With May 25 first round elections marked by record abstention throughout the country, the question of who is the lesser evil between incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos and Democratic Center candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga — or whether there is good reason to vote for either — has fractured the Colombian left and will likely prove decisive heading into Sunday’s contest, which could decide the fate of the longest standing armed conflict in the world.
The mud has been flying for months now in what has been characterized as the “dirtiest” presidential race in the history of a country in which mob money, voter fraud and intimidation, and ties to extrajudicial paramilitary death squads have long been considered commonplace features of the electoral process. Managers for both campaigns have been forced to resign amid deepening scandals, and the most recent presidential debates have only occasionally risen above the level of playground squabbling.
Zuluaga Campaign Director Luis Alfonso Hoyos made an unceremonious exit after a cell phone recording just over one week before first round elections showed him discussing privileged military intelligence with alleged hacker Andres Sepulveda. Currently being held under police custody, Sepulveda stands accused of conspiring with inside sources to intercept U.S. military intelligence and the communications of parties involved in ongoing peace talks between the government and the country’s FARC rebel group, including the president’s personal e-mail.
Upon Sepulveda’s initial arrest, Zuluaga denied ever having met the alleged hacker, who was at the time a “social media contractor” working for his campaign. Later, the candidate acknowledged that the two had crossed paths at a general campaign function, but once again denied any direct involvement in the illicit wiretapping. Once the recording was made public, Zuluaga claimed that he had been set up by the Santos campaign and that the video was a fake, which the Prosecutor General’s Office has since confirmed it was not.
Beyond the intrigue and muckraking, however, there is little to separate the candidates in the way of ideological differences and structural policy proposals.
Santos and Zuluaga were both key figures in the 2006 re-election campaign — directed by Venezuelan spin doctor Juan Jose (“J.J.”) Rendon, who left the Santos campaign in May — of former President and current Senator-elect Alvaro Uribe Velez. Both served under Uribe during his second term in office, Santos as minister of defense and Zuluaga as minister of finance. Both favor the privatization of the public health and education sectors and foreign investment incentives for Colombia’s booming mineral extraction and hydrocarbons industry — which, it should be noted, is overwhelmingly dominated by multinational corporations with abysmal economic, social, environmental, labor, and human rights records in the country. And the unpopular U.S. Free Trade Agreement implemented under the Santos administration — and widely criticized by domestic industry leaders and the country’s small and medium-scale farmers — was originally negotiated by Zuluaga.
Indeed, Zuluaga’s candidacy shares much in common with Santos’ initial 2010 campaign, namely in the strong backing it has received from ex-President Uribe. Santos only launched his run for the Casa de Nariño in the wake of a Constitutional Court ruling that found the second term-limit extension being sought by the then-president to be in violation of the 1991 Constitution. He would go on to campaign on the promise that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, calling Uribe “the greatest Colombian president” during his acceptance speech.
Uribe has since become his hand-picked protege’s fiercest detractor on the far right. Santos’ early overtures to repair strained diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Ecuador were cast as betrayals of the petty militarism of Uribe’s regional policy, and the initiation of peace talks with the FARC, Latin America’s oldest armed insurgency, flew in the face of everything Alvaro Uribe has ever stood for as a national politician. By the time the Santos administration and the friendly Congress he controlled began investigating the various criminal and corruption scandals that marred Uribe’s second term in office, things between the president and his one-time political mentor had passed the point of no return.
Where Santos has been labeled a “traitor” by Uribe-loyalists in the soon-to-be senator’s new Democratic Center party, Zuluaga has stepped in to carry the flag of hardline conservative politics. And if the Sepulveda hacking scandal failed to tumble the Zuluaga campaign, it has served to solidify what is perhaps the only meaningful difference between the two candidates: their position on the FARC peace talks.
Zuluaga has adopted wholesale Uribe’s feverish rhetoric toward the talks, maintaining — in the absence of any evidence and in contrast to Santos’ own statements to the contrary — that the president intends to offer full impunity to the guerrillas and allow them to keep their weapons following a negotiated peace. In recent weeks, Zuluaga has denied that there even is such a thing as the 50-year Colombian armed conflict — much less that the state and the paramilitary groups with which it has traditionally collaborated have played any role in the carnage — and demanded that the FARC admit to being the primary victimizers in said non-existent conflict, which is demonstrably untrue, and by a very wide margin at that.
