War and Peace and the Colombian Election

International relations specialist Natalia Lozano on the upcoming presidential elections in her country

colombian election

Just what is at stake as Colombians head to the polls on June 15

For at least the last year, the opporating assumption inside and outside of Colombia was that incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos would waltz to victory in the 2014 presidential elections.

However, after a mudslinging presidential campaign that kept most of the electorate away from the polls, the rightwing opposition candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga won 29.3 percent of the vote, beating President Santos who picked up just 25.7 percent.

As neither candidate got the requisite half-plus-one needed for first-round victory, the two men will face each other again in a runoff on June 15.

So why the tight race?

The Colombian peace process is by far the central issue in the current election (see here for No Se Mancha’s ongoing coverage of the process).

The current candidates, incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos and former Minister of Finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, represent in that order, the continuation and the interruption of the ongoing peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

At the moment, FARC is weak. Bluntly speaking, Santos argues for forcing them into a truce and ending the conflict, while Zuluaga would seem to represent pressing the fight and eliminating the remnants of FARC.

farc defeated

FARC has been severely weakened, but it remains undefeated

How Colombians understand the conflict, and the best way to reach peace, is going to decide who will be the next president.

First-round elections on May 25 gave an incomplete victory to the opposition of the peace process. The second-round, on June 15, will go down in history as a day when Colombian people decide either to take a chance for a negotiated end to the conflict, or when they decide to walk away from the negotiation table and seek victory on the battlefield.

An incomplete victory

Mr. Zuluaga is the political scion of former President Álvaro Uribe. His candidacy is based on Uribe’s beliefs and passions.

In Uribe’s logic only a military victory with the complete and unconditional surrender of the rebels could be a dignified way to end the war against the narco-terrorists of FARC.

This thought process holds FARC as an isolated problem that Colombia must eradicate with a heavy hand in order to have the  safest possible country for the enjoyment of “los colombianos de bien” (good Colombians).

Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, left, with his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe

Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, left, with his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe. #Zuribe, anyone?

On the other hand, incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos is asking Colombians to affirm his political strategy for peace at the negotiation table.

His government understands the conflict as a symptom of Colombia’s fundamental problems. In his view, putting a final point to half a century of armed struggle with FARC will allow space for the government to focus on solving the underlying causes of Colombian violence and under development: poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity.

Generally speaking, for the Zuluaga-Uribe team, negotiating with FARC legitimizes a group of terrorists and drug traffickers, and peace will only be achieved when Colombia gets rid of them. For the Santos faction, FARC is part of the Colombian periphery, and peace means not only ending the violence, but also paving the way towards a unified and better country.

santons peace

All President Santos is saying is give peace a chance

A referendum on Santos’ strategy

The ongoing peace talks started 18 months ago with a clear goal: negotiating the peace plan’s five-point agenda on land reform, political participation, illicit drugs, rights of the victims and disarmament.

By now the accords are more than halfway complete. The negotiators in La Habana, Cuba, have agreed upon three points so far: rural reform, political participation and, the most significant to date, drug trafficking.

In the decades of conflict, no previous effort has come so far, and now during the most intense elections in recent memory, it faces its toughest test.

At first sight the results of the first-round may suggest that many Colombians disagree with the negotiated process, and that they prefer Uribe’s hard line.

However, that conclusion is as incomplete as Zuluaga victory.

A reading of the facts tells a different story.

  1. On May 25 six out of ten Colombians chose not to exercise their right to vote. That means that of the 33 million citizens eligible to vote, only 13 million did so. Of those who voted, just 3.759.971 plumped for Zuluaga.The rest of the votes were divided between other candidates who support peace talks. So it is perhaps disingenuous to say from the result of the first-round that most Colombians are against the ongoing peace process.
  2. Santos was stronger in conflict zones and country’s periphery. He won in Cauca, one of the regions most affected by the armed conflict with 45 percent of the votes, dusting the “uribista” candidate who took 16.3 percent. Mr. Santos also won in Chocó, Córdoba, La Guajira and Magdalena, the most poverty-stricken departments.

Simply put, the fate of Colombians that face the consequences of the armed conflict on a daily basis is being decided mostly by those who experience the conflict from afar. 

Colombians will head to the polls again on June 15

Colombians will head to the polls again on June 15

“Waging war is easy, it is popular “ 

After recognizing Zuluaga’s victory on election day, Santos told his supporters that on June 15 “Colombians will choose between two options: those of us who want the end of the war and those who want a war without end.

But a nagging perception holds that the talks are taking too long or amounting to too little, but no peace agreement is signed from one day to another. This is the most concrete peace effort to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands and victimized millions.

Colombia needs peace. Colombia wants peace. The ongoing negotiations are a real opportunity that all Colombians deserve.

colombia protest

Natalia Lozano is an international relations specialist working in Bogotá, Colombia.

See more from Natalia HERE

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