The race for Colombia’s presidency began yesterday, with former Colombian defense minister Juan Manuel Santos the favorite after the South American nation’s popular incumbent was blocked from running for a third term.
The Constitutional Court’s decision to bar a referendum on re-election heralds an end to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s eight-year rule, during which the US ally beat back left-wing guerrillas, stabilized its economy and drew investors.
With Colombian politics fixated for more than a year on the re-election issue and polls showing Uribe would have won easily if allowed to run, Friday’s ruling represented a starting gun for other presidential aspirants.
“The happiest man in Colombia today is Juan Manuel Santos,” one of his rivals, Gustavo Petro, of the leftist Democratic Pole party, said in the May 30 presidential election.
Uribe’s former defense minister — who also held the finance portfolio in a previous government — is closely associated with the US-backed security policies that have made Uribe the nation’s most popular president and helped Colombia escape its past image for violence and chaos.
“The continuity of President Uribe’s policies are at stake,” said Santos, confirming his candidacy and rallying supporters. “We can’t re-elect him, but let’s re-elect democratic security, social cohesion and investor confidence.”
Before the presidential vote, a March 14 parliamentary election will test the political waters and a certain amount of realigning among Uribe’s ruling coalition is expected.
Uribe is expected to back Santos, who heads the president’s Social National Unity Party. Uribe’s alliance partner the Conservative Party, however, could put up its own candidate.
Sergio Fajardo, an independent candidate and former mayor from Colombia’s second city Medellin, is hovering behind Santos in the polls, and would-be Conservative Party candidate Noemi Sanin could be a challenger if the Uribe alliance splits.
“A new presidential campaign is born,” former president Andres Pastrana said, hailing the court’s decision as evidence of the strength of Colombia’s institutions. “We have saved the Constitution, we have strengthened democracy.”
On the streets, where the Uribe re-election saga has gripped Colombia’s 44 million people like a national soap opera, reaction was mixed. Some said it was right for the president to bow out, while others feared instability.
“It’s not a good thing because he was freeing us from the guerrillas and I’m afraid the next one may ease up on that,” said Bogota housewife Amanda Bellos, 43.
Economists said the political transition in Colombia could cause a short-term wobble in the peso currency and local TES debt markets. They forecast long-term stability, however, with the next leader likely to follow Uribe’s broad policies, perhaps with more emphasis on social development.
Under the conservative Uribe, foreign money has poured back into Colombia, a top coffee exporter and Latin America’s No. 4 oil exporter.
“We expect to witness some level of political noise until the elections in late May [and a likely run-off in June] but do not expect the presidential transition to bring about a major change in the direction of investor-friendly macro and financial policies,” Goldman Sachs analyst Alberto Ramos said.