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The first round of Colombia’s presidential elections is scheduled for May 28. Though opposition candidates have gained some ground in recent months, Alvaro Uribe, the incumbent president, still holds a commanding lead with about 65 percent of the vote—more than three times the tally of his closest rival. Polls suggest Uribe is the second most popular president in the region, behind only Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Colombians reaffirmed confidence in their leader and his party in March congressional elections. Despite the high predictability of the outcome, experts say much is riding on this election. Colombia is the third most populous country in Latin America and a nation long-torn by civil war; the strength of Uribe’s mandate could affect his ability to stave off violent unrest. Colombia’s elections also stand out in the sphere of regional politics. Uribe’s reelection would mark a break from the leftward Latin American trend characterized by the elections of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, and by Ollanta Humala’s first-round victory in Peru.
What issues are at stake in the upcoming Colombian elections?
The preeminent concern for Colombian voters is basic stability. "People are voting on fundamental security issues, and questions of efficiency in government," says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Council on the Americas. When Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia’s political system was stuck in the bloody gridlock of a four-decades-old civil war, with right-wing coca growers and paramilitaries fighting leftist guerillas. Uribe’s overwhelming popularity rests on the perception that, through firm-fisted policy, he has cracked down on violence and put the country on a productive course. His approach involved signing a controversial peace agreement granting amnesty to many members of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and simultaneously unleashing the nation’s army against the guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On a parallel tack economically, Uribe secured a comprehensive free trade agreement with the United States in February 2006. Colombia is already the second largest agricultural importer to the United States, and commerce in both directions is expected to increase as tariffs are lifted.
Regional observers say this election is functioning as something of a referendum on Uribe’s course—and according to recent polls by Angus Reid, voters are overwhelmingly voting affirmative. Uribe’s popularity does not surprise Latin America specialists, given his effectiveness at delivering on the issues Colombians say they care about most. "Uribe has done a masterful job at bringing a measure of security to the country and reassuring people," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. Though not everyone agrees, some experts credit Uribe’s success to the fact that he has stuck to the tenets of Plan Colombia, the U.S.-sponsored policy doctrine aimed at reducing violence, bolstering the country’s economy, and dampening drug trade. But some experts, including CFR’s Senior Fellow Julia Sweig, have criticized Plan Colombia’s disproportionate focus on narcotics-control, arguing that such measures are not likely to deliver peace and prosperity to the country.
Who are Uribe’s main challengers?
Horacio Serpa. Uribe’s primary challenger, Serpa is Colombia’s former interior minister and the representative of Uribe’s former party, the Liberal Party (PLC). He has a long history in Colombian politics and a firm political base, though experts say he is written off by many Colombians as part of the country’s old-line, which is often associated with corruption and dysfunction. Still, Serpa has consistently held over ten percent of the vote, and polls from late March report that his popularity has increased to nearly 20 percent—though that still places him well behind Uribe’s 64.1 percent. Serpa’s platform is populist; he is opposed to foreign investment and has recently accused Uribe of intimidating Colombia’s press (Reuters) to his own advantage. But some experts say that Serpa’s rise in popularity may be a function less of his specific policy objectives, and more of his emergence as the preeminent "anti-Uribe" candidate.
Carlos Gaviria. The candidate from the leftist Polo Democrático Independiente (PDI), Gaviria was the surprise victor in the party’s primary, over Antonio Navarro. Experts say Gaviria represents a direct challenge to the neo-liberal model Uribe has embraced. Gaviria has been able to move toward unification of the PDI, and has garnered attention by calling on Uribe to end Colombian dependence on the United States. But though his popularity has risen, polls still show Gaviria with less than 10 percent of the vote.
How do Colombia’s elections work?
To win outright in the May 28 first-round election, Uribe would need to secure over 50 percent of the vote. A runoff, if necessary, would be held June 18. Though polls from late March showed Uribe with 64.1 percent, this number has been dropping (in July 2005, 72.2 percent of Colombians said they would vote for him). Regional news agencies have credited this drop to accusations of corruption (Prensa Latina) on the part of officials appointed by Uribe, and more recently to the press censorship flap. Experts say that if Uribe doesn’t win outright in the first round, it will likely be a result of these scandals.
What affect did Colombia’s recent congressional elections have on the presidential race?
There is widespread agreement that the elections represented a validation of Uribe’s popularity. As the Economist put it, even though Uribe "was not a candidate, [he was] the clear winner." The president’s eponymous "U" party (which he founded in 2000 after leaving the liberal slate) took 20 of the senate’s 102 seats, and a number of other parties which support him, including the once-marginalized Conservatives, also gained seats. Experts say the president’s now-broad congressional support base will help him press his agenda, including policies of keeping pressure on FARC guerillas and preserving the fundaments of the U.S. free trade agreement.
What are the main U.S. interests in Colombia’s elections?
Experts say the United States hopes that Colombia will develop in such a way as to bolster the neoliberal model in the region, which in recent years has lost ground across Latin America to those espousing Chinese or even Cuban solutions to economic ills. America sent $774.6 million in foreign aid to Colombia in 2005, and is expected to send similar amounts in 2006 and 2007—making Colombia the fourth largest recipient of U.S. aid. The vast majority of this money is spent on counter-narcotics operations, and there have been significant reductions in the Colombian cocaine trade, though experts question the effectiveness of these expenditures on the overall drug war. The U.S. still accounts for over 60 percent of demand for the world’s narcotics, and as Mark Kleiman, a professor at UCLA who runs the university’s Drug Policy Analysis Program, said in this CFR Background Q&A, "cracking down on drug supply is mostly useless until we learn to squeeze demand." Thus, the U.S.-funded crackdown in Colombia has been matched by resurgent production in neighboring countries like Bolivia and Peru.
More pertinent is the American desire to protect the free trade agreement, and for a positive Colombian example to set the foundation for sustainable free trade deals with Peru and Ecuador. Ambassador Rob Portman, the former U.S. Trade Representative, praised the deal in February saying it would "generate export opportunities for U.S. agriculture, industry, and service providers, and help create jobs in the United States." Portman added that "the agreement will help foster economic development in Colombia, and contribute to efforts to counter narco-terrorism." Given these two primary interests, the general consensus is that Uribe’s reelection would play well among U.S. policymakers.
Would Uribe’s reelection affect the so-called leftward shift in Latin American politics?
Washington elites have touted Uribe for his efforts to lift tariffs on foreign firms operating in the country. But to the chagrin of free-trade champions, experts say Uribe’s reelection is not likely to have much effect, one way or the other, on the tide which has carried protectionist figures like Evo Morales and Ollanta Humala to recent electoral victories. "Curiously, Uribe is not seen as being a regional leader," says Sabatini. "I don’t think that’s precisely because of his relationship with the United States, but in many ways his track record has not transferred into regional influence."
This disconnect may be a result of Colombia’s unique political landscape. The concerns that have riddled conservative leadership in other Latin American countries—how to address problems of basic poverty and connect with demographically powerful indigenous communities—have had little effect on Colombian politicians, preoccupied as they are with their nation’s civil war. "My sense is that Colombia is seen as a different animal from the rest of the region," says Hakim. "It’s the one country with a genuine insurgency going on that’s a legitimate threat to the government." It follows logically that the common denominator uniting the majority of Colombia’s voters is a desire for basic security, experts say. Everything else can wait.