Colombian politics are in tumult as the first round of presidential elections approach May 25. Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos is seeking a second term in a field of five candidates, and as of now looks like he will finish equal to or behind his leading opposition, former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.
No candidate will likely break 30 percent, forcing a runoff by the top two candidates on June 15, as Colombian law requires the winning candidate receive more than 50 percent to win.
Six months ago, Zuluaga had 14 percent support; today, Santos and Zuluaga are running neck-and-neck, with each posting 29 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll. In third place is former defense and commerce minister Marta Lucia Ramirez with 14 percent.
The tight presidential race was unimaginable four years ago. With full backing from outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Santos was elected with 69 percent of the vote. Today, just days before elections on May 25, the president’s popularity has plummeted to the low 30s.
Santos, advised by his ever-present, hard-left brother Enrique, is running a desperate campaign described by political analyst Juan Carlos Pastrana as “accelerating in reverse.”
Among his most influential advisers is disgraced ex-President Ernesto Samper, who accepted campaign funds totaling $20 million for his campaign, according to the son of convicted drug kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez Abadilla.
Sadly, the Santos administration has distinguished itself by distributing large amounts of what he calls “marmalade” to virtually every member of Colombia’s Congress and other approachable political leaders.
In the last two weeks, Santos has forged a virtual pact with the despised FARC, a communist, guerrilla, narco-trafficking organization. The FARC is well-known for voter intimidation and fraud in rural areas of the country.
The president has courted and won the support of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, who won office with just 32 percent of the vote and has been under heavy attack for poor administration and outright corruption.
An ultra-radical former guerrilla whose most famous and closest friend was Venezuela’s late dictator Hugo Chavez, Petro has a solid base of voters in the Colombian capital.
Zuluaga, a well-regarded successful businessman and minister, has a reputation for efficient management and strict honesty, rare qualities for Colombian politicians.
His campaign has moved ahead strongly despite leading a news magazine, Semana, making allegations -- since denied and proven specious -- that senior Zuluaga campaign officials had dubious relations with a less-than-reputable campaign security operative.
A strong factor in the Zuluaga campaign has been the support of Uribe, the country’s most popular political figure, and his Centro Democratico political party.
Four years after leaving the presidency, Uribe has an unparalleled 62 percent approval rating; his party demonstrated its strength in February’s legislative elections, when it won 22 senatorial races, equaling Santos’ ticket.
Uribe was coaxed out of retirement by dynamic, young political activist Paloma Valencia, and the two have high hopes of even greater success in the presidential sweepstakes.
Valencia, elected a Colombian senator as was her mentor in February, sees victory ahead for Zuluaga, noting, “He will run a close race with Santos in the first round, and then beat him decisively in the runoff.”
Try as they might, legally or otherwise, most observers believe the Santos presidency is drawing to a close. “Santos” in Spanish mean “saints.” One wag observed, “Louis Armstrong will have to change his tune: The Saints are marching out, not in.”
In most observers’ opinion and despite overwhelming media support, brothers Juan Manuel and Enrique (whose family founded and ran the country’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo, for decades) could well be leaving the power and comfort of Colombia’s presidential palace, La Casa de Narino."Ian Alexander" is the pen name of a veteran journalist working in Colombia. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.