Noemi Sanin is one of the most resilient politicians in Colombia. The only woman who has ever had a shot at winning the presidency of the country, Ms. Sanin is a smart political player who knows how to reinvent herself. Even though she has spent a lot of time outside the country in recent years, Ms. Sanin has always managed to remain relevant to Colombian politics. Last year, when she returned to Colombia to run for president yet again, Ms. Sanin was able to create a storm that threatened to divide the Conservative Party. For somebody who had never been democratically elected for anything until last week, Ms. Sanin’s ability to stir popular support is truly remarkable. Undoubtedly, she is a natural politician of outstanding capacity.
Ms. Sanin’s abilities became evident again on Friday when she was declared the winner of the Conservative Party’s primary election. Colombia had been living in a state of democratic uncertainty for the entire week, after the National Registrar proved totally inept at counting the 2 million-odd votes cast on Sunday, March 14. Everybody knew that Ms. Sanin and Andres Felipe Arias, a former Minister of Agriculture and a protege of President Uribe, were the only two candidates in the Conservative primary that had any chance of winning. The two of them, however, were practically tied according to the Registrar’s initial reports.
This is how the process of counting the votes went. Mr. Arias was winning by a few thousand votes on the evening of March 14, but the majority of the ballots were still yet to be counted. Members of the Sanín camp complained to the Registrar about the slow counting process, and when the morning of March 15 came, the official reports said that Ms. Sanin was ahead in the race by a few hundred votes. Mr. Arias smelled something fishy in the air and announced that the Registrar had issued an unusually high number of reports after 4 AM, insinuating that a potential fraud was in the making.
After that, President Uribe told his press secretary to issue a bizarre statement. The president asked the inspector general to investigate whether the registrar was drinking alcohol on Sunday, precisely when he was supposed to be overseeing the vote-counting process. Some people who had been at the registrar’s headquarters that day said that they had been offered whisky, even though an election law prohibited the sale of liquor. The registrar went to the media to defend himself, saying that he had not drunk on Sunday, and that the government was just getting back at him for having opposed the president’s re-election referendum. Pictures published by Semana seemed to confirm that in fact there was whisky at the registrar’s headquarters on Election Day.
In the meantime, the slow pace of the vote count was totally halted after a collapse of the software used to tabulate the results. It was Tuesday and Colombia still did not know who had won the Conservative primary or what the exact composition of the new Congress was going to be. The National Election Commission had sent envoys to verify the transparency of the vote count, but chaos broke loose at the Registrar’s headquarters after some delegates from political parties used violence to make a point. The delegates were protesting against the paralysis in the vote count, and they suspected that the Registrar was not conducting the process in a clean manner.
The results of the election were finally made public on Friday, after security was increased at the Registrar’s headquarters and a new IT company fixed the problems with the software. Ms. Sanín had won against Mr. Arias by little more than 30,000 votes –indeed, it had been a very tight race. Mr. Arias was quick in conceding his defeat, although in his speech he did not explicitly say that he would support Ms. Sanín’s campaign. On her side, a triumphant Noemí appeared in front of a group of her supporters to thank them for their votes. She pledged to keep the Conservative Party united, sending a signal to Mr. Arias’ voters that she did not intend to alienate them after her victory.
Since that day, a few media outlets have been too quick to overstate Ms. Sanín’s possibilities of making it to the runoff election. Ms. Sanín is now the natural leader of the Conservative Party, which remains the country’s second largest political force. Her chances in the presidential election are excellent, considering that she will have the powerful Conservative machinery behind her and that in recent weeks she has had lots of exposure in the media. Ms. Sanín is without a doubt one of Colombia’s most well-known politicians and she is starting her campaign as the official Conservative candidate from a position of strength.
But none of that means that she will make it to the second round of the presidential election. Of course, she could. However, I can’t help but notice that the last opinion poll, issued at the beginning of this month, showed that Ms. Sanín had a mere 5% of the votes. Of course, a lot has changed since then, as there is now a newly elected Congress and she has become the official candidate of her party. Yet, I can’t see how Ms. Sanín could more than double her voter intention (which is what she has to do in order to get to the runoff election) in such a short time.
Also, some observers have insinuated that Ms. Sanín can already count on the two million votes of the people who participated in the Conservative primary. I disagree. Many of Mr. Arias’ sympathizers will be disenchanted, and after the bitter fight before the primary between him and Ms. Sanín, it is unlikely that they will warm up to her anytime soon. Also, Mr. Arias represents the wing of the Conservative Party that remains totally faithful to President Uribe, something Ms. Sanín is definitely not. Therefore, it is very possible that a good portion of the million voters who supported Mr. Arias for the primary will end up voting for Juan Manuel Santos in May. The conclusion is that Ms. Sanín still has a tough time ahead of her if she wants to keep her party together, and to make it to the second round of the election.
But let’s not underestimate her. In 1998, when she first ran for president, Ms. Sanín got a solid 2.8 million votes, although that was not enough to get her to the second round. Four years later, however, her presidential aspirations were crushed by a widely popular Álvaro Uribe, who did not even need a runoff election to win the presidency. Today, eight years after that, she has proven that she is still capable of getting the voters to support her. She’s a phenomenal candidate and I believe that the election will be much more interesting with her on board than with Mr. Arias, who is a replica of President Uribe but twenty years younger.
The election is still an open game, and I can’t wait for new opinion polls to come out, which will make things a lot clearer. If Ms. Sanín succeeds, she will make history by being Colombia’s first woman president, but if she fails, she will inevitably be branded as ‘the eternal candidate’. Too bad for her, Ms. Sanín will not have much time to celebrate her victory in the primary, for she knows she still has a great deal of work to do.