Colombia's upcoming elections might be turning into another referendum on the peace deal with the FARC.
The recent ballots in Argentina and Chile were the first of a wave of elections throughout Latin America. In the coming months, the populations of Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay and Venezuela will have the opportunity to renew the leadership of their country, although elections in Caracas will be a mockery of democracy now that Maduro has banned opposition parties from participation.
After the victories of Mauricio Macri (Argentina) and Sebastian Pinera (Chile), several observers are prompt to underline a perceived swing of the continent towards right wing liberal governments. However, this year is likely to rebalance the continental political exchequer with conservative incumbents often facing uphill battles for reelection and left wing parties favoured in polls in Mexico or Brazil.
The first of those elections, in Colombia, does not however follow the traditional left-right opposition lines.
A year after current President Juan Manuel Santos ended more than half a century of conflict and three years of negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), candidates running for the Colombian elections in May are mostly being judged on their position towards a peace agreement that still deeply divides the country.
Santos cannot run again and his popularity in any case has hit staggering lows since the failed referendum of October 2016. His record is plagued by disappointment from peace advocates and hostility from a large part of the population whose nerves are still raw about a conflict that killed more than 220,000 Colombians.
The debate over the negotiations with the FARC has hogged all the energy of an administration which failed to address the economy’s glaring needs for reform. As a result, Colombia – traditionally one of the most dynamic economies of the continent – has performed poorly over the last few years.
The territories abandoned by the FARC have been taken over by other violent actors, whether a guerilla movement such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) or by delinquent groups associated with external criminal networks – notably Mexican – and related to drug trafficking.
To complete the picture, Colombian politics are sequenced by regular corruption scandals. Much like its neighbours Peru, Brazil and Ecuador, the Colombian political elite has been caught red-handed in the Odebrecht corruption scandal with President Santos having to publicly apologize for bribes and the illegal financing of his 2010 campaign.
In such a deleterious political climate, more than 30 politicians hunted signatures and patronage to build a potential presidential runs.
Last week the field of candidates was reduced to a dozen as the main political formations nominated their front leaders.
Bogota-born lawyer and Senator Ivan Duque won the primary of the Centro Democratico, a right wing formation founded by former President Alvaro Uribe. He becomes the de facto front runner for the upcoming election as the popularity of his political mentor Uribe was boosted by his championing of the ‘No’ campaign during the peace treaty referendum.
The behind-the-scenes alliance sealed between Uribe and former president Andres Pastrana Arango will also ensure Duque and his running mate Marta Lucia Ramirez, of a strong conservative political platform, are supported by the Colombian establishment and those who oppose any concessions to the guerillas.
On the other extreme, leftist candidates support the peace deal. One of them, Gustavo Petro, former leader of the M19 – a guerilla group that had stormed the Palacio de Justicia with tanks in the 1980s – has since proven as mayor of Bogota that he can be a responsible politician and is currently credited with more than 10 percent of the vote in early polls.
Other leftist candidates include Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timochenko, the leader of a now demobilized FARC rebel group. Timochenko will likely not get more than 5 percent of the votes but his candidacy will give the FARC access to the media and the opportunity to defend their ideas through classic democratic means.
Two other candidates will be defending a very polarising position towards the peace agreement. German Vargas Lleras – Santos’ vice president until March 2017 who lost two of his fingers in a guerilla attack – vehemently opposed the negotiations from within the Presidential Palace, an ambiguous and opportunistic choice that will probably cost him the support of the “Uribistas” - the Colombians nostalgic of Santos’ iron fisted predecessor.
Debating Vargas Lloras throughout the campaign will be Humberto De La Calle, the seasoned liberal party candidate and former chief negotiator in the Colombian peace process. De La Calle, a former Vice President in the 1990s underlines the failure of the war against narco-trafficking and focuses on reducing inequality, a platform that is a clear criticism of the Uribe years.
The negotiations with the FARC has taken over Colombian politics to such an extent that only one candidate seems focused on promoting the deep reforms the Colombian economic and political system need. Sergio Fajardo’s belief in pragmatism as to the negotiation with the FARC, suggesting a step by step implementation of the agreement with regular assessment, has allowed him to lead several opinion polls in recent weeks.
A doctor of mathematics, Fajardo runs on an anti-corruption platform and is against the polarization of Colombian society. As mayor of Medellin and governor of Antioquia he's successfully led the region towards being one of the main economic centers of the country.
As per the expression coined by Benjamin Franklin, there never was a good war or a bad peace. Colombia has been paralysed for the last three years by the constant debate over the peace negotiations. Its economy and long term stability depend on the capacity of its population to go beyond the passionate antagonism over a civil war that has already cost so much to the country.
Whether the debates leading to the presidential election can go beyond a sterile face-off between proponents and supporters of the peace agreement will demonstrate if Colombia is ready to heal its wounds and build its future. The country severely lacks infrastructure, economic reforms and political vision - and there will be no lasting peace without sustainable development and economic prosperity.
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