When the Colombian presidential elections headed into a run-off in May, and voters were given the choice between the right-wing incumbent Santos administration and Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a right-wing protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, journalist Mario López, writing in the local newspaper El Espectador, noted, “Whichever candidate wins the country is not going to change its economic model, this is the reason the establishment has supported and financed both candidates in the same proportion. The only considerable difference is the peace process moving forward in Havana, and, perhaps, the personal style of leadership.” The article was titled “War or Peace?” Zuluaga’s stance softened slightly in respect to the talks, but for those opposed to both the right and the ultra-right an essential dilemma remained: vote to save the peace process in its current form, or submit a blank vote in protest at the constrained choice? (A cartoon doing the rounds on social media showed a cow standing at the crux of two paths, one with a sign saying ‘Santos’, the other ‘Zuluaga’. After a small distance the paths could be seen to converge and enter a dark tunnel, above which a sign read “Well-being”, replacing the scrubbed-out but still legible “Slaughterhouse”). It looks like the decision by centre and left wing groups to support Santos may have been the critical factor in giving him a 5 point victory in the run-off, ensuring the survival of the peace talks and the tentative steps that have so far been made, including the agreed upon but not-yet-finalised commitments to radically alter the country’s approach to the questions of illicit drug production and consumption. Leading opposition figures afterwards celebrated the victory under the banner “Peace Won.” Left wing senator Ivan Cepeda Castro told local press that the vote for Santos was a pragmatic one. Those who made the choice, he said, would not forfeit their role as the opposition.
The elections have been a reminder of the conservative sentiments held by powerful sectors of Colombian society and a significant proportion of the population (a recent poll suggested only about half of Colombians thought democracy was preferable to authoritarianism, a result that maybe says more about the specific nature of what ‘democracy’ has entailed in the country rather than widespread anti-democratic sentiments among the people). It also demonstrated the fragility of even minor progressive gains in the current political climate.
Just prior to the run-off, the government announced they would be opening peace talks with the second largest guerilla group in the country, the ELN (The National Liberation Army), in the near future.