Juan Manuel Santos is very popular overseas. Since the President of Colombia took office in August 2010, he has received abundant praise from the international community for overseeing a buoyant economy, innovative social reform, and the most promising attempt yet to end the nation’s armed conflict.
In January, the King of Spain assured Santos that the European Union would waive visa requirements for Colombians on short stays. The next day, Colombia was officially recognized as Latin America’s third largest economy during the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Santos’ latest diplomatic tour came on the heels of his high profile visit to the United States, with whom a Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 2012, and during which President Obama officially commended Santos for his ongoing peace process with the FARC guerrillas. In Latin America, where the Andean nation is emerging as a regional leader, Santos has been credited with rebuilding frayed relationships with neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador. Late January, during the second summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Colombia enjoyed unanimous support for its pacification efforts. Nevertheless, this international personality has failed to win over his fellow citizens.
According to the most recent poll widely released by a coalition of Colombian media, the incumbent maintains a strong lead for the first round of presidential elections on March 25 with 25 percent of the vote, yet 27 percent of voters plan to cast a blank vote, and 23 percent are still undecided.
A born powerbroker, Santos throughout his extensive career managed to avoid a test at the ballot box until his initial bid for the presidency. In 2005, he co-founded the Social Party of National Unity (Party of the U), a Liberal-Conservative coalition supporting the policies of then President Álvaro Uribe, who rewarded Santos with a key appointment as Minister of Defense.
As a result, Santos won his first term with a resounding 68 percent of the vote and the highest voter turnout in Colombian history. Moreover, his national coalition party has controlled some 90 percent of Congress throughout his time in office.
Yet Colombia’s polarizing politics has not always favored the coolheaded pragmatism of Santos, and his placation of disparate interest groups often means sacrificing a degree of legitimacy. The President’s peace efforts are contradicted by the fiery rhetoric of his Minister of Defense, who is crucial to maintaining the support of the Armed Forces. Santos championed the progressive Victims and Land Restitution Law in 2011, only to appoint a reactionary Minister of Agriculture in order to maintain support from the Conservative Party.
While Santos is an impressive predictor of the political chessboard, he is neither a charismatic leader nor an exceptional orator. Critics on all sides portray him as an out-of-touch elite, and last August latched onto his failed attempt to downplay the importance of nationwide protests. After claiming that “the supposed national farmer’s strike does not exist,” Santos watched his approval ratings plummet to 29 percent the following month.
Finally, while the peace process has captured the hearts and minds of international bodies and dignitaries, it is a constant source of controversy back home. Former President Álvaro Uribe has led the right-wing opposition in accusing Santos of letting up gains in security, despite the fact that three times as many Farc leaders have been killed under Santos. Although Gallup and Datexco polls consistently show that the majority of Colombians support the dialogues in Havana, the population is wary of the integration of demobilized guerrillas into the political system, and of impunity for crimes against humanity.
Further still, the urban populations of Medellín and Bogotá are increasingly disengaged from an armed conflict that rages on in the mountains and jungles, and are dominantly affected by socioeconomic crime. The significance of the government reaching agreements with the guerrillas on the agenda points of land reform and political participation is in large part lost on a population that is uneducated about the historical roots of its violence.
A sense of skepticism has moreover pervaded the country’s war-torn regions. For the millions of displaced Colombians whose lives have been rotated between leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and their successor groups, so-called “criminal bands,” the prospect of signing a piece of paper with one armed actor is meaningless without a massive post-conflict investment and increased state presence.
Despite the disparity between his international and domestic reputation, it is all too likely that Santos will find himself in power for another four years. Following substantial gains made at the negotiating table, and the national unemployment rate falling to 7.8 percent in 2013, the lowest rate since 1995, the President saw his approval ratings reach 46 percent in January.
Although a blank vote is his most formidable opponent, Santos will be unable to rely on the support of Pope Francis and the United Nations come election day. The President would be wise to engage with a domestic population that is highly skeptical of the Colombian political system and its ability to effect change.