The presidential election in Colombia on 25 May had a surprising outcome. Even though opinion polls forecasted the need for a second round and picked up the stagnating level of support for President Juan Manuel Santos (who seeks a second consecutive term), as well as the recovery of Uribe’s successor, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the surprising fact was not Zuluaga’s win over Santos, but the difference between them: 29.25% vs. 25.69%, meaning almost 460,000 votes.
These results force a second round (on 15 June) and both campaign teams have readjusted their strategies to not only retain the support base they got in the first round, but also to attract the citizens who voted either for conservative Marta Lucia Ramirez (15.5%), leftist Clara Lopez (15.2%), green candidate Enrique Penalosa (8.3%), for those who cast blank ballots (6%) or for the many who abstained.
Colombia –a country where voting is not mandatory and that historically registers low turnouts – again recorded one of the highest abstention rates in the region (59.3%)in this election, the second highest in this country in two decades.
Alliances and Runoff Voting Issues
The campaign launch for the second round was underlined by the shaping of new alliances. Very rapidly (as was to be expected due to their ideological affinity), Zuluaga reached an arrangement with conservative candidate Ramirez, who offered her support conditional on him moderating his opposition to the peace process.
Santos, for his part, has added support little by little, including from a good number of conservative legislators and several leftist political leaders, who form part of the Frente Amplio por la Paz (Broad Front for Peace). However, he has not achieved any widespread endorsement of the political forces led by Lopez and Penalosa. Both allowed their followers to vote for whomever they choose (even though Lopez offered his individual support to Santos). However, it is foreseeable that a large number of those who supported these two candidates, if they decide to cast their votes in the second round, would do so for Santos.
The peace process with the FARC remains the central issue in this new stage of the campaign, as is evident from the new positions Zuluaga and Santos have adopted in relation to this issue. As a consequence of the pact with Ramirez, Zuluaga softened his hardline position regarding the FARC (which he displayed during the first round) by saying: ‘We have agreed on the continuity of the talks with the FARC in Havana, with no secret agreements unknown to the people, with conditions and terms that guarantee tangible, definite progress, verifiable by international witnesses.’
Santos immediately reacted by declaring that Zuluaga’s u-turn was an ‘electioneering’ ploy and warned that ‘peace is not improvised and neither is it done overnight’ and that the process which offers the most guarantees is the one which his government currently develops in Havana. The President placed the following dilemma at the core of the campaign ‘the end of the war or the war without end’.In order to attract the largest possible number of voters, he pledged that if reelected, as soon as a peace agreement is signed he will put an end to compulsory military service.
Runoff Voting in Latin America and Colombia
Colombia is part of the majority of Latin American countries (12 out of 18) which have a second round mechanism in the event that a winning candidate does not get an established number of votes (50% plus 1 in the case of Colombia).
The regional trend (since 1978) is for turnout to usually decrease in second rounds, because a large part of the voters who cast their ballots in the first round do not feel attracted by either of the two remaining candidates. However, there are exceptions to this regional trend. This phenomenon is typical when the second round is a very tight race and there is a chance for a reversal of the outcome; that is, that the winner in the first round loses in the second, a situation that is likely in the Colombian case.
The Colombian experience of second rounds has its own particular features. Since its introduction in the 1991 constitution, Colombia has held six presidential elections. In four of those, a second ballot has been necessary (1994, 1998, 2010, and 2014). And only Uribe, the third of the last four presidents since 1991, won in a first round (2002) and did likewise in his reelection (2006).
In two of these three polls (1994 and 1998), turnout increased in the second round, thereby going against the regional trend. And in one of these three second ballots, in 1998, there was a reversal of the outcome, when Andres Pastrana defeated Horacio Serpa.
My Opinion: As the final ballot nears, the campaign grows in intensity. Some last minute event which might affect the final outcome cannot be discounted. On their part, the surveys carried out in recent days have failed to clear up the uncertainty about who will win the run off ballot. While opinion polls Cifras y Conceptos and Datexco give Santos the larger vote, Ipsos-Napoleon Franco has Zuluaga leading in opinion polls. Gallup, on the other hand, records a tie. All of these conditions point to a heart stopping finale.
Given the tightness of the projections and the difficulty that is generally entailed achieving a reversal of the outcome, one of the possible scenarios would be the eventual defeat of the President. If that were the case, Santos would have the sad privilege of becoming the first chief executive in South America since 1978 to fail to be reelected. It must be remembered that Alberto Fujimori was reelected a second time in 2000, even though that election was intensely questioned, brought about a political crisis and the untimely end of his regime.
But the difficulties Santos faces to achieve a reversal of the outcome in the second round on 15 June should not be interpreted as an impossible mission. There are nine cases in the region (and, as we saw, one of them took place in Colombia) which bear witness to the fact that attaining that goal is difficult but not impossible.
In order for that to happen, Santos must be able to build a ‘negative consensus’ against Zuluaga: that means enlisting a majority of the voters to go against Uribe and his followers, by presenting Zuluaga and his mentor Uribe as a risky and extremist option both for the continuity of the peace process and for Colombia. In other words, the reelection of Santos depends, to a large extent, on being able to increase the turnout (for those who share his proposals but who abstained in the first round to cast their votes) and, simultaneously, to attract the largest possible support from the left and greens, not because these electors identify with him but because they would both unite in horror at the prospect of a return of Uribe’s group. It is these new voters who hold the power to reelect Santos or to send him back home.