Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pres. Santos In His Labyrinth

Santos' poll numbers have plummeted, and he's facing a political pincer attack.
Just months ago, Pres. Santos was flying high: His poll numbers were high, thanks to a growing economy and progressing negotiations with the FARC guerrillas and no strong political rivals on the field.

Today, the economy continues growing and the peace negotiations continue advancing. Yet, Santos' support in polls has sunk into the 20s.

Some observers link Santos' low popularity to the recent protests and road blockages, but I doubt it. Colombia has had many protests, and the root causes behind the farmers' troubles long predate Santos' presidency.

Could it be that Colombians are just tired of Santos?

From the left: Polo Democratico party
leader Clara López.
In any case, Santos' situation looks to get worse before it gets better. Ex-Pres. Uribe, Santos' one-time political patron and now leading critic, has created his own political party, the Centro Democratico, and announced he will run for Congress. It's a fair bet that Uribe and his supporters will base their campaign on criticizing Santos, likely further chipping away at the president's popularity. A peace agreement with the FARC would surely raise the president's popularity - but the Uribistas' intense criticism of the negotiations looks likely to reduce the government's manuevering room in those negotiations.

At a recent forum in the Universidad del Rosario, Uribe attacked the FARC-government negotiations in Havana:

From the right: Ex-Vice President Francisco Santos.
The negotiations are "a path to impunity for leaders of the guerrilla who have committed crimes's a path which will allow criminals to be elected," to government, Uribe said.

But those formulae have worked before for Colombia, including during Uribe's own administration, when many right-wing paramilitary fighters got slaps on the wrist or no punishment at all for horrific crimes. In 1990, the M-19 guerrillas signed a peace agreement and went immediately into politics. Justice probably was not served in either case, but at least some violent actors left Colombia's conflict (yet, paramilitaries remain in parts of Colombia).

It's ironic that, on the issue of negotiations, Santos finds himself attacked from both sides: from the right by Uribe, his one-time political patron, and from the left by human rights groups, who fear that a potential peace deal will include impunity for human rights violators.

A billboard in Medellin put up by Francisco Santos attacks
Pres. Santos by comparing the FARC to murderous cocaine kingpin
Pablo Escobar. (Photo: El Tiempo)
Santos' prospects in next year's elections may depend on how he can spin his opponents, who most likely will be the Polo Democratico's Clara Lopez on the left and an Uribista on the right. And the most prominent Uribista candidate is Francisco Santos, the president's cousin.

In the end, it seems to me, Santos' political fortunes will ride on the talks with the FARC. A success which Colombians can believe in will overwhelm all other political issues, incuding even the economy. But that itself may mean that Santos' opponents will try to slow and even sabotage the talks for their own political interests.

The next months look to be tough for Santos. But if he can end Colombia's conflict, he can both secure his legacy - and the next election.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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