The Challenges Santos Faces

Editor’s note: This piece was translated into English by International IDEA.

Juan Manuel Santos (50.9 percent) defeated Uribe’s candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga (45 percent) by over 900,000 votes in the second round of the presidential elections last June 15. Santos, who had been elected in 2010 with the support of the right wing, was now reelected thanks to a combination of factors: 1) his ability to attract the urban leftist vote (above all in Bogota) by appealing to opposition to Uribe in that sector; 2) the support of political machines, particularly those of the Liberal Party, in zones such as the Atlantic Coast; and 3) the organization of a “negative coalition” against Zuluaga (and his mentor Uribe), which enabled him to reverse in the second round the adverse results in the first one, in which he placed second.

Aside from sewing up the wounds opened during one of the dirtiest, intense, and polarized campaigns in the last few decades, and the need of promptly bringing the country back together, there are four strategic challenges his administration will have to face in the 2014-2018 term.

1. Rapidly and successfully culminate the peace negotiations

These elections were, to a large extent, a referendum on the peace process, whose negotiations have been under way 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, since an agreement has not been reached on two of the five points in the agenda (justice and reparations for the victims, and disarmament); both are highly complex and sensitive. Second, add social legitimacy to the political legitimacy (obtained with his reelection), by aligning the country behind the peace process. Third, design an effective strategy, both in the face of the referendum (to which the peace accords negotiated have to be subjected) and in relation to the approval of secondary legislation necessary for the feasibility of said accords.

But it is not going to be easy for him. Uribe’s followers will present tough opposition. For their part, the 45 percent 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 asbtention (of over 50 percent in both rounds), show that an important part of Colombian society either does not share or is indifferent regarding the way in which the government is handling the negotiations with the FARC in Cuba.

If Santos fails to rapidly clear up 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. Achieve high economic growth and active social policies

Colombia is one of the few Latin American countries in which economy is going to grow more in 2014 than in 2013 (a projected 4.5 percent to 5 percent) and more than double the regional average forecast for this year. However, the good health of the economy (which is going through its best time in history) is not enough to disguise the serious challenges it has to face, particularly to implement the structural reforms which Santos himself announced in 2010 to drive the five engines of the economy: education, health, housing, rural areas and infrastructure, and which only partially started moving forward 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 lower the housing deficit), emphasize decentralization and reshuffle his cabinet. All of these measures, together with the fulfillment of his campaign promises and those regarding the peace process, demand a tax reform able to generate the additional fiscal revenues (around 2 percent of GDP) necessary to fund his government programs, particularly the post conflict and agricultural ones.

3. Ban reelection and lower abstention

During the last 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 favor of consecutive or indefinite reelection.

A second reform Santos should consider is going from the optional vote to the obligatory one, in order to lower the traditional and high abstention which is a feature in Colombia (the highest in Latin America). It is proper to remember that in both rounds of the last elections, abstention was over 50 percent.

4. Maintain a pragmatic foreign policy

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

Concluding Thoughts

Santos emerges from the legislative election in March and from the presidential ones in May and June with reelection secured but with diminished political capital. In March, his legislative support decreased (it was close to 80 percent during his first term) as a consequence of the emergence of an important and united number of Uribe legislators (some 20 senators and 18 deputies) who, even though without a majority in either chamber or the ability to impose vetoes or, have enough firepower to make a firm and noisy opposition.

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

The new political map places Santos as the leader of a heterogeneous coalition, one with little cohesion (and very dependent on the support of the Liberal Party), trapped on both sides: the Uribe opposition on the right and, at the other extreme, the left and the independents who, even though helped to get Santos reelected, from now on will not lend their parliamentary support free of charge.

In the face of this situation, Santos must build a new form of governance, which will enable him to face the challenges his reelection brings, and to produce results as soon as possible. Just like a tightrope walker (as it was well said by the weekly Semana), Santos has to rule under the demands of friends, the complaints of the opposition and the hopes of the citizens.

This piece was initially published in Spanish by