Less than four weeks before Colombia’s national elections, Uribista candidate Juan Manuel Santos is changing his tactics following a spectacular reversal of his formerly unassailable-seeming lead in the polls. However, the chances are slim that this last-minute change of strategy will be enough.
The incredible surge of candidate Antanas Mockus surprised both analysts and contestants in the presidential race. This impressive rise in popularity, however, comes not only because Mockus himself is an attractive candidate, but because of his extremely professional and modern campaign that has used all means in its power to maximize the Green Party candidate’s chances for the presidency.
While candidates like Santos or Noemi Sanin were placing their bets on a predictable race that would bring them both to a second round, which would then be won by Santos who could then form a coalition with Sanin’s Conservative Party, Mockus formed a highly professional campaign team and, through community campaigning and social media like Facebook, mobilized a huge grass-roots organization to promote his name and ideas.
Meanwhile, Santos used the traditional top-down tactics that have worked for so many Colombian candidates in the past; holding private meetings with employers, branch organizations and wealthy Colombians, and putting up the occasional billboard, bringing his campaign up-to-date only with the obligatory website, Facebook page, and Twitter account.
In the first two televised debates, Santos simply did not try hard enough. He figured that – being the unofficial heir of President Alvaro Uribe‘s popular hardline “Democratic Security” policies – he wouldn’t have to work as hard as his fellow contestants. It was almost as though Santos wasn’t aware that elections were coming up, and expected to simply inherit the reins of power. Of course, Santos has no experience of running for office and having to convince people that he is the best one for a job. Throughout his career his family’s power in Colombia’s political and media elite has secured him high positions and an increasingly impressive CV.
Signs that something was going terribly wrong with the campaign appeared weeks before Mockus actually overtook Santos in the polls. It started with hoards of young people appearing on the street with sunflowers, and an incredible amount of internet activity around Mockus, with people forwarding each other Green Party campaign information.
Looking at Google Trends, a tool for analyzing internet search activity, you can see that despite the fact that more news is published about Santos, it is Mockus who people are really interested in. This trend has been developing since the beginning of March, reached a peak at the beginning of April, and is still growing.
The phenomenon began six to three weeks before Mockus actually overtook Santos in the polls and assumed the leading position in the race for the presidency. And while all this was happening Santos didn’t take action, but continue to hold closed meetings with Colombia’s monied elites.
While Mockus can count on massive popular support in Bogota and Medellin, having joined with Sergio Fajardo (a former mayor of the city who Medellin-dwellers see almost as a saint), Santos received the support of the incredibly unpopular Andres Felipe Arias, as former agriculture minister mostly known for nepotism and corruption and now famous for trying to destroy the Conservative Party after his loss in the primaries. This only strengthened Santos’ image as the protector of the interests of the unpopular and corrupt elite which has ruled Colombia’s politics and economy for decades.
And while the image of Mockus became that of a clean politician with fresh ideas, Santos found himself surrounded by the typically corrupt elite politicians, who were tolerated rather than loved by the electorate. And while Mockus was dominating the public and political agenda with his ideas on economy, education and health care, Santos continued talking about security, which has ceased to be the magic word in many of Colombia’s rural and urban communities, which have seen security steadily worsening since 2008, despite the policies of the Uribe government to which Santos is so closely tied.
Weeks after it became obvious that Santos’ political message is not being heard by the voters, those who will in the end decide the election, Santos has fired his campaign team, changed his campaign color, revamped his website and his campaign’s online activities, and adopted a political position closely shadowing that of Mockus.
It took Mockus months of hard and intelligent work to gather the grassroots support he enjoys today, and it is highly doubtful that Santos will be able to catch up, with just over three weeks left before the elections, and little more than a lame copy of Mockus’ political points and an underdog position he is so visibly uncomfortable in.
Moreover, Santos’ change of strategy may even weaken him further, as he is now forced to discuss topics that are outside his terrain and he never made a priority. He runs the risk of being criticized for flip-flopping as he is forced to change his proposals, and may lose his existing support base.
Santos should have understood that we live in 2010 and that elections are not just a formality, but a serious business. If he loses the elections, he will personally be to blame for the implosion of the ideology and power base built up by Uribe, who, even outside election periods, always fought hard to win support for his policies and keep his hold on the popular imagination.