In just a week, Juan Manuel Santos has been able to build a political coalition of a size not seen since the time of the National Front (1958-1974). After Mr. Santos’ historic victory in the election, almost all of Colombia’s political class has flocked to the president-elect’s side. All of a sudden, everyone wants to be a part of Mr. Santos’ coalition, sparking fears that the new president may be able to rule “unopposed”, as Semana put it this week. Instead of a green wave, Colombia is in the midst of an orange tsunami. After their defeat, I heard many Antanas Mockus supporters say they would change their nationality and that Colombia is made of manure (they used another word), but in spite of their disagreement, it seems that the country has warmed to the idea of the Santos presidency.
Right now, with the memory of victory still fresh, everyone in the huge Santos coalition is smiling with complacency. The two main “Uribista” parties, Partido de la U and the Conservatives, received strong popular support in the congressional elections. After opposing President Alvaro Uribe’s re-election, a weakened Cambio Radical seems poised to return to the executive branch by receiving control over some ministry. Partido de Unidad Nacional (PIN), formed mostly by relatives and friends of para-politicians, will no doubt support Mr. Santos’ government, even if the president has ignored them thus far.
But the fact that the current Uribista parties will support President Santos surprises nobody. What was deliciously unexpected was that a sizeable part of Alvaro Uribe’s opposition in Congress also joined Mr. Santos’ national unity coalition. And in just seven days, the force of the president-elect’s victory has divided and weakened the already feeble opposition parties. Most Liberals in Congress have expressed their support for the Santos presidency. Only those on the left of the party, such as Piedad Cordoba, have refused to enter such a pact. It seems that after eight years of being in opposition, the Liberals realized that if they did not court Mr. Santos, they could become even more politically irrelevant.
And the surprises did not end there. In a very interesting move, the meaning of which I am still pondering, Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA), decided to pay a visit to Mr. Santos. Mr. Petro wanted to talk to the president-elect about water regulations, land redistribution for internally displaced people, and reparations for the victims of the internal conflict. Straight away, the PDA directives reacted angrily, maintaining that Mr. Petro’s decision was a personal initiative unrelated to party policy. PDA director Clara Lopez gave several radio interviews saying that the party leaders had unanimously decided to oppose the Santos’ presidency in Congress.
The PDA’s ever-present lack of unity started to show even more after it became clear that the center-right would continue to rule Colombia. Some think that Mr. Petro is testing Mr. Santos’ claim that his government will be one of national unity in which everyone is welcome (although Mr. Petro has stated that he will not support the new administration). But there is another possible explanation. Mr. Petro is much smarter than most in his party, and he finds himself less to the left than many of them. Perhaps he feels that the current leaders of the PDA, who were appointed and not elected to their positions, are taking the party down the wrong road. The PDA’s weak performance in the Congressional elections, in which they obtained a mere 848,000 votes, seems to confirm that. In contrast, Mr. Petro obtained 1.4 million votes as a presidential candidate. Maybe he believes that the party will have a better future under his care, and he is trying to show some independence from its directives.
And what about the Greens? With only eight seats in Congress, the Green Party will have no major role whatsoever in the legislative life of Colombia until 2014. After losing the election, Mr. Mockus said that his party would decide to support or oppose government initiatives on a case-by-case basis. He also rejected the possibility of taking a position in Mr. Santos’ cabinet, before anybody offered him one. If the Green Party wants to remain alive in politics, their best alternative is to run for the mayoralty of Bogota, which they could probably win. Enrique Peñalosa, a one-time mayor who lost in the last election, could perform well in 2011. After the disaster of Samuel Moreno, Bogotans remember Mr. Peñalosa’s administration with fondness.
It looks like President Santos will have an easy time in Congress for the next four years. With control over 80% of Congress, and a divided opposition, the new president has a fantastic opportunity to make the changes that the country needs. Of course, the downside is that with such a firm grip on the legislature, the executive could exert almost unchecked power over the polity, deforming Colombia’s republican structure. But I trust Mr. Santos, and I am sure that after his presidency, the nation will be safer, fairer, and more prosperous than it is today. Indeed, for a country as divided as Colombia, this national unity pact is nothing less than a political blessing.
The real big question is whether the pact will hold, whether Mr. Santos’ big tent can fit so many people. Without a doubt, it can’t. The first signs appeared this week after the Conservatives blocked Simon Gaviria’s bid for the presidency of the House of Representatives. The Conservatives, the second largest party in the country, argued that the position ought to go to one of their own, and not to Mr. Gaviria, who hails from the Liberal Party.
Can Mr. Santos keep so many parties happy all of the time? If he gives too much attention to the small parties, he could anger the large ones, where his political base lies. Instead, if he is perceived as working only with La U and the Conservatives, the smaller parties could feel ignored and denounce “national unity” as a lie. The good news for Mr. Santos is that even if he only plays to the needs of the large parties, he can still have his way in Congress. This, of course, is also good news for the country, because God knows that, on top of all its problems, the last thing Colombia needs is a divided government.