Elections: Closing the gap

Juan Manuel Santos on the campaign trail in Barranquilla.
Juan Manuel Santos on the campaign trail in Barranquilla.

Just a few weeks before presidential elections, the political field appears to be leveling. President Juan Manuel Santos remains the leading candidate in the latest wave of polls, but growing skepticism towards the peace process in Havana, as well as the revival of rural protests, could tip the scales against him. For months, the incumbent’s reelection was secure, with national support for Santos steadily double, and sometimes triple, that of his closest contenders.

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Yet according to the most recent Ipsos survey, only 23 percent of voters intend to back the President in the first round at the polls on May 25, a 5-point drop since February. And a poll released Tuesday May 13th by the National Consultancy Centre (CNC) and CM& Television News, puts Óscar Iván Zuluaga just 2 points ahead of incumbent Juan Manuel Santos with 22 percent, confirming that Zuluaga and Santos will head into a second round June 15th.

The daily barrage of criticism by the Democratic Center, a far-right coalition against negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, appears to be working. In just 2 months, support for candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga jumped from 8 to 15 percent. Besides the vocal support of former President Álvaro Uribe, Zuluaga has benefited from a stylish rebranding of his campaign by publicist Duda Mendonça, who helped bring Lula de Silva to power in Brazil.

Zuluaga’s rapid rise has temporarily sidelined Green Party candidate Enrique Peñalosa, a former Mayor of Bogotá who has pledged to continue peace talks if elected. Although support for the center-left politician has doubled to 11 percent since February, the media hype surrounding his possible run-off with Santos has subsided.

A variety of polls confirm that the President has maintained support in the Pacific and Caribbean coastal areas, as well as in southeastern Colombia, which includes the departments of Tolima and Huila. However, Santos is losing ground to opponents in the coffee region, which has been wracked by falling international prices, drought, crop disease, and bitter negotiations with the government.

Far more troubling for Santos was the 9 percent drop in support in Bogotá, a crucial voter base and the native city of the President. Were elections to be held today in the capital, Peñalosa would win, with Zuluaga in second place, followed by the incumbent. This decrease is likely a response to the schizophrenic removal and re-instatement of Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, following his destitution by the Inspector General.

Just one week after the troubling statistic was released, 110 Bogotá city councilors pledged their support to the Santos campaign. Although the maneuver is expected to yield some 1.2 million votes for the President, the reliance on machine votes has reportedly unsettled campaign strategists.

No presidential candidate comes close to the over 50 percent vote necessary to win in the first round of elections. Although surveys suggest that Santos would beat out either Zuluaga or Peñalosa in a run-off in mid-June by roughly 10 points, several factors threaten to put his reelection at risk.

First, the flagship of the Santos campaign is losing steam. While the President has characterized his reelection as a plebiscite for peace or war, a Datexco poll in April revealed that voters rank negotiations with the FARC as sixth, in level of national importance. Colombians appear to be far more concerned about employment and security, and 63 percent of voters are pessimistic about the peace talks, according to the Ipsos survey.

Second, a new wave of protests by various agricultural groups, who accuse the government of failing to comply with the agreement reached after last year’s agrarian strikes, may further disrupt the Santos campaign. In 2013, the administration’s reluctance to negotiate contributed to a sharp decline in approval ratings. However, large groups of farmers have come out against the current strike, and security forces have refrained from the violent backlashes witnessed during previous mobilizations.

In order for the President to ensure his reelection, the government needs to more effectively communicate its achievements over the last four years. The list includes the lowest unemployment rate in 13 years, dramatic reductions in levels of poverty, and a national GDP on track to place Colombia as the third fastest growing economy in Latin America.

The government’s negotiating team has announced a national tour set for May to highlight its progress in Havana. Moreover, it is expected to sign a new agreement on the issue of illegal drugs at the close of the next round of peace talks, which will provide a boost to Santos just two days before presidential elections.

The latest series of polls have injected a dose of energy into a rather lifeless campaign, if only several weeks before voters cast their ballots. As each candidate scrambles to win over a largely disaffected population, the current administration will have to rally Colombians around their best chance yet to end a long history of violence.



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