Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Close look at Colombian elections

A run-off is looking likely after May 30 polls, but even if Mockus doesn't win he represents the fact that nearly half of Colombians want change.

 Mockus has very little chance in a run-off election, scheduled for June 20 in case no candidate reaches more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. The reason is that the supporters of other candidates, such as Nohemi Sanin and German Vargas Lleras, are much more likely to vote for Santos than for Mockus because they appeal to more traditional voters.

Santos, in contrast, is an experienced former minister who has excelled in delicate cabinet posts such as trade, finance and, lately, defense, under three different presidents. What this suggests is that he is a formidable political operator, with a good knowledge of the policy areas that are most relevant for the country. He has built a reputation of competence and is results-driven. At the end of the day, the electorate may well favor predictability over philosophical concepts that are difficult to grasp. People want to hear someone they can fully understand.

Yet, it is too early to dismiss Mockus. Even if he does not win, he will represent the fact that nearly half of the Colombian electorate does not want an extension of the Uribe government with a new face at the top. He would have much less a degree of freedom than Uribe had, and would have to shift gears in some areas, including foreign policy. The strong alliance with the U.S. played an important role during the last decade, but Colombia needs to come to better terms with other countries in the region, notably Brazil. Also, people want a change in policies that have favored capital over labor.

Analysts in the U.S. have argued that Mockus will have greater chances of moving the U.S. Congress to approve a trade deal with Colombia that has been stalled by labor and human rights groups.

There is no basis to make that claim. The fortunes of the Colombia-FTA will not depend on who wins the election in Colombia, but rather who wins in the U.S. this November. If the Republicans regain control of the house chances are that the FTA will move forward. If not, it will depend on the administration’s agenda, which on the issue of trade has been nonexistent, at least until now. Whoever is in power in Colombia will make no difference, unfortunately.

Mauricio Cardenas is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Latin America Initiative at Brookings Institution.