By Robert Valencia
In the last couple of months, Colombia has witnessed an intense presidential election process nicknamed the “Dirty War” for the political mudslinging between the two frontrunner candidates. The election showdown is between President Juan Manuel Santos and hopeful Oscar Iván Zuloaga. The two will be facing each other on the second presidential run-off on June 15.
On the official Election Day, May 25, President Santos clinched 25 percent of votes, and Zuloaga, 29 percent. The marginal difference meant a second runoff vote for the country. What was surprising was that nearly 60 percent of all eligible voters did not exercise their right to vote. Six percent of those who did go to the polls voted en blanco, that is, a scratch or “none of the above” vote. What explains the weak voter turnout and the political indifference?
In short, the Colombian people are tired having the bickering of political elites take center stage, while the country’s desperate need for peace and stability is brushed aside.
Santos and Zuloaga are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to establishing peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Zuluaga mentioned that the peace accord will be suspended because he sees it as an amnesty to all the crimes committed by the FARC. Conversely, Santos is urging for a peace deal. No matter who wins during the next election, Colombia’s peace cannot be the biggest loser, because the 1991 Colombian Constitution itself ensures that peace “is a right found within the chapter of fundamental rights and as a duty that must be complied.” At least 220,000 people have died due to the 50-year-long conflict, the same that has also displaced millions of people (second only to Sudan). A peace agreement is long overdue.
As the initial round of voting ended, a host of scandals plagued the two leading campaigns of President Santos and Zuloaga. Juan José “J.J.” Rendón, then Santos’s political strategist, quit the campaign due to accusations that the drug lords had sent USD 12 million to President Santos to relax a judicial process against them.
Meanwhile, Colombian magazine Semana revealed a video in which Zuluaga is seen with notorious computer hacker Andrés Sepúlveda. The video shows an interaction between Zuluaga and Sepúlveda where Sepúlveda infiltrated e-mails and information vital to the peace accord participants in Havana, most particularly guerrilla members and President Santos. According to Semana magazine, Sepúlveda worked with Zuluaga’s party Democratic Center on social media campaigns and cybersecurity. The publication underscores that the reason Sepúlveda hacked confidential materials from the peace process was to sabotage and end the talks. As the video surfaced, Zuloaga questioned the legitimacy of the video and continued in the presidential race, despite calls from the population to renounce. Soon after, Colombian authorities arrested Sepúlveda for illegal espionage to sabotage the current peace process.
In both scandals, Santos and Zuluoaga denied any of their participations in these illegal activities. Both candidates took these accusations to televised debates, accusing each other of lying to the population. But the mutual finger pointing wore Colombians out, and their growing disgruntlement had an impact in the election polls.
After a slim victory in the preliminary elections on May 25, Zuluaga pledged that if he became president, he would halt the peace process should the FARC refuse to honor a ceasefire. It’s important to note that the much of the success of Zuluaga’s campaign is because of Alvaro Uribe Velez, the popular former president of Colombia (2002-2010), now senator for the Democratic Center Party.
Historically, Uribe has been a staunch critic of the current peace process and some of its policies, such as the Law of Land Restitution. He claims that hectares of lands will fall under illegal hands, even when it is the right of displaced peasants to recover what’s theirs.
His party clinched 19 out of the 102 Senate seats during Election Day for Congress on March 9, 2014. Though it doesn’t hold the majority of seats, it can become a hurdle in case a pro-peace accord Santos wins. Furthermore, Uribe’s close collaborators such as Francisco Santos financed billboards that sought to deepen Colombians’ apathy for the peace process.
Uribe is a revered figure for many inhabitants who credited him for restoring trust and socioeconomic stability. According to newspaper El Colombiano, Uribe held almost 69 percent favorability three years after his last term. Aligned with such, this anti-peace public figure, a Zuluaga administration will likely not pursue avenues toward peace.
A great majority of Colombians chastised the presidential candidates by not casting their votes, due to this “Dirty War” that gained more prominence than any meaningful proposals for socioeconomic change. Of the 32 million people eligible to vote, only 13 million cast their vote. It is very likely that the upcoming election run-off will show an even lower turnout, as Colombians will likely be more interested in watching the World Cup, as it has happened in previous occasions.
Not only could such display of democratic indifference adversely affect turnout in the second round of presidential elections, but it could also threaten the only viable chance Colombia has for peace. Colombians have grown weary of a lengthy peace process. More criminal acts by guerrillas have taken place in the last couple of days. Uribe’s harsh words against the process fuel more uncertainty and resentment between warring parties.
As it was rightly put during the televised debates by all candidates, “peace should not be represented under the figure of Santos, but rather, it should be the supreme goal of all Colombians.
With only two candidates in the running, President Santos may be the best option to carry on a peace process. Although Zuluaga eased his tone on the peace process after defeated Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucía Ramirez backed his candidacy, the heavy influence of Alvaro Uribe is a real force in Colombian politics. Uribe’s ubiquitous image on the Zuluaga campaign and the Democratic Center Party logo that very much resembles Uribe’s 2002 campaign logo is an omen that he would control Zuluaga’s decision-making, potentially taking a negative turn in the peace process.
Furthermore, the peace process must be comprehensive. It must be tied to other pressing matters such as the economy, access to higher education, control over illegal mining, and better infrastructure, which could potentially bolster stability and enhance lasting peace among its citizens. If a peace process is reached, the military expenditure that takes up over 3 percent of Colombia’s GDP—higher than that of Great Britain and Germany—can be reduced, and the remaining budget can be redirected and allocated to the aforementioned needs. Colombia can invest in their highway grid and seaport restructuration to be more competitive in today’s global economy, given the number of Free Trade Agreements it signed with the U.S. and other Latin American countries. Otherwise, President Santos may be likely to lose a second term at the hands of Zuluaga and his backer Uribe, and chances of peace attainment will take even longer.
Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.