues his pro-business policies, the country will likely experience much-needed growth throughout his second term. Colombia stands to retain its title as one of Latin America’s fastest growing economies under President Santos.
News of the electoral results in Colombia must also come as a relief throughout the Western Hemisphere. The president received some backlash from Colombia’s right for salvaging once-tense relations with neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela, two countries with many alleged human rights violations. However, in mending these bilateral relationships, President Santos has brought increased regional stability to South America. His victory means a continuation of these good relations and further regional stability. Furthermore, his re-election likely guarantees a continued intimacy between Colombia and the United States. Washington has funneled almost $9 billion USD in aid to Colombia since 2000 and views the country as its top ally in Latin America. The United States has applauded President Santos’ peace process.
The 2014 Colombian elections also speak to the strength of the country’s institutions and adherence to democratic principles, such as free and fair elections. Even amidst internal armed conflict and dirty campaigning, Colombia has not forgone its democratic ideals. The South American nation is still struggling to ensure citizen security and rule of law, yet the country continues to have strong and stable political rights and institutions. This has cemented its status as the United States’ top ally in Latin America and offering an exemplary degree of democracy even under adverse circumstances.
Moreover, the electoral debates between President Santos and Zuluaga focused almost exclusively on the fate of Colombia’s peace negotiations with the FARC, causing many to view the elections as a referendum on the peace talks. As such, the election results show the Colombian population’s general approval of the governments’ peace talks with the FARC. Thus, it is not just President Santos who has won; victory also belongs to the peace that his campaign represents.
President Santos’ re-election indicates a popular desire to move past the internal armed conflict that has come to define the last half-century of Colombia’s history. Certainly, Colombia’s path to actualized peace and continued growth will not be an easy one, given popular demands for more social programs, Uribe’s continuous influence on Colombian politics, and President Santos’ unusual and likely fragile political coalition. Yet, given Colombia’s exceptional economic growth and significant strides made in the peace process in recent years, President Santos has proven a deft political leader. With President Santos at the helm, we can expect Colombia to stay on its course towards continued prosperity and growing prospects for peace.
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 William Neuman, “Colombian President Re-Elected After a Race Challenging His Peace Negotiations,” The New York Times, June 15, 2014, accessed June 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/world/americas/colombian-president-president-juan-manuel-santos-re-elected.html?ref=americas&_r=0.
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