Vote shows Colombia in political rut

Presidential elections May 30 in Colombia ended up unexpectedly – apparently. Juan Manuel Santos, candidate of “Party of the U” and President Alvaro Uribe’s political heir, won 46.6 percent of votes sought by six candidates. Pre-election polls had favored second-place finisher Antanas Mockus, the Green Party candidate, a former Bogota mayor and National University rector. Yet Mockus took only 21.5 percent of the vote.

Four weeks earlier polls had elevated Mockus to 38 percent approval, nine points ahead of Santos. They were tied at 35 percent each just before the elections.

Santos, a former trade, finance and defense minister, seems headed for victory in June 20 second-round voting. Uribe’s likely successor fits into a system marked by paramilitary bullying and political intrusion, a heavily funded military establishment, and corruption fostered by paramilitaries and narcotraffickers. Santos’ family is used to rule: Uncle Eduardo Santos was president from 1938 to 1942. Cousin Francisco serves as Uribe’s vice president. The family owns Colombia’s only nationwide newspaper, El Tiempo, which his father has edited for 50 years. Santos obtained degrees from the University of Kansas, Harvard, Tufts, and the London School of Economics.

According to Latin Business Chronicle, “Santos knows the market, and the markets know Santos very well. Foreign direct investment could be larger under a Santos administration.” According to Bloomberg News, Santos would “increase government revenue from oil and mining companies by encouraging higher investment and production rather than raising taxes.”

Small parties languished in the voting. Candidates of the center-right Cambio Radical and the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole candidate took 10 and 9.2 percent, respectively. The Conservative Party came in at 6 percent, the Liberal Party, 4 percent. Absentee potential voters exceeded 50 percent. President Uribe, prevented by the judiciary from pursuing an unconstitutional third term, leaves office in August.

Accusations have circulated as to vote buying and the presence of military enforcers at polling sites, yet fraud this time was reportedly less evident than at parliamentary elections in March. Organization of American States electoral observers discounted reports of major irregularities. Some 53 international observers were on hand from 16 nations.

Private polling firm owner Napoleón Franco explained that surveys gave short shrift to voters in rural areas, where regime power is more obtrusive than in cities where Mockus scored well in polls. According to Voz newspaper editor Carlos Lozano, “The national government put all resources in its power to use in the Santos campaign.” Voters benefiting from government social programs were pressured into showing gratitude.

Leftist opposition forces suggest that Mockus, with a veneer of progressive politics, had been scripted to pose as a political alternative to Santos, thereby lending legitimacy to Santos’ succession to power. Polls were part of the plan, in their view.

Gustavo Petro, presidential candidate for the Alternative Democratic Pole, saw “a profound electoral manipulation” aimed at showing off “a polarization that did not exist, but that ultimately benefited Santos.” Media focus on polls, he claimed, worked to sideline the left by replacing debate and discussion. In the view of self-described socialist and Liberal Party member Piedad Cordoba, “the establishment created a candidate like Mockus to legitimize the elections. Many of us know that his rise was fictitious and media-driven.”

Unleashing Mockus posed little risk. According to Latin Business Chronicle, “Both candidates are free marketers and fiscal hawks, and both despise the so-called Socialism of the 21st century.”

Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper editorialized that second-round voting “will be a form of legitimization divorced from the interests of the Colombian nation and a simulation of democracy in a country exhausted by violence from all sides, by the drama of the displaced, and by excruciating social inequality.”

Colombia’s new president faces an Ecuadorian arrest warrant for the Colombian military attack there on March 1, 2008, killing over 20 people. The former defense minister was responsible for dressing up a military plane with Red Cross insignia to hijack the rescue in July 2008 of 15 FARC prisoners. The “false positives” scandal also unfolded during his watch. That scandal has to do with thousands of army murder victims who ended up in recently discovered common graves. Soldiers killed civilians and then dressed their bodies as dead guerrillas, the better to advertise army success stories.

Photo: Colombia’s likely next president, former Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos (center), is escorted into the Pentagon last year by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (right) for a working luncheon to discuss “bilateral defense issues.” DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Molly A. Burgess, U.S. Navy.




W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.