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The time for posturing and talking is almost over. We’ve known the participants for some time, now we’re about to find out which one has what it takes to go all the way. Most of us, more or less, have a pretty decent idea of who the genuine contenders are versus the no-hopers, but in these final days minor hiccups could have a detrimental effect on the eventual outcome. Nobody can take anything for granted.

Juan Manuel Santos - Presidente Facebook page

What’s it to be? A ‘Ley Seca’ free opening World Cup weekend or more elections? (Image from Facebook.)

Yes, it certainly promises to be some spectacle in neighbouring Brazil when the World Cup kicks-off next month. But before we become engrossed in that, there is the ‘small’, more imminent matter of Colombia’s presidential election to keep us semi-entertained.

In fact, it’s pretty much assured that the Colombian electorate will be asked to go to the polls twice before it knows who its new top man is (for, if the opinion polls are to believed and barring some almighty surprise, it’s going to be a man). That’s because the incumbent seeking re-election, Juan Manuel Santos, has let what was by all accounts a rather healthy lead at the beginning of the year slip as polling day (May 25) approaches. Thus none of the five candidates is set to get more than the 50 per cent of votes required to win without the need for a second round.

Santos’ nearest challenger has turned out to be, somewhat surprisingly, the Centro Democrático’s (Democratic Centre; but generally more right of centre) Óscar Iván Zuluaga. His surge in popularity has been surprising given the fact that a few months ago the running joke was that when he arrived home each evening, the security guards at his apartment complex had to ask him for ID because he was so unknown.*

However a mixture of the Centro Democrático getting its political machine into gear and some Santos failings has seen the gap between the two close considerably. On the former, the presence of the divisive yet still hugely popular figure for some, ex-president Álvaro Uribe, has been a major help. A dollop of hacking also seems to have worked wonders. Indeed, in what could be seen as a measure of the pigheadedness of many Centro Democrático supporters, the sight of Zuluaga ‘talking business’ with a hacker about delivering a blow to Santos doesn’t appear to have done him much harm.

For his own part, how the current president handled – or not as it appeared to be – the what-turned-out-to-be-temporary sacking of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro was problematic. His lack of leadership in what was a farcical period in Colombian politics has left people from all sides questioning his ability to govern.

In a contest where there is no stand out choice, small things matter.

It’s also effectively a first-past-the-post system. The stipulation that there must be a second vote between the top two candidates should no one receive more than 50 per cent first time out is just a delay on that. So bearing in mind the conservative nature of Colombia’s electorate (those who vote that is anyway), reflected in the opinion polls, this election is a straight shoot-out between Santos and Zuluaga.

The others at this stage are just also-rans. In any case, the only one who is arguably offering any real alternative to the type of president Colombia has consistently returned is the (mild) leftist Clara López. The rest are very much ‘as you were’ with really only superficial differences.

Thus, Colombia, is it to be four more years of the ‘devil you know’, best described, at a push, as steady? Or do you go with the slightly unknown, but of the arrogant, brash Uribe school and party, Zuluaga?

Now the argument can be made, with reason, that all in the running have Uribe links (as mentioned, for some Colombians that’s a good thing). Even ‘the darling of the left’ López is tainted in this regard; and in a much more intimate way than the other candidates.

Uribe, Zuluaga and Pacho Santos, taken from the Óscar Iván Zuluaga Oficial Facebook page.

‘We are family’: Uribe & Zuluaga with President Santos’ cousin Pacho Santos, who served as vice president under Uribe & supports the Zuluaga campaign (photo from Facebook).

But old romances apart, the Zuluaga ticket represents the most potent political link to Uribe. In power, that basically means more division and discord, much less consensus.

Santos’ decision to open up peace talks with the country’s guerillas – the inherent problems in them apart – shows he is willing to compromise and make sacrifices. After more than 50 years of internal, zero-sum strife, ‘the exterminate rather than communicate’ line still favoured by many in the Uribe faction needs readdressing.

There is also the theory that a second and final term president has a little more freedom and can be more daring when released from the re-election straitjacket. Perhaps the best is yet to come from Santos?

Finally, taking it as a given that this election really is just a Santos-Zuluaga head-to-head, there is another strong reason to opt for Santos first up. The date for the second round, should it be required, is fixed for the weekend Colombia gets its World Cup campaign under way. And with elections here comes the ‘dreaded’ Ley Seca (‘Dry Law’ i.e. a ban on selling alcohol).

Perish the thought of having to watch the opening salvoes in Brazil from the mundaneness of an apartment.

Colombia, the choice is yours.
*For a somewhat different look at all the candidates, see Colombia’s presidential election: The candidates (and their Irish ‘equivalents’).

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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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