Colombia runoff: Can peace win?

In the upcoming presidential runoff, political power is at stake and so is Colombia’s peace process.

The division within the left is one example of the lack of an ethical political debate between the two presidential candidates, writes Gomez-Suarez [AFP/Getty Images]

On June 1, William Ospina, one of the greatest leftist Colombian writers alive, wrote in his opinion article in El Espectador that between two evils – presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos and Centro Democratico Party candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga – the latter was the lesser evil and therefore he would vote for him.

In response, Jose Zuleta, son of Estanislao Zuleta, one of the greatest thinkers in Colombia’s history, wrote a letter to Ospina, saying: “Ospina’s vanity does not let him see that [former President Alvaro] Uribe is the worst evil for Colombia and hence I would not read Ospina ever again.”

This division within the left is one example of the lack of an ethical political debate between the two presidential candidates. The responsibility lies on both sides but for very different reasons. Although Zuluaga’s discourse has somehow changed after the first round of the presidential elections, it continues to be full of misrepresentations regarding the Santos-FARC peace talks. Santos has improved his communication strategy but, according to the latest opinion poll, he still lacks the power to convince sceptical Colombians of the need to support the method of the negotiations. Santos and a broad sector of the left have less than a week to change the mind of an apathetic electorate.

Santos’ poor communication strategy

Santos’ communication strategy was very poor until the first round of the presidential elections on May 25. Perhaps, as Carlos Suarez suggests, this is because the elite in Bogota was happy to discuss Santos’ achievements in the social clubs, forums organised by private universities and abroad. As a result, a large number of Colombians were unaware of important developments in Havana.

In a country used to four hours of soap operas in the evening and three reality shows after the news, the electorate was ignorant of the agreements on agrarian reform, political participation and illicit drugs. Hence, voting was decided upon emotional beliefs manipulated by the simplistic idea put forward by Zuluaga that Santos had sold the country out to FARC in deal sealed behind closed doors.

The fact that this reality was created by the media was evident on May 25. Many Colombians did not go to the polls but at 5pm were listening to the news supporting or complaining because the leading candidate was not to their liking. What I have called before the banalisation of politics resulted in a 60 percent abstention in the polls.

Zuluaga’s political strategist

Uribe has been key behind Zuluaga’s success. Uribe capitalised on Santos’ poor communication strategy, which in order to protect the confidentiality of the peace talks, ended up isolating developments in Havana from Colombian politics.

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By criticising the peace process since the very beginning, Uribe created a faithful group of followers that started taking over Twitter and social media. They did not only create websites to criticise the peace process but started making up their own scripts to simplify the actual events. Castro-Chavismo is perhaps the most widely spread narrative of Uribe supporters.

Before the results of the parliamentary elections, Uribismo used the term Castro-Chavismo as a possibility in the future. Therefore, they asked Colombians to vote for Centro Democratico (Zuluaga and Uribe’s party) in order to avoid falling into the Castro-Chavismo’s hands. This discourse and Santos’ poor communication strategy allowed Uribismo to get 20 senators. With this victory in hand, it was possible to change gear and get serious about Zuluaga winning the presidential seat.

Santos did not recognise that Zuluaga became a serious challenge after the March elections. He thought that the distribution of resources (mermelada) among members of the National Union platform and the “give peace a chance” discourse were enough to win the elections in the first round. Zuluaga, instead, focused on using the Castro-Chavismo script to convince more and more Colombians that Santos was selling the country out to the FARC.

The slow developments in Havana helped more and more sceptics to move to the Zuluaga camp. Thus, Uribe’s cunning political strategy gained momentum and managed to impose the agenda of the presidential debate. A few days before the negotiation teams in Havana announced the agreement on illicit drugs, Zuluaga claimed that the agreement was a political strategy to benefit Santos. The other presidential candidates, from the leftist Polo Democratico Party and the Conservative Party followed suit; hence, a major achievement in the peace talks became the target of criticism that many Colombians disregarded.

When Santos realised after the first opinion poll that Zuluaga was leading the opinion polls, he reacted but it was too late. Uribe had already cast doubt on Santos’ honesty. By suggesting a corruption scandal without probes, he turned a boring political debate into a fiery discussion that questioned the lack of independence of the division of powers in Colombia. Thus any criticism of Zuluaga was represented as a part of Santos and his allies’ dirty political strategy. In this context, Colombians headed to the polls and gave Zuluaga a four percent lead over Santos, who got 25 percent of the votes.

Protecting the peace process?

Since May 25, members of the Conservative Party, following the leadership of former presidential candidate Martha Lucia Ramirez, have joined forces with Zuluaga. This meant a softening of Zuluaga’s discourse at a superficial level. Nowadays, his claims are about not halting the peace process straightaway, but imposing new conditions on FARC for the negotiations to continue and unveil the true negotiations reached in Havana. 

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Many analysts also expected the Polo Democratico Party to align with Santos; however, this alliance took some days to materialise. This was at first a patchy alliance that was broadening by the day. It started with Aida Avella’s courageous decision to bring her party, the Patriotic Union, to support Santos. This was followed by the Marcha Patriotica social movement letter asking their followers to vote for the candidate that had opened the space for peace talks.

Although Polo decided not to support any candidate and Senator Jorge Robledo decided to campaign for the white ballot to show disconformity with both candidates, Senator Ivan Cepeda decided to stand by Aida Avella and started convincing various sectors within the party to support Santos. The lack of appeal for Santos’s campaign among some sectors of the left resulted in the decision by the former Polo presidential candidate Clara Lopez to campaign for Santos. In a recent interview, Lopez said that although she disagreed with Santos’s economic policy, she recognised the important developments that have taken place to bring the armed conflict to an end.

The Zuluaga camp argues that the alliance between Santos and the left is a demonstration of Castro-Chavismo. Yet the unprecedented alliance between the centre and sectors of the left is a demonstration that for the peace process to succeed, Colombians have to overcome partisan politics. Getting Santos elected for a second term in office is the first serious challenge that the broad social group supporting the peace process faces. If Santos wins, sectors that have been working hard for the peace process would win.

If Zuluaga wins, the sector that has strongly opposed the peace process would win. This will have a serious impact on the policies that have been put into place or are being designed to transform Colombia into a peaceful state, dealing with security threats socially rather than militarily.

The ten principles agreed to deal with victims’ rights and made public on June 7 demonstrate that Santos is improving the communication strategy and that the alliance with the left is speeding up the peace process. Let’s hope for the sake of peace in Colombia that this alliance was not made too late.

Andrei Gomez-Suarez is an Associate Researcher at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.