He may have left the office in 2010, but ex-president Álvaro Uribe remains the elephant in the room of contemporary Colombian politics. One of George W. Bush’s closest international allies, he presided over the twin “Colombian Miracles” of the 2000s: rapid investment-driven economic growth, and the military defeat of both drug traffickers and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Marxist guerrilla group.
Uribe’s program of “democratic security” aimed to restore government control over Colombia. He called for vastly increased defense spending and the active assertion of Colombian government sovereignty in rural areas that had previously been under the tacit control of FARC or drug lords. Along with policies aimed at shoring up “investment confidence” and “social cohesion,” and a majoritarian principle—opposed to Colombia’s historic legalism—that Uribe called the “state of opinion,” this program formed the backbone of his populist, statist brand of conservatism.
That so-called Uribismo quickly upended the Colombian political environment, previously characterized by a relatively stable opposition between the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. Although Uribe was subject to term limits, popular support for his policies—his approval ratings were regularly upwards of 70 percent—led several factions to unite around their common support for a constitutional amendment that would allow a second Uribe term; this “U Party” won more votes in the 2006 legislative elections than either of the traditional parties.
Even though in 2009 the Constitutional Court ruled out the possibility of yet another re-election bid, the future of Uribismo still looked secure, for President Uribe had picked out a seemingly perfect successor. Juan Manuel Santos had founded and led the U Party—and, as defense minister, had overseen the implementation of Uribe’s “democratic security” policies and the war against FARC and the cartels.
Running under the banner of a party named for President Uribe, and as a cabinet member linked more closely than anyone else to the President’s security policies, Santos campaigned for and won the 2010 elections as a loyal Uribista. But halfway through his term, President Santos marshaled his unquestionable conservative credentials into the Colombian equivalent of a “Nixon to China” moment: He announced peace talks with the FARC militants, to be held in and mediated by Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Uribe denounced this decision repeatedly from his wildly popular Twitter account, and within a few months the men who were once patron and protégé became bitter political enemies. Uribe left the U Party to found the Democratic Center party (one that was poorly named; in reality, it was well to the right of the conservative establishment); with that party he contested and won a Senate seat in this past March’s legislative elections.
But besides Santos himself, a candidate from Uribe’s new party, a representative of the socialist left and a Conservative Party candidate who has tried to stay relatively neutral in the Santos-Uribe fight, there is yet a fifth major player in next month’s presidential vote. The country’s capital of Bogotá, a bastion of opposition to Uribe’s presidency, has also been a breeding ground for a new kind of urban politics.
Beginning in the 1990s, a succession of leftist mayors transformed Bogotá as deeply and as successfully as Uribe had transformed the nation in the 2000s: Enrique Peñalosa alone, mayor for only three years, embarked on five hugely popular megaprojects—including the most comprehensive and successful bike path and bus rapid transit networks in the entire developing world.
Two of these mayors joined forces for the 2014 presidential elections, using the Green Party as a political vehicle; they selected Peñalosa as a candidate and are currently polling second behind President Santos.
The race is so complex and wide-open because, in attempting to navigate a relatively centrist path, President Santos has ticked off both the Colombian left and right.
A scandal surrounding the December dismissal of Bogotá’s current mayor for allegedly breaking the law by nationalizing the city’s garbage collection (Santos agreed yesterday to reinstate him) made many progressives contend that he wanted to exclude the core of the Colombian left—former guerillas like that mayor—from politics entirely. Uribe, for his part, continues to criticize the FARC peace talks as “negotiation with terrorists.” Polls suggest that 70 percent of Colombians would rather not see Santos re-elected.
But Peñalosa’s Green Alliance candidacy is still a relatively long shot, and Uribe and the rest of Colombia’s conservatives could still close ranks around Santos in the election’s second round (though Peñalosa actually received an unexpected, and probably unhelpful, Uribe endorsement in his failed 2011 attempt at regaining the mayorship). Indeed, Uribe’s candidate, Óscar Zuluaga, could yet claim second place, leading to a second-round election that would look like a Republican Party primary, and would surely generate more than a few criticisms of the two-round electoral system.
But at least one recent poll has Peñalosa defeating Santos in a runoff. If that’s accurate, the upstart center-left economist-mayor will have won because the modern Colombian right, the most powerful in the western hemisphere, is split by the very man whose presidency made it so strong. Progressivism has been in retreat in Colombia (relative to its success in the rest of Latin America) because it is seen as the intellectual loser of the multi-decade civil war; this would be an unexpected twist of fate. And so perhaps progressivism in Colombia, “condemned,” like the late Gabriel García Márquez wrote, “to one hundred years of solitude” because of a legacy of Marxism and violence, “will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on Earth.”
Contact James Bradbury at [email protected].