Opinion: Close look at Colombian elections

WASHINGTON — Colombia will hold its presidential elections on May 30.

Until recently, pundits took for granted that the winner would be someone with a strong connection with President Alvaro Uribe. Political trends took an unexpected direction in March suggesting that the electorate, although highly supportive of Uribe as a person, wants some change.

The polls are showing a virtual tie between Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former minister of defense, and Antanas Mockus, a two-term former mayor of Bogota who is running as an independent under the newly created Green Party.

Mockus says that he is not anti-Uribe but post-Uribe, and wants to upgrade the successful democratic security strategy by putting more emphasis on legality. He likes to say that the end does not justify the means, implying that he plans to avoid some tactics used during the Uribe administration that are legally questionable, to say the least.

This very simple but powerful message has turned out to be quite appealing to millions that follow him on Twitter and Facebook, which are his main campaign tools. (Some have pointed out the similarity between his campaign tactics and messages and those of Obama.)

But this does not mean that Mockus will win. The polls do not cover the countryside well, which accounts for 25 percent of the population. It is in these areas where democratic security has brought the highest dividend, and that favors Santos who is seen as the architect of the biggest blows to the FARC guerilla. In addition, many Colombians are attached to traditional family values and share a culture that dislikes eccentricity.

Although strong on values and principles, Mockus is short on detail. When confronted with questions on the economy his answers tend to be vague and confusing. When asked about whether he would hypothetically extradite President Uribe, he said that he would follow what the constitution mandates, when it is clear that the constitution does not mandate action in one particular direction. Although he later corrected himself, the erratic answers create some uneasiness in an electorate that understands that Colombia’s problems require concrete actions and clear understanding of the country’s policy framework.

 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.