Colombia stands out as an oasis of conservatism amid Latin America’s growing legion of leftist leaders and Sunday’s elections are unlikely to change that with President Alvaro Uribe expected to be re-elected by a landslide.
But a last-minute surge by a leftist candidate nicknamed Santa Claus has provided the lone surprise in a campaign dominated by the conservative Uribe, Washington’s staunchest ally in the region who has gained popularity by cracking down on leftist rebels and armed groups.
Colombia’s democratic left, long blemished by its association with the four-decade-old guerrilla insurgency, has been invigorated by the surprise performance of Senator Carlos Gaviria, candidate for the Alternative Democratic Pole party, or PDA, ahead of Sunday’s elections.
Unknown to half of Colombians just a few months ago, the academic and former head of Colombia’s highest court has leapfrogged past Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa to move into second place.
Since March, polls show support for Gaviria has tripled, to 24 percent.
Meanwhile, Uribe has seen his still commanding lead dip 10 points to 55 percent.
“He’s run a very effective campaign, which is why he’s the only candidate to see his numbers improve during the course of the campaign,” said pollster Napoleon Franco.
Call it the Santa Claus effect. Colombians affectionately refer to the 69-year old political newcomer as Papa Noel, or Santa Claus, as much for his cuddlesome paunch and hoary beard as for his mild-mannered campaign style and high-minded discourse.
More at ease writing poetry than kissing babies, on the campaign trail Gaviria looks nothing like the populist firebrands voters in Venezuela and Bolivia have ushered into power in recent years.
“I want to show Colombians that being a leftist doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive,” Gaviria said in a recent interview.
But looks can be deceiving. Gaviria’s opposition to a free-trade pact with the US and harsh criticism of the free market firmly aligns him with the region’s other leftists. So too does the poster of Cuban revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that hangs prominently at hiscampaign headquarters.
As Uribe’s support has slipped dangerously close to the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a second round runoff with his closest rival, the president has intensified his attacks against Gaviria, urging voters to stay clear of “disguised communists.”
In response, Gaviria has accused his former pupil of employing McCarthy-like fear tactics, in allusion to US Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt in the 1950s.
“Uribe’s biggest defect is his authoritarian streak, which makes him intolerant of criticism,” said Gaviria, who was Uribe’s law professor at the University of Antioquia, in Medellin.
About his former pupil’s academic career, Gaviria jokes: “He was a good student, but he forgot to come to the class on constitutional law.”
Key to Gaviria’s popularity is his background as magistrate of Colombia’s constitutional court — an institution esteemed like few others in Colombia as beyond the pale of corruptible politics.
As head of the court from 1996-2001, Gaviria ruled in favor of everything from same-sex civil unions to the decriminalization of small doses of drugs, progressive views that Uribe has seized on to shore up support among his conservative base.