By John R. Thomson

Six weeks ago, it seemed impossible. Today, it seems improbable but all too possible: Colombia could reject the Presidential candidate most in the mould of retiring President Alvaro Uribe Velez.

Arguably Colombia’s most popular President in its 200 year history — in nearly eight years, his approval rating has never fallen below 60 percent, peaked as recently as July 2008 in the low 80s and is currently hovering around 75 percent – Mr. Uribe’s hope to serve an unprecedented third term was quashed by the country’s Constitutional Court in February.  This left the field wide open to candidates from right to extreme left, with none closer to the outgoing President than his former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, the candidate of Partido de la U [for unity], founded by Mr. Uribe.

Initial soundings showed Mr. Santos with 40 percent or more support, well ahead of his closest competitor, Noemi Sanin of the Partido Conservador, twice an unsuccessful presidential candidate.  Running a very distant third, in single digits, was Antanas Mockus of the Partido Verde.

Following legislative elections on March 14, Mr. Santos’ situation looked even brighter, as U candidates won pluralities in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Less than three weeks before the May 30 elections, Dr. Mockus has vaulted from nine to 34 percent support, while Mr. Santos has slipped to 35 percent [Ms. Sanin, previously second ranked, is now in third position, having tumbled from 17 to eight percent].

To win, presidential candidates must receive 50 percent of the vote, and it appears very likely Messrs. Santos and Mockus will compete in a mid-June runoff, in which Mr. Santos could well face united opposition from all left of center parties and factions.

There are multiple reasons for the Santos decline and the Mockus ascent:

  • Having held three senior ministerial positions with distinction in three administrations, Juan Manuel Santos is clearly the most qualified candidate. Although never having held elective office, he is showing remarkable strength and balance both on the road and in presidential debates.
  • His staff, however, has earned a reputation as disorganized and insensitive to political interests, because in one seasoned analyst’s view, “they have considered this a coronation rather than an election”. For example, when Mr. Santos traveled recently to Colombia’s former capital, Popayán, he bypassed the city’s popular Mayor to meet privately with a minor political leader who represents a small fraction of the Mayor’s political base.
  • Appointment of close Santos confidante, Roberto Prieto, is exemplary of sweeping efforts to rectify much of the disorganization and indecisiveness the campaign witnessed earlier, with ineffective staff replaced and campaign themes revised.
  • Mr. Santos’ surprising vice presidential pick, Angelino Garzon, is a reformed communist, former union leader, minister and governor of Valle Department, and is campaigning on his own with a small campaign staff and funds.
  • President Uribe, although clearly supporting Mr. Santos, has twice made statements, unnecessary and unhelpful to the Partido de la U standard-bearer, that have been picked up by the press. He is now taking a more openly supportive stance.
  • Media coverage of Mr. Santos, member of the founding family of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, is consistently meager, in part attributable to poor handling of the press by the campaign. Recently, a previously announced press conference during a campaign stop, was limited to two questions because Mr. Santos was running late. This observer, twice told by Mr. Santos he wished to have an interview with me, was unable during six weeks to get a straight answer from any campaign staff member, a situation replicated many times with other journalists.

To the contrary, the Mockus campaign is heavily and favorably covered by the press, resulting in the Bogota-born son of Lithuanian immigrants enjoying an Obama aura among voters.

  • Apart from two elections as Bogota’s Mayor and twice running for national office, Dr. Mockus’ professional experience is as professor and rector of the National University of Colombia.
  • While Mayor, he did little of significance beyond mending Bogota’s potholed streets and taking full credit for a national effort to sharply curtail widespread murder and kidnapping.
  • Other Mayoral activities included walking the streets dressed as Super Citizen in tights and cape to urge civic involvement on surprised citizens, plus declaring a women’s night out, while men stayed home to care for the children, to reduce female fear of being molested.
  • Dr. Mockus’ vice presidential running mate, Sergio Fajardo, a former university professor and Medellin Mayor, suffers from recurring allegations of close relations with both Colombian paramilitary groups and the Chavez regime in Venezuela. [Dr. Mockus, himself, has been forced to downgrade a recent statement of “admiration” to “respect” for the Venezuelan communist despot.]
  • Recipient of less than five percent of the 2006 Presidential vote, press and public alike are lionizing Dr. Mockus in 2010. Returning to Bogota from Cartagena recently, virtually all passengers on a packed flight stood and applauded the candidate. Moreover, numerous business and civic leaders, weary of slow economic growth despite greatly improved security, are speaking positively of his “fresh approach” to issues.

Antanas Mockus, is nothing if not unpredictable.  Among his “fresh” views, as expressed to a prominent Bogota attorney, is that the deaths of some three thousand prisoners during the regime of late Chilean strong man Augusto Pinochet are more significant because they were actions of a government, than 400 thousand Colombians massacred by FARC and other guerrilla groups.

In an April 18 debate among the six leading Presidential contenders, Dr. Mockus was the sole candidate to declare he would not have fired missiles into neighboring Ecuadorian territory to kill notorious narco-trafficking leader Raul Reyes, where the number two FARC leader had sought refuge, and would not do so should a similar situation arise again.  Asked if he had supported the acclaimed 2008 action at the time, he said he could not remember.  Most recently, he stated he would extradite President Uribe to Ecuador for trial, if asked, a position he has since retracted.

Then there is the pressure from Colombia’s neighbors.  Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez has announced he will cut off all imports and will not meet with Mr. Santos if he is elected President.   Chavez ally, Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, has simultaneously labeled Juan Manuel Santos ¨a danger not only for Ecuador but for the entire region¨.

The sharply drawn contrasts between Colombia’s two leading presidential contenders have striking similarities to the United States’ 2008 election.  Mr. Santos’ solid executive experience, particularly as chief architect of the country’s remarkable success versus Colombia’s narco-trafficking revolutionary guerrillas, contrasts with Dr. Mockus’ limited and frequently quixotic political experience.

In a prospective June runoff, Colombian voters will very likely be asked to choose between proven centrist experience and idealized leftist idiosyncrasy. Their decision will significantly impact Latin America’s socio-politico direction for several years to come.

 

Geopolitical analyst and former diplomat John R. Thomson focuses on issues in developing countries.

 

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