Colombia's presidential election gets nasty – and detracts from big choices ahead

For the first time, a peace deal to end Colombia's 50-year conflict appears within reach. But instead of debating the challenges that lie ahead, the campaign is all about 'vicious' political attacks.

Fernando Vergara
President Juan Manuel Santos, right, who is seeking a second four-year term as candidate for the Social Party of National Unity in the May 25 presidential election, shakes hands with Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, candidate for the Democratic Center, prior to a televised presidential debate in Bogota, Colombia this month.
Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during a campaign rally in Bogota April 28, 2014.

Sergio Gomez feels it's his civic duty to vote in Colombia's presidential elections today. But with allegations of espionage and illicitly funded campaigns swirling around top candidates, he doesn't know whom to vote for.

"This campaign has been an affront to voters," says the young Bogota lawyer. "I had picked my candidate, but with the scandals ... I may just cast a blank ballot," Mr. Gómez says.  

For the first time in Colombia's tumultuous history, a peace deal to end 50 years of conflict appears within reach. But instead of debating difficult political challenges that lie ahead – such as how to incorporate former rebel fighters into civilian life – the campaign has devolved into personal attacks and allegations of criminal activity between top candidates President Juan Manuel Santos and Oscar Iván Zuluaga.

"Unfortunately, this campaign will not be decided on the main issues facing the country, which are significant,” says Marcela Prieto, director of the Political Science Institute, a think tank in Bogota.

'Most vicious'

When the presidential race kicked off, President Santos had a comfortable lead. But as his main rival, Mr. Zuluaga of the rightwing Centro Democrático party, closed in, campaign tactics became increasingly more aggressive.

Santos's political strategist was accused of accepting millions of dollars from drug lords in a scheme to help them avoid extradition to the US, and Santos himself faces allegations he used some of that money to fund his 2010 presidential campaign. Zuluaga, meanwhile, was accused of working with someone who illegally tapped into military data and emails related to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) peace negotiations, feeding the information back to Zuluaga's campaign.

"This has been one of the most vicious campaigns since I can remember," says Fernando Giraldo, a political analyst. He warns that could keep people away from the polls, resulting in a president governing "with a high degree of illegitimacy."

The main point of policy debate between Santos and Zuluaga is the current peace process with the FARC, which will mark 50 years of insurgency just two days after the election.

How the internal conflict ends "presents a great controversy over the future of the country," says Alejo Vargas, of the National University.

Santos says he needs more time in office to help conclude the peace process, something he hopes will be completed within the year.

Zuluaga, however, says he would suspend the peace process altogether until the FARC agree to a unilateral cease-fire, which they are unlikely to do.  "A democratic state does not sit down to negotiate with narco-terrorists without preconditions," he said.

But focusing on the peace process may have hurt Santos more than help him – at least earlier in the campaign.

"Santos' error was to use the peace process with the FARC as his main campaign banner when what most worries Colombians is unemployment, education, health care coverage, and crime," says Ms. Prieto of the Political Science Institute. 

A May Gallup poll shows only 4 percent of Colombians surveyed believe the next president's priority should be the peace process. The low number reflects recent security gains, which have resulted in safer urban areas and a smaller portion of the population feeling the day-to-day violence of the conflict.

And despite healthy economic growth, the lowest unemployment rate since 2000, and inflation at a six-decade low, more than 68 percent of respondents said they believe Colombia is on the wrong track.

The dissatisfaction with Santos stems primarily from his clumsy handling of a series of social protests throughout his presidency.

"Santos' government has fundamentally been a good one but he has not been a good leader," says Mr. Giraldo.

A poll released last weekend by Ipsos-Napoleón Franco gives Zuluaga 29.5 percent of the vote to Santos’ 28.5 percent. A runoff vote on June 15 is expected.

Three other candidates trail far behind, with Clara López of the leftist Polo Democrático, former Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez of the Conservative party, and former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa with about 10 percent each, according to the latest poll.

Big decisions

Despite its general unpopularity, however, the peace process may have given Santos a last-minute boost, analysts say. On May 16 FARC negotiators vowed to sever all ties with the drug trade and work with the government to help farmers substitute drugs with legal crops.

Negotiators have now cleared three of six items on the peace agenda, but difficult topics remain: reparations for victims of the conflict, whether FARC leaders will have to serve jail time, and the details of their demobilization.

Polls show most Colombians want to see the FARC pay for their crimes behind bars, but FARC leaders in Havana don't expect to do jail time. "Never has a peace process ended with prison terms for its protagonists, the constructors of peace," said Andrés París, one of the rebel negotiators.

How to resolve that point will be one of the main questions that Colombians will need to confront if the peace process moves forward.

But first they will have to choose a president. And flower seller Marisol Leguizamón, like many Colombians, says she doesn't like her choices.

"Should we pick the one who is least bad?" she asks. "I don't know who that would be."

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