Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Some Reasons Behind the Landslide in the Recent Colombian Election

In thinking about the reasons behind the large margin by which Colombian former Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, won the latest presidential election, one can point out to at least two major sets of explanations: junctural and historical. In the first set appear easily identifiable aspects like the popularity Santos inherited from current President Álvaro Uribe thanks to important blows to the FARC, the widely announced achievements in terms of increased security and reduced violence, and the recovery of the economy. Another important explanation in this realm lies on the evidenced weakness of his competitor, former major of Bogota , Antanas Mockus, whose repeated mistakes and inconsistencies during the electoral campaign posed many question marks in the electorate about the efficiency and leadership with which he would run the country in case he were elected. Mr. Mockus had a hard time making people understand the nature of his discourse and whether he represented a real alternative to the current regime or if, on the contrary, he was just a lighter version of "uribismo".

This last point is precisely the border line between junctural reasons and those with a more historical character. Perhaps most of the difficulties Mr. Mockus faced were due to the nature of the colombian electorate: according to recent studies (see here) Colombia is a highly conservative country where, thanks to a long tradition of guerrillas and other criminal organizations, the electoral possibilities for alternatives that include components considered as "leftist" are very limited. In spite of some important achievements of the left in the Congress as in regional offices, leftist parties are typically associated with guerrillas and other outlaws. This makes things very difficult not only for leftist parties themselves but also for others wanting to include social issues in their discourse. Perhaps the most relevant example of this phenomenon in the current context was the reluctance of some members of the Green Party (the one that Mr. Mockus represented in the recent elections) to ally with the leftist Polo Democrático for the run-off. This, of course, left the Green Party with very limited options given the landslide by which it had lost the first round.

The evident consequence of this situation is that any candidate aiming at winning the favor of the electorate must have a discourse representing the conservatism which is ubiquitous in the country, and Mr. Santos did a great job in doing that. The major failure of the polls before the first round according to which Mockus was tied with Santos in terms of vote intention, seriously affected candidates like Gustavo Petro from the left, who would have posed a major contrast to the continuist discourse of Mr. Santos; the establishment was also successful at avoiding what would have been a clear debate between these two candidates.

The outcome, thus, is not very surprising in spite of the scandals of Mr. Uribe's government in terms of persecution to the opposition and the judiciary branch, the well known alliances between politicians and paramilitaries, and the systematic assassination of young men from poor neighborhoods in order to be presented as guerrilla members killed in-fighting. The Colombian electorate responded according to its typical conservatism and voted-in the representative of the establishment while refraining for opting for what many considered a too-risky alternative. It is clear that in the mindset of the population the achievements in security and economic growth were more important that the repeated violations of human rights for which Uribe's government is being held responsible.


  1. Great post. It is interesting how conservatives always seem to have such ownership over the issue of security - whether local, national, or foreign. The way I see it, security is about protecting people, and why should the philosophy behind protecting people from the FARC be so fundamentally different than protecting people from sickness or discrimination or, to take a more recent example from the US, predatory lending practices - all issues that "leftists" are thought to be strong on. I would argue that those on the Left care about security just as much as - and perhaps more than - conservatives, yet so often the public views them as weak on this issue...why?

  2. Thanks Matt. I agree with you and don't have an answer to that question. I think that since liberals are typically more interested in other issues (rights, welfare state) then people think they don't care about security. On the contrary, for conservatives security is priority number one (and maybe the only one) so people make easy judgments.

    Thanks for commenting.