Colombia poised for knife-edge presidential election

By Arturo Wallace
BBC Mundo

  • Published
Colombian football fans chant slogans with their nation's flag outside Arena Corinthians stadium in Sao PauloImage source, AP
Image caption,
The presidential poll may not be uppermost in the minds of Colombian football fans this weekend

This will be quite an eventful weekend for Colombians. On Saturday their national team will play its first game of the Fifa World Cup in Brazil. On Sunday they will go to the polls to elect their next president.

And make no mistake: they're both huge occasions.

This is a football-crazy country and Colombia's game against Greece will be their first in a World Cup after a 16-year absence.

That means that if you approach people on the street and simply ask them: "Who will win?", a large number won't even consider the possibility you're referring to the elections.

The polls, however, are also a high-stakes game: they will have a huge impact on the ongoing peace talks with the leftist Farc rebels, the country's latest effort to end a conflict that has lasted more than 50 years, leaving thousands dead and several million people displaced.

The run-off between the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, and his former cabinet colleague Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is also shaping up to be one of the most closely-fought contests in the country's recent history.

Image source, Reuters
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Oscar Ivan Zuluaga (L) edged into the lead over incumbent Juan Manuel Santos in the first round

Playing hardball

Mr Zuluaga narrowly won the first round by promising to freeze the peace negotiations. But he now claims he will carry on with the talks if the Farc agree to new, stricter conditions.

Meanwhile, Mr Santos guarantees he will continue the dialogue, which he himself started in November 2012 and which has already yielded a series of agreements.

And a few days before the polls, he also announced "exploratory talks" with the country's other leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

With this in mind, the incumbent has been presenting Sunday's polls as a choice between "the end of war or war without end".

And many of his supporters are indeed convinced that Mr Zuluaga's conditions are just a way of pushing the rebels away from the negotiating table.

Image source, Reuters
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The future of peace negotiations has been a key issue in the campaign

However, Jorge Restrepo, the director of the Bogota-based Conflict Analysis Resource Centre, says that might not necessarily be the case.

He says that on the issue of transitional justice and the political rights of the demobilized guerrillas - the most controversial for many Colombians - Mr Zuluaga "has shown himself to be tougher [than Mr Santos] and a difficult person to negotiate with".

"I therefore would say that Zuluaga might plunge the peace process into a crisis and we could find ourselves with a much more prolonged negotiation, full of uncertainties and setbacks. But that's different to saying that he would willingly break up the peace process," Mr Restrepo told the BBC.

Rafael Guarin, an analyst close to the opposition campaign, contends that Mr Zuluaga's tougher stance actually makes him better suited to achieve peace.

First, because he's mainly making the demands that reflect the will of the majority of the Colombian people, which would have to vote on any peace agreement: jail instead of a seat on the local parliament for the guerrilla leaders.

But mostly because Mr Zuluaga's party, Centro Democratico, includes some of the Farc's fiercest enemies.

"And you make peace by sitting with your enemies," Mr Guarin says.

Image source, Reuters
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Mr Zuluaga is backed by ex-President Alvaro Uribe (R), who took a hard-line stance against the guerrillas

Uribe's shadow

Of course, not everybody is willing to give Mr Zuluaga the benefit of the doubt - especially seeing as he is the hand-picked candidate of former President Alvaro Uribe.

Mr Uribe was perhaps the guerrillas' biggest enemy, and many credit his US-backed military campaign as the main reason why a much-weakened Farc is currently seating at the negotiating table.

But his "democratic security" policy has been tainted by allegations of human rights abuses and links with right-wing paramilitaries.

Mr Zuluaga and Mr Santos both served in Mr Uribe's cabinet, but throughout the campaign Mr Santos has implied that Mr Uribe fears peace might expose the truth about those links.

Mr Uribe's influence is so strong that Sunday's vote will be less a referendum on the peace process than on the former president's policies and the values he embodied, according to Marcela Prieto, the director of the Bogota-based Instituto de Ciencia Politica.

"This election has ended up being about fear, either fear of the Farc or fear of Uribe, that he might come back", she told the BBC.

Image source, AFP
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Could a victory for Colombia on the pitch sway the result of the polls?

World Cup bounce

The divide is so sharp that the final result is too close to call. So close indeed that there are those who believe that the result in Colombia's match against Greece could end up deciding the election.

One American study that explored the impact of local college football games just before an election found that a win in the 10 days before the poll boosted the vote for the incumbent by 1.61% in Senate, gubernatorial and presidential elections.

"The effects are about twice as large for college football teams that are traditionally considered to be the biggest and more popular in the country," Stanford University professor Neil Malhotra, one of the authors of the study, told the BBC.

The reason: when people feel good they tend to have a more positive view of everything, including the incumbent government's performance.

Professor Andrew Healy of Loyola Marymount University, who co-authored the study, said there were no reasons why this shouldn't also apply in Colombia.

"As important as college football is in the US, I don't think it is even in the same ballpark as the World Cup in a place like Colombia. If ever there was a case where something like that will impact an election, this is it," he told the BBC.

A Colombian victory would therefore be better news for Mr Santos than for Mr Zuluaga - provided it doesn't result in Colombians celebrating too much and missing polling day as a result, as many here fear.

But both candidates will no doubt be hoping for a good performance from the national team.

After such a divisive and bitter election, nobody is better suited to try to unite the country than the 23 men wearing Colombia's colours in Brazil 2014, back in a World Cup after 16 long years.

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