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28 May 2010

Colombia's Election Countdown

Plaza de Bolívar, courtesy of Enzo Molinari/flickr
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Plaza de Bolívar, Bogota

This Sunday, Colombians will choose between six major candidates in the first round of presidential elections. Although a clear winner is unlikely to be decided that day, the election marks the end of the first round of a hectic campaign season for the race to succeed the helm of one of Latin America’s fastest growing nations, writes Eliot Brockner from Bogota.

By Eliot Brockner in Bogota

As torrential rain fell upon Bogota on 23 May, the final day, Colombia’s six major candidates were allowed to campaign for the presidency of the nation. Yet not even the downpour could douse the fire and frenetic energy that have characterized the past two months of campaigning.

After several months of delays due to uncertainty about whether incumbent president Alvaro Uribe would be allowed to run for an unprecedented third term, the shortened election cycle has resulted in an unpredictable and unique campaign season which has captivated Colombians and foreign observers alike.

Two days before elections, campaign fever is in full swing in Colombia’s capital. Meetings, seminars and impromptu political discussions amid all sectors of Colombian society abound. Posters offering support to one of Colombia’s six presidential candidates dot the windows in apartments along the roads and highways that traverse the Andean capital, as well as billboards, restaurants, bars, cafes, and parks throughout the city.

Most of these posters are for one of two candidates, Juan Manuel Santos, the representative of the U Party, and Antanas Mockus, the representative of the Green Party, the two front-runners expected to advance to a second round of elections on 20 June.

Either one of these men would inherit a country that has made tremendous gains in security over the past decade, gains which have helped convert Colombia into a rising regional economic powerhouse. A 26 May editorial in Colombia's El Tiempo summarizes this success:  “10 years ago, the country was on the verge of becoming a failed state” the editorial reads. “[Today], it leads the Civets,” a nod to the new bloc of emerging nations coined by HSBC CEO Michael Geoghegan, consisting of Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa, that the bank’s boss believe show enormous growth potential in the next decade.

Shoring up security

This radical shift is very much related to improvements in public security. Home to Latin America’s third largest population and a wealth of natural resources, Colombia was long seen as off limits due to problems with internal security. That perception is slowly starting to change due in large part to the fact that Colombia today is far safer than it was when Alvaro Uribe assumed the presidency in 2002. Lured by the size of the market, natural resources and relative stability compared to its Andean neighbors, once-timid investors are for the first time entering and staying. Between 2000 and 2008, foreign direct investment increased by 187 percent, up to $10.54 billion.

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement is in regard to Colombia’s oldest and largest guerrilla movement, FARC. The group's ranks have been decimated by blows to their leadership and rank and file. Estimates put their number at around 7,000, down from 26,000 eight years ago when the group was able to negotiate the removal of the Colombian army from a Switzerland-sized piece of land in southeastern Colombia for peace talks that never made progress and that many here in Colombia, especially among the armed forces, view as a humiliating defeat that has largely been vindicated by their success against the group under Uribe.

FARC’s traditional enemy, right-wing paramilitary organizations, have splintered off into many different groups, and continue to wage terror against populations in the Colombian countryside. These groups are primarily dedicated to the production and trafficking of drugs. In spite of setbacks, the groups remain active and nimble. Malleable alliances between these organizations, for example, may present a changing security threat for Colombia’s next president.

Numerous business and security experts here in Bogota speaking to ISN on the condition of anonymity are optimistic about the future of security in Colombia. “I see great stability and continuity, no matter who wins,” said an executive of a leading Colombian power company. This concept of selective change is expressed in the rhetoric of the two leading candidates. Santos has said that he will continue many of Uribe’s policies, and much of his strength is derived from his role as defense minister throughout much of Uribe’s administration. Even Mockus, who represents a complete change from the traditional brand of Colombian politics and which may help explain his rapid ascent in the polls, has been careful not to cast himself an anti-Uribe, but rather a post-Uribe candidate.

One thing that will almost certainly change is the nature of the battle against FARC and other insurgent groups. US assistance to Colombia, which has predominantly been in the form of military equipment and intelligence, is likely to change from battling a military to building institutions and capacity in the areas most vulnerable in  Colombia and other humanitarian projects. These changes will occur no matter who wins the presidency and may in part dictate how the next president continues to combat internal violence.

Diplomatic divergence

There are also potential differences in how the two will govern in terms of international affairs. Colombia’s role as the US' strongest ally in South America has isolated it from some of its regional neighbors, including Ecuador and Venezuela. All candidates are vehemently opposed to an arms race, including Mockus and Santos, who have both said on occasion they will attempt greater diplomacy with Venezuela. However, the relationship is severely damaged, largely due to evidence that members of FARC, a hated group in Colombia and recognized internationally as a terrorist organization, are operating in Venezuela.

Additionally, it remains unclear whether Venezuela would be open to any overtures from Colombia, though Mockus may present a marginally better chance at reconciliation. Tensions along the Colombian-Venezuelan border are tense, and the most recent scandal involving the detention of Colombian nationals in Venezuela on charges of espionage have furthered widened and already large gap.

After exhaustive campaigns, the candidates and their teams will have a moment of respite: Between 6 pm local time on 28 May until 6 AM 1 June, not a drop of alcohol will be sold in Colombia. The dry law, along with the closure of borders and increased military and police presence, are just a few of the measures in place to ensure a smooth electoral process. The winners of the first round will have little time to celebrate. The second and decisive round of elections is just three weeks away.

Eliot Brockner is a writer and consultant specializing in political and operational risk in the Americas. He blogs at Latin American Thought.