Colombia Could Use a Boring Centrist President
Election front-runner Ivan Duque could learn a lot from his neighbor, Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos likely won’t be missed. His approval ratings have tumbled to 13 percent, down from 82 percent in 2010. His biggest accomplishment, the 2016 peace accord, which ended the Western Hemisphere’s longest shooting war and bagged him the Nobel Peace Prize, has left the country bitterly divided.
And so much for the incumbent’s golden touch: Santos’s former vice president, German Vargas Lleras, is running an underwhelming fourth place in the presidential race, and his former chief peace negotiator is polling dead last among major contenders. Instead, the candidate to beat is Ivan Duque, a young right-winger whose godfather is former President Alvaro Uribe, Santos’s sworn enemy.
Duque should take note. If he wins, either outright on May 27 or in the June 17 runoff, he’ll owe the victory to the swell of popular grievances that has swept Colombia since the treaty was signed. To govern, however, Duque must go much further and confront problems — from inequality to political corruption — that received short shrift during the half-century of conflict, and in many ways fueled it.
For that task, the new government’s muse ought not to be the bilious Uribe but Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno. No sooner had Moreno succeeded the volcanic populist Rafael Correa than he proceeded to roll back his patron’s so-called Citizen’s Revolution, which had divided the country into sniping factions. Reaching out to rival politicians and toning down the polarizing rhetoric, Moreno mollified and revived investor interest in Ecuador’s stalled economy.
Duque is in a good position to do the same, not out of political betrayal but in a bid for national reconciliation. Just as Uribe’s war without quarter on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the 2000s set the stage for Santos to bring the guerrillas to the negotiating table, the next administration may now take up other urgent national matters that got trampled in the war over peace.
That doesn’t mean the new administration won’t try to impose changes or rework the treaty. Some of the terms of the peace deal still rankle on Colombians, starting with the perks for former guerrillas. Fueling the backlash were revelations that shady bureaucrats had conspired with the nephew of a former FARC leader to divert a chunk of a multimillion dollar peace fund to a criminal network. Last month, the Santos government fired the head of the Colombian Peace Fund after European sponsors complained over lack of transparency.
However, attacking the treaty may prove a dead end. Last year, Colombia’s Constitutional Court shielded the accord from partisan caviling until 2030 by stipulating that any changes to the treaty “must be consistent with the agreement.”
“With a slim majority in the legislature, a conservative government might be able to pare down the peace agreement, but it wouldn’t have the political capital to build something in its place,” Adam Isacson, a defense and security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said in an interview. Rural reform alone took 19 months to negotiate, Isacson said.
More importantly, Colombians appear ready to move on. Tellingly, the FARC’s debut in electoral politics in the March legislative race was a flop. Despite its earnest attempts to rebrand for peacetime — as the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force — the group’s 74 candidates won less than one percent of the national vote and not a single congressional seat beyond the 10 it was guaranteed in the peace deal. What better way to rout a hoary political movement than to have its combatants compete in open elections?
While peace, national security and discontent over the terms of the peace deal still spin the national news cycle, opinion polls show that voters are most worried about corruption, health care, income inequality, and more recently the flood of Venezuelan refugees — that is, mostly the scourges of contemporary democracy. “The impression you get is that there’ll be a certain technocratic bent to politics in the next administration,” Princeton University historian and Colombia scholar Robert Karl told me. “Compared to previous years, the Colombian elections almost look boring.”
In post-bellum Colombia, this is progress. While bashing peace makes for good sound bites, fixing the treaty is the more urgent task. As of February, only 12 of 34 agreed upon measures of the deal had passed congress, which must rule on enabling laws. A key sticking point: the provision on agrarian reform, which aims not only to rebalance Colombia’s historical mal-distribution of land, but to upgrade the countryside by investing in infrastructure, education and agricultural technology.
“The accord is about more than the FARC. It’s a chance to close the divide between city and countryside, which was one of the driving reasons for conflict,” said Karl. “That’s still unfinished business.”
Is Duque up to the task? A freshman senator and a technocrat, he has scant executive experience and little clout among Colombia’s machine politicians. All the better for Uribe, whose right-wing followers were the big winners in the legislative race, at the expense of moderates.
But don’t call Duque a sock puppet just yet. For all the Uribe-inflected campaign rhetoric, he has stopped short of saying he’ll try to revoke the peace plan, taking care as he’s risen in the polls to position himself as a “candidate of the center.”
“If Duque wins and decides to go the Uribe anti-drug thugs and national security route, it will send the conflict back to the jungle and ensure the shooting goes on for many more years,” Isacson said.
After half a century of open war, an uneasy peace and a poisonously polarized political campaign, a good dose of boring centrism may be just what Colombians need.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Gibney at email@example.com