Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos appears to be loved abroad but is dangerously close to becoming loathed at home.
We are halfway through the four-year mandate and the president’s support is plummeting at an alarming rate. Approval ratings stood at 87% less than a year ago while they now hover below the 50% mark.
The international community thinks so highly of Santos — the shuttle-diplomacy president — that there is talk of his becoming the next U.N. Secretary General.
The contrast at home could not be starker however, with a poll by El Tiempo newspaper this weekend revealing that over 60% of Colombians would not again vote for Santos.
Too diplomatic for his own good?
There is little doubt that Santos is an excellent statesman. Colombia now has a seat at the diplomatic top table, and the country is seen as a regional heavy-weight. But at the same time as Santos bestrides the globe pursing trade agreements with countries as diverse as Korea and Turkey, and promoting debate on the decriminalization of drugs, the average Colombian finds himself increasingly preoccupied by a health system in crisis, an apparent deterioration in the country’s security situation, and a cooling economy. For many Colombians their president is simply not responding to those issues that matter most to them.
So why does Santos have a problem appearing to understand the concerns of the nation?
Part of President Santos’ difficulty at home is precisely that which makes him a success on the world stage. Santos is an urbane and patrician politician. He is a poker-faced negotiator concerned by the technocratic details of good government rather than the touchy-feely politics necessary to win hearts and minds. This is perfect to strike deals with other heads-of-state, but useless come the time when votes must be won.
At first Santos’ style was the ideal antidote to the folksy and polemical ex-president Alvaro Uribe. Although Uribe was incredibly popular, Colombians were itching for a more diplomatic and conciliatory government. Two years on, however, and this appeal appears to have worn off. The polls suggest Colombians yearn for a president with more of a common touch, a man who understands their problems and who speaks their language.
To his credit, Santos recognizes that he is in trouble. At a recent cabinet meeting he told colleagues that the government needed to communicate better. Shortly afterwards, the president set off to tour the nation and sell the successes of his time in office. This tour has not been a disaster but it has not yet encouraged Colombians to fall back in love with their chief-executive. It is true that this strategy means Santos’ trips outside of Bogota are not now to London, New York or Tokyo but instead to Medellin, Tolima and Cali, but this alone is not enough; Santos must also start to empathize with his countrymen. He must look and sound like he cares about finding solutions to the health system and that he is fighting the fire of the FARC with the fire of the state.
Santos’ other problem is that he has promised too much. Since coming to power the president’s legislative program has generated a whirlwind of new laws and constitutional reforms.
Santos is determined to create a legacy as the president who ended corruption, who secured peace, who restored land to those displaced by the 50-year conflict, who grew the economy by record levels, and who changed for good the world’s perception of Colombia. This breathless list of ambitious projects is laudable, but it is also unrealistic and unachievable in a four-year presidential term.
In El Tiempo’s poll, in perhaps what is the most telling statistic, 60% of Colombian feel that Santos has not “delivered.” Little surprise given the expectations he generated.
Amid this legislative hyperactivity Santos is struggling to establish a narrative for his government. The message is being drowned out by the string of announcements and the list of policies that fail to knit together into a coherent policy platform. Worse still, Santos’ diplomatic style means it is hard for Colombians instinctively to know what the president stands for.
All is not lost for Santos, he must remind Colombians why they fell in love with him in the first place – to do so he must become less diplomatic, speak more directly and appear to fight for the issues that concern voters. The first two years of Santos’ regime were all about reform, the second half of the mandate must be about delivery. The narrative for the 2014 elections needs to be established now – the campaign to become U.N. Secretary General can wait.
Author Kevin Howlett is a political commentator and owner of political weblog Colombia Politics.