Colombians voted yesterday in a presidential election characterized by a clash of personalities and relentless mudslinging that have overshadowed differences on how to end 50 years of guerrilla violence.
Despite presiding over one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies, support for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ re-election bid has been falling steadily for months, especially among poor Colombians who have not gained as much from the economic boom.
Amid fatigue with Santos’ rule, former Colombian minister of finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga has emerged as the strongest challenger thanks to the backing of his one-time boss and mentor: former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, a still popular, but polarizing figure.
The latest polls placed Santos and Zuluaga in a dead heat a week ago, with each on 29 percent, far below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff next month. The remaining three candidates trailed by about 20 percentage points.
The two conservative front-runners served simultaneously in Uribe’s Cabinet, where they backed a free-trade agreement and anti-narcotics cooperation with the US.
Where they differ is on managing the ongoing 18-month peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel army.
Santos has made striking a deal to end the longstanding conflict the centerpiece of his campaign.
However, concerns that rebel leaders — on the ropes after a decade-long US-backed offensive — will not have to pay for their crimes have been fueling mistrust of the process that Santos’ opponents have been quick to seize on.
Although Zuluaga says he too favors a negotiated settlement, he says that if elected, he will give FARC negotiators in Cuba a week to show their commitment to peace by declaring a permanent ceasefire.
Zuluaga is also advocating a tougher stance on Venezuela, saying in a debate last week that he will not remain “silently complicit” as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro jails opponents and stamps out anti-government protests.
Santos has been careful not to provoke the socialist president next door, calculating that Colombia’s extensive commercial ties with Venezuela and its relations with other leftist governments in South America could suffer.
However, those policy differences have largely been engulfed in the past two weeks by a string of bitter attacks and shocking revelations that have left many Colombians ashamed of their politicians after more than a decade of economic and security improvements.
It began with media reports that Santos’ campaign manager, J.J. Rendon, received US$12 million from the nation’s biggest drug traffickers to help negotiate their surrender.
Rendon resigned after acknowledging that he interceded in the case, but has denied taking any money.
Meanwhile, Zuluaga’s camp is reeling from the arrest of a computer expert who worked for his campaign and is accused of hacking FARC negotiators and Santos’ e-mails. Zuluaga has called the arrest a desperate ploy to derail his campaign.
However, the emergence of a clandestinely shot video reportedly showing Zuluaga listening as the alleged hacker outlines his strategy to undermine the peace talks have cast doubt on the candidate’s claim that he had no knowledge of the consultant’s illegal activities.
The tensions came to a head in a feisty exchange at a televised debate last week in which Santos accused his rival of being Uribe’s “puppet” and Zuluaga fired back: “You must show me respect.”