Colombians Vote for New Congress in Gauge of Support for Santos

Colombians started casting ballots in congressional elections that may signal how much backing Juan Manuel Santos will have as he seeks to capitalize on the success of Alvaro Uribe’s security policies to succeed him as president.

For former defense minister Santos to consolidate his frontrunner status today, his La U party needs to retain close to its current 30 senators and 43 seats in the lower house, said Monica Pachon, director of Visible Congress, an organization promoting transparency in the legislature. Colombian voters will choose all 102 senators and 166 representatives.

“The candidate whose party comes out the best will go to the first round in a very comfortable position,” said Pachon, a professor of political science at Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota. “These elections are going to give us the names of the three biggest candidates.”

Uribe retained a more than 60 percent approval rating throughout his eight years in office by pushing back cocaine- funded Marxist rebels and attracting record foreign investment. The U.S. ally, the recipient of over $600 million in annual American anti-narcotics aid, is barred from seeking a third term in the presidential ballot scheduled for May 30.

Congressional elections had been overshadowed by the possibility that Uribe may seek to run for a third straight term. Uncertainty ended Feb. 26 when the Constitutional Court blocked a referendum on the issue, forcing lawmakers and presidential candidates to jumpstart their campaigns.

‘Litmus Test’

“This is a litmus test for the presidential election,” said Michael Shifter, vice president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research group. “The entire campaign has been on hold, so we will see who comes out ahead.”

Gross domestic product has more than doubled during Uribe’s time in office to $242 billion, while the benchmark IGBC stock index has risen more than nine-fold and the peso has strengthened more than 40 percent. The Harvard University- educated Santos has pledged to continue Uribe’s defense and economic policies if he’s elected.

Uribe has based his presidency on the so-called “democratic security” policy, which aims to destroy the drug trade and cut violence through an increased military presence.

Polls show Santos is likely to reach a second round of voting on June 20 if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the ballots cast in the first round of voting on May 30.

Almost 30 million Colombians are eligible to vote today amid heightened security after rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army pledged to step up their campaign against government troops and politicians during elections.

Fragmented Opposition

“If La U does poorly, it will be a boost for the opposition, which is fragmented and doesn’t have a presidential candidate that stands out,” said Aldo Civico, director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York.

The opposition Liberal Party, which is running former Senator Rafael Pardo on its presidential ticket, currently has 18 seats in the Senate and 39 in the house.

The Alternative Democratic Pole party, whose Senator Gustavo Petro has positioned himself as the anti-Uribe choice with pledges to purge “mafias” from the state and improve human rights, has 11 seats in the Senate and 7 in the house.

As many as 80 members of congress have been investigated since 2006 for ties to paramilitary groups, according to Human Rights Watch.

Coalition Options

The Conservative Party, whose presidential candidate also will be decided today in a primary, has 20 seats in the Senate and 35 in the house. Felipe Arias, who served as agriculture minister in Uribe’s government, and Noemi Sanin, Uribe’s former ambassador to the U.K., are vying for the party’s nomination.

Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellin, needs his Citizens’ Movement for Colombia to win at least one seat in Congress for him to be eligible to stand in May.

“All the posturing for government coalitions will come after today,” said Felipe Botero, an associate professor of political science at Universidad de los Andes in Bogota.

Santos has said he would seek to form a coalition with the Conservative Party and would consider joining forces with German Vargas Lleras, a former Cambio Radical senator previously allied with Uribe, should he drop out of the race for president.

Santos was favored by 23 percent of those surveyed by Ipsos Napoleon Franco on Feb. 27. Petro had 11 percent support and Fajardo had 9 percent backing, according to the nationwide poll of 1,000 people which had a 3.1 percentage points margin of error.

Political Mistakes

“No one has enough support to get a first-round win, but if Santos doesn’t commit any mistakes — and everyone is vulnerable to mistakes in politics — he’ll be in the second round,” Shifter said. “Weak backing in the congressional race is not a fatal blow either.”

The winner of the presidential vote is unlikely to depart from Uribe’s policies that are credited with bringing in as much as $50 billion in foreign investment since 2002 and cutting the murder rate by 95 percent, said Patrick Esteruelas, a Latin America risk adviser to hedge funds at the Eurasia Group in New York.

“The presidential candidates will all struggle to replicate and sustain Uribe’s phenomenal popularity,” Esteruelas said.


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