He is a professional mathematician who prefers jeans to suits and
ties. He is 52, ambitious and a “nonconformist”, as The New York Times
called him once. He also has a shot at becoming Colombia’s next
Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín, is credited for bringing a revival to Colombia’s second largest city. The son of a well-known architect, he ordered the construction of impressive public libraries, a cable railway to connect the city’s slums with the metro system, a science center, and dozens of public schools. Moreover, during Mr. Fajardo’s tenure (2004-2007) Medellin’s murder rate went down from 57 to 34 for every 100,000 inhabitants. Armed robbery and theft of cars also went down. As an economic recovery took hold, unemployment decreased slightly as well, from 13.5% to 12.2%,. In my frequent visits to Medellín, year after year I was witness of the amazing transformation Mr. Fajardo brought about. As Newsweek said, he turned the city around.
Now he wants to do the same thing with the entire country. After launching his presidential campaign this week, Mr. Fajardo started to collect the signatures he needs in order to register his candidacy. Being an independent, and lacking party machinery, Mr. Fajardo is following the same strategy that made him mayor of Medellín: he is, in his own words, “walking the streets”, talking to people, knocking on doors, getting on public buses, handing out flyers and — as should be expected in 2009 — very active on the internet.
So far, his approach seems to be working. Almost one year before the elections, Mr Fajardo’s polling numbers are not bad at all: a poll this week has him second only to President Álvaro Uribe (in a scenario where the President would be running for a third term), although he falls to third place in a scenario where his top rivals are former ministers Juan Manuel Santos and Andrés Felipe Arias. Yet, Medellín’s former mayor has good reason to be confident. He remains the only candidate to have formally started campaigning, and he is getting plenty of media attention – perhaps his early start could give him the edge in the long run. He also has the goodwill of having been the country’s most popular mayor, and an administration that was almost free of controversy. Surely, only few presidential hopefuls can boast about similar things.
But, is Mr. Fajardo fit for the presidency? Should he win, he would certainly beat everyone’s guess that Colombia’s next government will be headed by a center-right president similar to Mr. Uribe, something he is definitely not. One may also wonder whether four years at the head of a city of three million have given him enough experience to lead a country of almost forty-five million, and full of complex problems that other equally smart but more experienced people have been unable to solve. Mr. Fajardo has not held any position of national importance or other main public office besides the mayoralty of Medellín. Perhaps he needs to fatten up his résumé in order to convince enough voters.
I am especially concerned about his ability to lead Colombia’s military in the unfinished war against FARC, the so-called ‘emerging bands’ and the wide spectrum of criminals that still assail the country. Mr. Fajardo’s conciliatory character and his adamant desire to govern through consensus could backfire if he becomes commander in chief, a position in which he will need to lead, impose and put relentless pressure on tough generals to get results. Moreover, is he willing to maintain the astronomically high but necessary spending on defense? A supporter of the humanitarian exchange, Mr. Fajardo needs to assure voters that his presidency will not result in political or military gains for the FARC. Given his conciliatory nature, Mr. Fajardo needs to assure voters that he is not too soft on national security.
Now, consider international relations. How will foreign policy towards Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua be under a Fajardo administration? It will take more than his innate moderation, a disarming smile and his flowing dark curls in order to stand up against the Colombia bashers ruling from Caracas, Quito and Managua. Colombians should ask themselves whether President Fajardo would have had the guts to order the attack against Raúl Reyes in Ecuador, or if he would have had the backbone to denounce the links between the FARC and the governments of Presidents Chávez and Correa. Additionally, it is a mystery how Mr Fajardo’s management of economic and trade policy will be, although he has, reportedly, surrounded himself with capable, knowledgeable advisers. But his inexperience with this issue is definitely worrying.
Another weakness of Mr. Fajardo is his lack of a political party. Although he is the founder of the movement Compromiso Ciudadano, he either would need to persuade other politicians to side with him and enlarge his movement, or he would have to form a coalition with other parties –if he, as President, will want some legislation passed in Congress, that is. But then, that would damage his image as an independent and a political outsider, which is a big part of his identity as a politician.
So, what does the future bode for Mr. Fajardo? It is hard to say. His charisma and his smarts can certainly take him far in the electoral race. His more compassionate, less ‘hardliner’ personality could also attract many who are fatigued of President Uribe’s “mano dura” (tough hand) approach. Yet, he is unlikely to beat the President or his anointed successor in the ballot box next year, as a majority of Colombians want continuity with Mr. Uribe’s policies. Perhaps Mr. Fajardo’s next job will be in the Senate or even as cabinet Minister (of education?) and not in the Palacio de Nariño.
Of course, he can still prove me wrong.
Author Gustavo Silva is Colombian and studies Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University in the U.S. He has his personal weblog.