The 2010 race for Colombia’s presidency has so far been driven by the polls and media positioning, with candidates who seem to have little interest in the details of policy, leaving voters wondering what exactly they are voting for. This concern is particularly relevant in the case of the newly-popular Green Party because it has positioned itself firmly in the political center, making its charismatic leader especially difficult to label.
Antanas Mockus, the Green Party candidate and eccentric former mayor of Bogota, is surging in the opinion polls. But polls can only show a snapshot of a single moment, and they do not always take into account the complex mechanisms of Colombia’s electoral machinery, the deals arranged between parties, and the corruption and vote-buying that tainted March’s legislative elections, and which are predicted to feature again in May’s presidential elections.
The green wave of Antanas Mockus
Mockus’ strength lies in the words “new” and “change.” New media, new policies, new ideas… Mockus is himself a message, one in which irreverence and eccentricity have given way to a maturity and a pragmatism. According to his policy program, he aims to do politics itself in a new way. He is clearly aware that this is not a moment to drop his pants in public or throw a glass of waters over his opponents; “it wouldn’t be original”, as he said in an interview with Caracol Radio, though he knows that his image as a rebel gives him strength with the youth vote, who identify with the irreverence of the philosopher and mathematician candidate.
The Green Party aims to make itself the center of a amalgam of coinciding trends which are not necessarily uniform; to please those in the center without discarding votes from the left or from political non-conformists who are tired of policies that do not represent them. Compared to Antanas, the other candidates sound like broken records, like more of the same. The candidate suffering the most from the Mockus phenomenon is Polo Democratico’s Gustavo Petro. However, to win the presidency of the republic it is not enough just to steal votes from a middle-weight, who never had much chance of winning. At this point of the campaign, the focus must be on stealing votes from Juan Manuel Santos‘ Partido de la U and the divided Conservatives, and therefore the Greens have taken special care to avoid being labeled, since the aim of their campaign is to keep themselves as a meeting-point for heterogeneous political positions.
Faced with the astonishing dynamism of Mockus’ rise, the response of Juan Manuel Santos and the Conservative Party candidate Noemi Sanin has been to try to pressure Mockus to clearly explain the meaning of his slogan “building upon that which has been already built.” But clarity is not in Mockus’ interests; refraining from attacking Uribe head-on gives Mockus the right-wing voters that do not wish to vote for Santos or Sanin, while left-wing voters are attracted to the Green cause by its indirect criticisms of the president through symbolic gestures and aphorisms.
Until now, Mockus has managed to maintain this precarious balancing act in the political center, which will end in the second round of elections, when he will be forced to establish what his real differences are from Juan Manuel Santos and the Uribe regime. For example, how will he pursue the confrontation with the FARC? Is he going to negotiate with them after of eight years of the hardline Uribe regime? How is he going to build a respectful relationship with President Hugo Chavez when it is evident that the policy of the Venezuelan regime is to continue to support the FARC? The new respect for law which Antanas Mockus promises to create will not be an abstract accomplishment, but will require a sustained offensive against the illegal groups that profit themselves from the cycle of narco-trafficking and violence – both the FARC and Colombia’s various criminal gangs. The process of instilling respect for the law no doubt has the cultural and educational components on which Mockus places so much emphasis, but it also requires that action be taken against the corruption which is still rife in the relation between state and citizens. What will his relationship be with a Congress riddled with the clientelist dealings that unfortunately were not eradicated under the government of president Uribe? How will he carry his projects through in the face of regional interest blocs in Congress?
Corruption and the regional factor
My hypothesis is that no candidate will win outright in the first round: the cards are still being dealt, the Conservative and Liberal machineries have yet to reach an agreement with Santos, and the Polo Democratico will make the maximum effort possible not to fade away from the political playing field. Let us add to this equation that Cambio Radical might unite with Santos before the first round, to guarantee Vargas Lleras a piece of the bureaucratic pie that is being divided up.
Before a second round between Santos and Mockus, the strategy of the Uribista candidate can be summed up as: convincing, co-opting, and weakening. Santos’ lead in the polls is vanishing, with some polls placing Mockus in the lead. However, the Partido de la U campaign has money, political support and the machinery to “convince and divide” regionally the newly-elected senators and representatives. Santos is making an appeal to the electoral barons, starting from the assumption that by making a deal with them he can guarantee for himself the votes which they control. At the same time, the crafty regional political patrons could make him pay dearly for their loyalty when it comes to the second round, particularly in the Atlantic Coast, where Juan Manuel Santos has a deep strategic interest and assumes that Mockus does not have the sufficient structure to go beyond the capital cities. And he is right. The claws of the electoral machinery are in force in Colombia, the Liberal Party has gone eight years without bureaucratic participation and Cesar Gaviria had made known that agreements must be made; the Conservative Party strengthened during Uribe’s rule and will not easily give up the pleasures of national power.
Let us add to the previous points the shameful incidence of electoral corruption. National registrator Carlos Ariel Sanchez announced recently that “we should not be surprised that whatever happened in these two matters, the forgery of votes and the altering of the voting records, has happened yet again, when it also happened in 2002 and 2006.” It is absolutely probable that in the same regions where the traditional electoral barons keep a hold over the voters, manipulations in favor of certain candidates will be repeated. The lack of technology, the complete absence of digital identification of votes, and the failure to purge the thousands of dead people still registered to vote in Colombia are some of the structural problems that allow electoral fraud. And it does not seem as though the traditional political classes are interested in reforming the electoral system to fix these gaps.Given this state of affairs, the election of the new Colombian president is a contest between the old-style politicians who work through traditional channels of patronage and corruption, and the citizens who are trying to do things without resorting to the vices of the past. Place your bets.
Author Erik Rojas Arenas is a political analyst specialized in electoral processes and political marketing and advisor of public and private entities on issues related to government, defense and international cooperation.