As part of a post-first round election alliance with mainstream Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez — who finished in third place, nine points shy of Santos’s 24% — Zuluaga has walked back his repeated promises to immediately suspend peace talks upon entering the Casa de Nariño. Still, it is unclear that his “peace with conditions” approach toward the negotiations represents a significant change.
“It does not matter whether [Zuluaga] suspends [the talks immediately], because his position is impossible to reconcile with peace,” said leftist opposition Congressman and Senator-elect Ivan Cepeda, in an interview with Colombia Reports. “He wants the FARC to put down their arms before a settlement is reached. He wants the FARC to be left out of politics permanently. He wants the FARC to unilaterally accept punishments. Basically, he wants the FARC to give up before he permits them to dialogue [with the government], and that is simply not realistic.”
Cepeda is one of a number of longtime Santos critics who has endorsed the president ahead of Sunday’s run-off. In the aftermath of first round elections, figures including former presidential candidate Clara Lopez, Patriotic Union President Aida Avella, Patriotic March leader Piedad Cordoba, and Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro — who Santos recently reinstated amid rising international pressure from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — have all joined the activist-led Broad Front for Peace and other independent groups in supporting the president’s re-election.
“Look,” said Cepeda, in a sentiment that has been echoed by other vocal Santos opponents who have since come over to the re-election cause, “We have not forgotten who Santos is. We are well aware of his neoliberal policies and their destructive effects on Colombia, as our record demonstrates. But this is more important than that opposition. June 15 is a vote for peace, not Santos.”
Under Santos, peace talks have produced preliminary agreements on three of six overall agenda items that would see an ostensible end to the longest standing armed rebellion in the world. Just days before second round elections, moreover, the government has also announced the start of a long-awaited formal peace process with the ELN rebel group, the country’s second oldest and largest, in a move that has been called a political ploy by many of the president’s critics.
Not everyone on the Colombian left has been convinced by Santos’ efforts to conflate his presidency with peace, or by widespread fear at the prospect of a return to “Uribista” leadership and the polarized political climate and extensive human rights crises it has become associated with.
Longtime opposition Senator Jorge Robledo and Cesar Pachon, a figurehead in the Agrarian Strike movement that has organized a series of entrenched national mobilizations since last summer, are among those who have pushed the “blank” protest vote as an alternative option. Robledo has likened the choice between Santos and Zuluaga to a rigged horse race, and Pachon, who has spent months getting yanked around by the government in fruitless negotiations, speaks for much of Colombia’s struggling rural population when he says that both candidates stand for an economic model that is “oppressing and destroying the Colombian countryside.”
The debate has provoked a schism within Colombia’s progressive moment. Robledo has called out party President Clara Lopez for promoting the broader Santos agenda and has rallied a handful of other representatives from the Democratic Pole to the blank vote campaign. The Green Alliance, as well, is divided in its loyalties, as are various local organizations within the Agrarian Strike. An op-ed in favor of Zuluaga published in El Espectador by poet William Ospina, a celebrated liberal thought leader, has set off a firestorm of intellectual responses that expose just how fragmented the left truly is.
There are a lot of questions still remaining heading into Sunday. Whether the left has a political machine capable of delivering votes, regardless of who endorses who. Whether a lasting peace is possible without first addressing the structural inequalities and longstanding injustices that have always fueled the conflict. Whether Santos can be trusted to bring that peace about if it is. (Whether the Colombian national team will win its opening World Cup game on Saturday, and whether there really are 300,000 votes riding on the result, as some have suggested.)
It would be wrong to place too much of the onus on those most traditionally abused by the political system, but fair or not, it’s going to fall to the Colombian left to decide a lot of those issues. The right can be counted on to show up at the polls, and as disillusioned as many people understandably are, abstention is never the “Neither, Nor” proposition its advocates make it out to be.
Juan Manuel Santos or Oscar Ivan Zuluaga: one of them is going to be the next president of Colombia. There may or may not be a true choice to be had there, or it may be a choice that defines the future of a country that’s been at civil war for the better part of its history. Either way, this election is going to be decided by turnout, and electing not to vote is a choice in its own right.
Steven Cohen is the editor of Colombia Reports, an independent English-language news site.