Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Elections in Colombia: Five Takeaways

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On June 15, 15.8 million Colombians went to the polls and gave peace a chance—literally. With 51 percent of the vote, President Juan Manuel Santos won a second term against the Centro Democrático´s Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who won 45 percent.

In three weeks, Santos bounced back from his defeat in the first-round election on May 25 and secured four more years in the Casa de Nariño. The 2014 elections realigned political forces in Colombia and drew a new political map, with important future consequences.

Here are five takeaways from Santos’ win:

1. Promises of peace

Santos ran his campaign for re-election on the promise to continue the current  peace negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) in Havana, Cuba.

With low levels of public support for his administration, Santos owes his victory to voters’ leap of faith that it will be possible to sign a peace deal with guerrilleros. Between the first round and the runoff election, Santos’ campaign managed to obtain key endorsements from the left-wing opposition—the Polo Democrático Alternativo—and the center-left Alianza Verde. This support, based exclusively on the continuation of the peace process, ended up being crucial to Santos’ victory.

In other words, Santos’ re-election is, more than anything, a mandate to negotiate with the FARC.

2. Elected by the Right, re-elected by the Left

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos won his first term by riding in on his predecessor´s high popularity. Former President Álvaro Uribe crowned Santos heir of his right-wing coalition, and made him the most-voted president in Colombian history.

However, in office, Santos defied his uribista credentials and moved closer to the Left. Santos’ declaration of  political independence was simultaneously a war on Uribe’s legacy, with the launch of Cuba-based peace talks with the FARC in October 2012. Uribe considered Santos’ decision to negotiate with—instead of fight against—the guerrillas to be a betrayal of his eight-year administration, and he responded by building the Centro Democrático, an opposition party against Santos.

Consequently, a new division arose in Colombian politics, with uribistas on the Right facing a loose coalition led by president Santos and revolving around the peace process. Endorsements from left-wing former presidential candidate Clara López and several senators from the Alianza Verde helped Santos build his anti-Uribista front.

The 2014 election results reflect this  new political division: Santos won 51 percent of the vote and Zuluaga, Uribe’s candidate, won 45 percent. While four years ago, Santos was elected by the right-wing uribista majority, today the decisive votes were cast by the Left.

3. A house divided

A new political map has been drawn for Santos’ second term. In 2010, when Santos was first elected president, uribistas won two-thirds of the presidential vote and controlled more than 50 percent of the Senate. In 2014, the country is divided practically in half. Today, seven Caribbean provinces, four Pacific provinces and three Amazonian provinces have sizable santista majorities, while Antioquia, the Andean regions, and the eastern regions have became uribista strongholds.

In Bogotá, the capital city and the most populous electoral district, Santos won the runoff, but 40 percent of voters chose Zuluaga, the uribista candidate. The one-year-old Centro Democrático party will likely play a major role in the next regional elections, scheduled for 2015.

4. The new Right

One of the most important consequences of the 2014 election is the emergence of a new kind of opposition: the right-wing uribistas. Since the promulgation of Colombia’s 1991 Constitution, Colombia’s political opposition has been comprised of left-wing parties, such as the Polo Democrático Alternativo. Traditionally, the winner of the presidential election invited the defeated parties to form a center-right majority coalition in Congress. The last example was Santos’ Partido Social de Unidad Nacional (Social Party of National Unity—Party of the U), which controlled 85 percent of both legislative houses.

In Santos’ second term, however, the Polo Democrático Alternativo and the Alianza Verde will seek to form their own 10-member leftist opposition bloc. As a result, for the first time, a Colombian president will face two opposition forces: one on the Left and another on the Right.

Meanwhile, the Colombian Right ran an openly conservative campaign for the first time in decades, garnering Uribe’s new Centro Democrático party 20 senate seats and losing the Casa de Nariño by only six precentage points. Uribe himself won a seat in the past legislative elections, and, due to his still-high popularity, he is the major opposition figure today. Former presidential candidates Óscar Iván Zuluaga and  Martha Lucía Ramírez  and the  20 new uribista senators will serve as new voices for this conservative movement in the opposition against Santos.

5. A weak second term

Santos won his re-election by 900,000 votes. But the victory is due to the support of both the Left and the “machinery” of the Caribbean coast’s political bosses. The number of votes cast for Santos in Bogotá, a leftist stronghold, as well as the northern part of the country, played an important role in Santos’ ultimate victory over Zuluaga.

This means that Santos faces a second term with a lot of accounts payable. He must negotiate with the center-left parties, the Polo Democrático Alternativo and the Alianza Verde, any kind of engagement in the peace process with the guerrillas. The president will also have to integrate Unidad Nacional leaders into his Cabinet, as well as improve relations with the armed forces, which was damaged during the campaign.

Still pending is a series of reforms from Santos’ first term, including reforms to the health, education and justice system. Santos’ approval rating right before the election was 41 percent positive, versus 46 percent negative. He might have won re-election, but the Santos administration lost the term.

Since the peace process has its own dynamics, Santos’ second term will have to introduce major changes to ride the momentum from his electoral victory, translating into more popularity points. But this window of opportunity may not stay wide open for much longer.

Tags: Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos
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