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The Challenges Santos Faces

July 12, 2014 • By Daniel Zovatto

Juan Manuel Santos received 50.9% of the vote and defeated former President Uribe’s candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, (45%) by over 900,000 votes in Colombia’s second round of the presidential elections on 15 June. Santos, was elected in 2010 with the support of the right wing, but was reelected this time thanks to a combination of factors: 1) his ability to attract the urban leftist vote (above all in Bogota) by appealing to then opposition Uribe; 2) the support of political machines, particularly of the Liberal Party along the Atlantic Coast; and 3) the organization of a ‘negative coalition’ against Zuluaga (and his mentor Uribe), which enabled him to reverse his showing in the first round where he ran second.

Santos’ Challenges

Aside from healing the wounds of one of the dirtiest, intense, and most polarized campaigns of the last few decades, and the need to quickly bring the country back together, he sees four strategic challenges for the first term of his administration (2014-18).

1. To rapidly and successfully finalize the peace negotiations 

These elections were, to a large extent, a referendum on the peace process, where negotiations have been underway in Havana. Peace was the main issue both during the first and the second rounds and, doubtless, will remain so during most of the next four years. 

What are the challenges that Santos faces in this regard? First, he must accelerate the negotiations. Agreement has not been reached on two complex and sensitive matters of the five point agenda: justice and reparations for victims, and disarmament. Second, to add social legitimacy to the political legitimacy obtained through his reelection by aligning the country behind the peace process. Third, to come up with an effective strategy to implement the peace accord, both in terms of the mandatory referendum needed to approve it and the legislation also required to put this into effect. 

But it is not going to be easy for him. Uribe’s followers will present tough opposition. For their part, the 45% of the vote Zuluaga got (with the support of Uribe’s followers and that of the conservatives aligned with Marta Lucia Ramirez) and the high abstention rate (of over 50% in both rounds), show that a significant part of Colombian society either does not share or is indifferent to how the government is handling the negotiations with the FARC in Cuba.

If Santos fails to rapidly overcome these fears and indifference, he is going to find that the approval and implementation of the peace agreements in Colombia will become more difficult and complex than the negotiations in Havana.

2. High economic growth and active social policies 

Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries where the economy is going to grow more in 2014 than in the previous year (a projected 4.5% - 5%), more than double the forecast regional average. However, the good state of the economy (which is going through its best time ever) is not enough to disguise serious challenges; in particular, implementing the structural reforms which Santos himself announced in 2010 to drive the five engines of the economy: education, health, housing, rural area, and infrastructure, and which only partially started moving during his first term. Santos must also improve the coordination and execution of his policies, deepen the social content of them (to lower poverty and inequality, create jobs, and reduce the housing shortage), emphasize decentralization and rejuvenate his cabinet. All of these measures, together with the fulfillment of his campaign promises and those on the peace process, require tax reform able to generate the additional fiscal revenues (around 2% of the GDP) necessary to fund his government programmes, particularly those supporting post conflict and agriculture.

3. Banning reelection and lowering abstention

During the campaign Santos pledged that, if he won, he would abolish the immediate reelection of presidents, which was introduced by former President Uribe in 2004 with the objective (achieved) of having a second term in office. A few days ago, Santos reiterated his proposal, stating that he wanted to combine it with an extension of the presidential term (but omitting details on this last point) and making it clear that such extension will not benefit him personally. If achieved, this reform would go against the prevailing trend in the region, which is clearly in favour of consecutive or indefinite reelection.

A second reform for Santos to consider is going from optional to mandatory voting in order to lower the traditionally high abstention rate which is a feature in Colombia (the highest in Latin America). In both rounds of the elections abstention was over 50%.

4. Maintaining a pragmatic foreign policy

In the next four years, Santos will continue his active participation in the Pacific Alliance and will seek to ensure the entrance of Colombia into the OECD. At the regional level, he will maintain pragmatic relationships with his neighbours, especially Venezuela. The evolution of the Venezuelan crisis will have direct impacts on Colombia, both in bilateral trade  and on border security. Foreign policy will be another area in which Uribe’s opposition will demand from Santos firmer and more critical diplomacy towards Maduro’s government, in particular in human rights and democracy.

My opinion: Santos emerges from the legislative election in March and from the presidential polls in May and June successful but with diminished political capital. In March, his legislative support decreased (it was close to 80% during his first term) as a consequence of the emergence of an important and united group of Uribe legislators (some 20 senators and 18 deputies) which - even though they cannot impose a veto nor do they have a majority in either chamber -  has enough firepower to be a firm and noisy opposition.

Two weeks after the second-round election, it became clear that the electoral coalitions formed in the face of the runoff election will not become permanent.

The new political map places Santos as the leader of a heterogeneous coalition with little cohesion (and very dependent on the support of the Liberal Party), trapped in the pincers of a double sided opposition: the Uribe group on the right and the left and the independents - who despite helping get Santos reelected, will from now on not lend their parliamentary support free of charge.

In the face of this scenario, Santos must govern differently so he can face the challenges of reelection, and produce results as soon as possible. Just like a tightrope walker (as expressed by the Semana weekly news), Santos has to rule to the demands of friends, the complaints of the opposition and the hopes of the citizens.

About the authors

Daniel Zovatto
Director for Latin America and the Caribbean
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