After win, Colombian faces harsh Latin pattern

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"People see with Pastrana the contrary of what they expected – more violence instead of peace, more poverty instead of less, more guerrillas, more kidnappings, more hardship," says Diego Cardona, a political scientist at Bogotá's Rosario University. "The risk now is that they are looking to Uribe as a messiah. But when they have to come back down to earth, the result could be the same as what has befallen Toledo."

Track records vs. democracy

Another danger is that voters equate democracy with the track records of the leaders they elect, and become disillusioned with it as a system able to meet their needs.

"I voted for Pastrana last time, and I now regret it so strongly that I feel any candidate would be a mistake," says Clemencia Montoya, who sells Colombian coffee in a small shop in Bogotá. "You have to wonder if maybe there isn't a better political system."

Mr. Ramirez-Ocampo says such sentiments are dangerously typical in what he calls "poor democracies," where formal political rights are established but "the corresponding economic and social rights are very limited." He points to surveys showing sharp slides in most Latin American countries in the public's confidence in democracy as an effective political system.

Another problem for Latin America is the disconnect between the established political system – where presidents are expected to deliver – and the economic model that has been adopted across the region. The free-market economic model depends on consensus, efficiency, and private investment – elements a leader has difficulty delivering, at least in the short term.

"The new economic model makes it very difficult for a government to survive in Latin America," says Mr. Cepeda. "We haven't developed the institutions that fit this model."

Actually, Cepeda says Chile is one Latin country that has developed the small, efficient state that works with the free market. After the defeat of dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1989, Chile developed a political consensus among political parties and other key institutions that also takes some of the pressure of expectations off the president, he adds.

One thing Uribe has in his favor is that he is not coming into office having promised Colombians the moon, some analysts say. "Populists are a common tradition in the region, but Uribe is not a populist, and that's a good thing," says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Most other candidates in Colombia's race coupled pledges of "no new taxes" with promises of expanded government services. Uribe, on the contrary, said new revenues would be needed – along with "better" spending through cuts in the size of government and better control of corruption – to fulfill his pledge to double the size of the Army and national police.

But Uribe, as a dissident from Colombia's Liberal Party who ran as an independent, is also a reflection of a Latin America where political parties are largely discredited, Mr. Shifter notes. "There is no substitute for political parties to channel demands and help formulate a national consensus," he says, adding that Chile and Costa Rica are two countries where, "despite the same problems others are facing, institutions like the political parties function well."

The risk of the public's high-expectation/low-esteem roller coaster in regard to political leaders is not due to nostalgia for military governments, as might have been the case in the past. "The real risk," Shifter says, "is that the disenchantment keeps growing to where people give up on political participation or their country altogether."

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