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After win, Colombian faces harsh Latin pattern

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2002


To win a first-round victory in a presidential election here is an accomplishment in itself. Colombia's president-elect Alvaro Uribe Vélez is the first candidate to do that under the country's 1991 Constitution.

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Having garnered 53 percent of the vote Sunday, Mr. Uribe – who ran in what was essentially a four-candidate battle – can claim a mandate and a certain public euphoria over his unambiguous win.

But if he's been at all mindful of the trajectories of other Latin American presidents of late, he should beware of the Latin letdown.

From Mexico to Argentina and Peru, leaders who rode in on waves of popular acclaim and Olympian expectations from populations looking to them as saviors, have soon enough found themselves the target of broad public disdain – in some cases only months after taking office. "People are looking for magic solutions, but when leaders can't deliver, the hope disenflates rapidly," says Augusto Ramírez-Ocampo, a former Colombian government minister and presidential candidate. "With no other institutions to turn to, the expectations sour into resentment."

It's a troubling syndrome in countries where weak democratic institutions and a tradition of strongman rule combine with sinking economic conditions to create sky-high expectations of the central leadership figure, Latin America specialists say. When those expectations are disappointed, voters can quickly turn against the one leader they hoped would fulfill them.

The disenchanted

And increasingly, as surveys across the region demonstrate, the result is a disenchantment with democracy as an effective political system for addressing problems.

"When feelings of anguish and impotence are so widespread, it's no surprise voters turn to a new leader looking for answers and a strong arm – especially when there are no other institutions to fill the needs," says Fernando Cepeda, a political analyst at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. "But then within three months the presidents are knocked out because they don't have the tools or the means to deliver."

In Peru, for example, President Alejandro Toledo labors under a 75 percent disapproval rating – only 10 months after he took office.

Mr. Toledo recently declared: "For God's sake, let me govern!" in frustration over an inability to break down opposition in the Congress, unions, and other sectors and get anything done. But after a decade of rule by the authoritarian former president, Alberto Fujimori, Peru's institutions are so weak, and the sense among other leaders of working for a common national good is so alien, that little gets done.

Similarly in Mexico, President Vicente Fox – after defeating the seven-decade rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party – rode into office on the mile-high shoulders of a public expecting a translation of democracy into economic betterment. Those hopes have been dashed.

And in Argentina, former President Fernando de la Rua was hounded out of office when he couldn't solve the country's economic crisis. Dissatisfaction with President Eduardo Duhalde, who took office in January under nearly impossible economic conditions, has hit Toledo's levels, with nearly 50 percent demanding new elections.

It is in such conditions of high-flying expectations, but extremely tight maneuverability, that Colombia's Uribe won Sunday and will take office Aug. 7.

Adding to the pressure on Uribe is the public desire for deliverance from President Andrés Pastrana – who enjoyed an 80 percent approval rating after taking office in 1998, but who has sunk to 20 percent approval today.