How the Colombian elections 2014 are hinged upon different strategies for peace

Mr Santos, speaking at LSE

On 25 May, Colombians voted in the presidential elections yet no president was elected. Given recent opinion polls, the result was hardly surprising: Colombian law dictates that a candidate must gain a 50 per cent majority for an outright win, yet the public are divided.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga, of the Democratic Center, overtook incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos of the Social Party of National Unity, with 29.25 per cent of the vote compared with 25.69 per cent. In third and fourth place were conservative candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez with 15.52 per cent, and the left-wing Clara Lopez with 15.23 per cent. 

Faith in the political system does not seem to be running high: 60 per cent of eligible voters abstained, the highest rate in two decades. Moreover, Mr Santos’s approval rating has been steadily declining since last year: The Telegraph cites a recent poll by Ipsos that placed it at 52 per cent in February 2013, declining to only 38 per cent.

A commentator in the daily El Tiempo, cited by the BBC, claims this is due to President Santos’s weak leadership: whilst he has done reasonably well in power – unemployment is down, foreign investment and exports are up, poverty has decreased, and most security indices have improved – ‘in his continual efforts to please everyone he has ended up displeasing most.’

Others attribute his decline in popularity to a loss of faith in peace talks: a recent poll shows that only 39 per cent of Colombians believe talks are worthwhile. Indeed, the battle between the presidential candidates is very much hinged upon Santos and Zuluaga’s differing strategies for peace. As the BBC pitches it, the choice is between the dove and the hawk.

Mr Santos, who completed an MA at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1975, began historic peace talks with left-wing rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) shortly after assuming office in August 2012. He is a firm believer that only through negotiations can five decades of violence be ended.

By contrast, Mr Zuluaga is well-known for his opposition to peace talks, calling for their suspension and promising a military crackdown on the rebels. However, in what has been seen as an appeal to moderate voters, he has proposed to limit prison sentences for rebel leaders to a maximum of six years.

The question now is how the votes will be swayed in the run-off on 15 June. Zuluaga has already begun talks with third place candidate Ms Ramirez, as she is known to be sceptical of peace talks with FARC. However, Ms Lopez in fourth place and Enrique Peñalosa, the Green Alliance candidate in fifth place, are more supportive of the talks and so may be more likely to side with Santos.

The next few weeks promise to be a period of tough negotiations and fierce campaigning. As this election has demonstrated, Colombia is a nation divided over two different visions of the path to peace.