BOGOTA, Colombia — He presides over one of Latin America’s fastest-growing economies and has taken peace negotiations with Marxist rebels father than anyone in decades.
But President Juan Manuel Santos doesn’t appear to be clicking with Colombian voters, who haven’t felt the benefits of the economic boom and are preoccupied with more mundane concerns than they are the still dubious prospects for an end to a half-century of guerrilla violence.
Fatigue with Santos’ rule was evident Sunday as a near-record 60 percent of eligible voters stayed home. Those who did cast ballots went overwhelmingly for the president’s rivals. Former finance minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga finished atop the five-candidate field with 29 percent, setting up a June 15 runoff with Santos, who won 26 percent.
Despite the setback, Santos is showing no signs of rethinking his electoral strategy focused on an 18-month effort to end Colombia’s rebel conflict.
Speaking to supporters Sunday night, he framed the contest against Zuluaga, the conservative protege of former President Alvaro Uribe, as a battle between “hope and fear.”
“The choice is between those of us who want to put an end to the war and those who want a war without end,” Santos, 62, told supporters in Bogota, who responded with shouts of “Peace for Colombia!”
That’s not a message resonating with voters, however. A recent Gallup poll showed that a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, didn’t even rank among the top five concerns of voters. Health care and jobs were the big worries in a country where an estimated half of workers are still employed in the informal economy and therefore lack government-mandated benefits.
To pick up the roughly 500,000 votes separating him from Zuluaga, the president is counting on the support of Colombia’s left, about the only ones in the traditionally conservative country who have embraced his peace plan.
In the final days of campaigning, Santos picked up the endorsement of Bogota’s Mayor Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla. Another leftist politician, Clara Lopez, won a surprising 2 million votes in Sunday’s ballot, a whisker behind the third-place finisher, Conservative Party nominee Marta Lucia Ramirez, who is expected to align with Zuluaga.
But support from the left isn’t automatic.
“The message for Santos is clear,” said Senator Ivan Cepeda, a member of Lopez’s Democratic Pole party. “If the president wants to get re-elected, he can’t continue to pursue the same policies such as free trade agreements and foreign investment in mining projects that step on the rights of workers.”
Even if supporters of Lopez and Green Party candidate Enrique Penalosa do begrudgingly cast ballots for Santos in the second round, that may not be enough to compensate for widespread apathy among potential supporters, which appears to be the incumbent’s biggest problem. Sunday’s turnout, the lowest in two decades, was especially weak in rural districts where Santos’ political machine is strongest, such as the Caribbean coast. He also lost in his hometown of Bogota.
Voters are also turned off by what they see as Santos’ reliance on attacks and dirty tricks to discredit his rival. In the final stretch of campaigning, authorities arrested a computer expert who worked for Zuluaga for allegedly hacking into the emails of the president and FARC negotiators in Cuba.
While Zuluaga denied any knowledge of the consultant’s activities, a clandestinely shot video was leaked a few days later showing him listening to man outline strategy to sabotage support for the talks.
“Santos shot himself in the foot,” said Sandra Borda, a political science professor at Andes University in Bogota. “His campaign looks desperate and disorganized. In contrast, Zuluaga’s base is disciplined and motivated” to regain power.
Zuluaga is also talking up a broader range of issues than the president, even if policy distinctions between the two United Kingdom-trained economists are slim and Santos’ track record for reducing inflation and unemployment is nothing to shy away from.
The main differences are over the Havana-based peace talks and relations with crisis-plagued Venezuela. Zuluaga appears to more accurately reflect Colombians’ skepticism about Santos’ effort to ink a deal that would grant concessions to rebels already on the ropes after a decade-long military offensive, much of it identified with Zuluaga’s mentor Uribe.
“We can’t let the FARC pretend to command the country from Havana.” Zuluaga told supporters Sunday night
On Monday Zuluaga repeated that he favors a negotiated peace, but said that if elected, he’ll suspend talks and demand the FARC demonstrate its commitment to peace by declaring a permanent cease-fire. He said he’ll make sure guerrilla leaders who have committed atrocities go to jail for at least six years.
“Santos made a mistake by basing his campaign on peace, peace, peace” and nothing else, said former President Andres Pastrana, a supporter of Ramirez whose own efforts to negotiate with the FARC more than a decade ago failed. “What’s clear from the vote is that people don’t want Santos’ peace.”
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: (at)APjoshgoodman