Running on Uribe's coattails

The presidential front-runner is campaigning to continue the country’s hardline security policies

Fernando Vergara / AP

When Colombians return to the polls June 20 to decide who will clinch the presidency, they will choose between a scion of a powerful political and newspaper family who became a defence minister, and an eccentric former university mathematician remembered for his antics during two colourful terms as mayor of Bogotá.

Pollsters had predicted a dead heat in the first round of voting last Sunday. But establishment figure Juan Manuel Santos, leader of outgoing President Álvaro Uribe’s “U” party, won easily over Antanas Mockus and his upstart Green party. Santos got 46.5 per cent of the vote—more than double that of Mockus. His lead seems to indicate that Colombians consider Santos a safer bet. He campaigned to continue Uribe’s “democratic security” policies, which are credited with beating back rebel groups and increasing foreign investment. First-round voters did not appear ready to trust Mockus and his ambitious platform: to not only be tough on insurgents, but also to fight corruption and transform the country’s culture of illegality.

Santos may lack the charisma and popular touch of Uribe, but he is capitalizing on the shortcomings of Mockus’s quirky personality—and his own associations with the successes of Uribe’s administration. As minister of defence, Santos, a Harvard-trained economist, was the architect of some of the military’s heaviest blows against the FARC rebels, including the daring rescue in 2008 of Ingrid Betancourt and U.S. hostages. Having led three ministries, his experience in government is indisputable. But while campaigning as the natural heir of Uribismo, Santos is also trying to distance himself from recent scandals, including the illegal wiretapping of judges and journalists, and the army killings of civilians framed as guerrillas to pump up body counts—many of which happened under Santos’s watch.

Mockus emerged as a candidate who promised to put an end to endemic dirty Colombian politics. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, he came from outside the political machinery to transform a chaotic, violence-ridden city as mayor, using unorthodox methods, including sending teams of mimes to shame drivers into respecting pedestrians, and taking a televised shower to teach Bogotanos how to save water. In the face of Mockus’s “green wave” sweeping over parts of the country, Santos retooled his campaign. With unemployment and health care rising to the top of voters’ concerns, he broadened his message beyond security. “I want to be remembered as the president who gave Colombians jobs,” Santos told reporters.

Sunday’s first-round drubbing shows that Mockus’s campaign needs an overhaul, and that his philosophical references and rambling responses are lost on Colombians who want action over intellect. “Santos is focusing the campaign on showing Mockus isn’t ready,” says Alvaro Forero, a newspaper columnist and director of the Leadership and Democracy Foundation. “The name of the game here is firmness.” Now, backed by Uribe’s implicit endorsements and a huge political machine, Santos’s biggest challenge in winning the June 20 vote may be, according to political consultant Camilo Rojas, simply “not to commit errors.”