The first round of presidential elections in Colombia, held on May 25, did not surprise anyone. The uribista candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, won with 29.2 percent of the vote over incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos, who won a disappointing 25.6 percent of the vote. The remaining votes were split between the three other major candidates: the conservative Marta Lucía Ramírez (15.5 percent), the leftist Clara López (15.2 percent) and the Green Alliance’s Enrique Peñalosa (8.2 percent).
A record six percent of voters submitted blank ballots. Sixty percent of the population able to vote did not attend to the polls. Since no single contender received more than 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates who received the most votes, Zuluaga and Santos, will face each other in a runoff on June 15.
These results confirmed the momentum gained by the opposition, led by former president and senator-elect Álvaro Uribe—and the stagnation of President Santos’ popular support. In the March 9 congressional election, Uribe’s newly-created party, the Centro Democrático, won 20 seats in the senate, including one for Uribe himself.
Zuluaga’s lead in the first round of voting is, in fact, a triumph for Uribe. Without even being on the ballot, Colombia’s presidential elections have revolved around former president Uribe and his ideas.
In the middle of this fight between the incumbent president and his immediate predecessor is the peace negotiation that Santos is conducting with the communist FARC, the oldest active guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere. Nineteen months ago, Santos launched negotiations in Cuba with the ultimate goal of putting an end to Colombia’s 50-year-old internal conflict.
Unfortunately, the pace of the peace talks has been slow, and Santos’ administration has failed to persuade the Colombian people about their benefits. The latest polls confirm not only a growing pessimism regarding the success of the talks in Cuba but also a strong rejection of the sacrifices Colombians would have to make should the FARC sign a peace accord, namely political seats and no prison time for top commanders.
In the meantime, Uribe—the most popular politician in the country for the last 12 years—has actively opposed any dealing between the Colombian government and the guerrilleros. The former president’s criticism resonated with many Colombians not least because his administration (2002-2010) inflicted weakening blows to the FARC’s structure and even captured and killed some of its top commanders.
Zuluaga´s presidential campaign has strongly reinforced Uribe´s rejection of the peace talks and taken advantage of Santos’ ambiguous support for the Havana peace process. For many months Santos did not campaign openly on the subject of the peace rather talking about economy, low unemployment and poverty reduction. In the last weeks toward the first presidential round in the first week after elections, Santos invited to a “grand coalition” around peace.
On May 25, these two contesting views about peace and conflict clashed in the polls with a narrow victory for uribistas.
In the second round on June 15, Colombians will decide between Santos’ peace talks and the return of a more military-centerred approach, which the right wing implemented during Uribe’s presidency.
Colombia is now a country divided over peace. Zuluaga won in the Andean and northeastern regions, while Santos won on the two coasts, the southwest, and the Amazon. The forces are very balanced: conservatives who voted for Marta Lucía Ramirez lean toward the uribista platform and leftist supporters of Clara López may prefer Santos over Zuluaga, in order to block Uribe’s return to power.
Santos and his Unidad Nacional coalition is clearly on the defensive now that his huge advantage collapsed in the lead-up to the May 25 vote.
Santos’ defeat has turned his reelection campaign into a plebiscite centered on his former mentor, Álvaro Uribe. The president and santistas are urging voters to support the peace talks while feeding the fear of an Uribe comeback.
Meanwhile, uribistas promise the end of the peace talks in Cuba, warning of a strengthened and emboldened FARC. In conclusion, fear could be the most efficient factor in the June 15 presidential run-off in Colombia.