Now in his second term, President-elect Santos can choose to take one of two paths. He can attempt to re-build the confidence he enjoyed in 2010, or he can see his victory as approval of the status quo
Now that Juan Manuel Santos has been re-elected president in a result that is sure-to-be-contested by Alvaro Uribe, what can Colombia expect with four more years of him at the helm?
Santos is famous for making grand speeches to appease various sectors of society and then doing little to back up his words with action, so it’s really anyone’s guess whether he will take his presidency on a new course or do what he did in his first term – which is pretty much nothing.
|Santos will govern this country not because any significant percentage of the population support him, but because enough Colombians want to see this imperfect president follow through on his commitment to secure a peace deal
Santos can either go one of two ways. He can see his 5-percentage-point victory against right-wing hardliner Oscar Ivan Zuluaga as a wake-up call that he has alienated large swaths of the Colombian populace and commit to rebuilding the confidence he enjoyed when he was first elected in 2010. Or he could see his re-election as a nod of approval from voters and a mandate to proceed with more of the same.
The president-elect will govern this country for another four years not because any significant percentage of the population support him, but because enough Colombians want to see this imperfect president follow through on his commitment to secure a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. As much as local pundits, including our friends at Colombia Politics and the Colombia Calling radio show, argue that the election ought not be a vote between war and peace, it was presented that way by just about every major media outlet in the country and voters no doubt went to the polls with this in mind.
A good number of Colombians hate the FARC for the horrific crimes they have committed over the past 50 years of civil conflict, and they don’t want to see their commanders walk free with impunity as a result of a peace accord with the government. A smaller number hate the guerrillas so much that the very thought of talking to them is an act of treason – and those who go down that far into a pit of hatred made up the voter base of the Zuluaga-Uribe nexus. But most Colombians just want the killing to stop, even if that means a flawed peace agreement and lenient punishments for the FARC’s leadership. It is this segment of the population who came out with enough force on Sunday to push Santos into a second term.
|Colombia is Latin America’s fourth largest oil exporter, and while the economy continues to grow – it is predicted to grow by 4.6 percent this year – so too do guerrilla attacks on the country’s oil sector
So aside from a possible peace deal with the FARC guerrillas, what does Santos’ second term mean for the country? Namely, what does it mean for the country’s economy? That may well depend on the amount his government is willing to invest in things like healthcare, education, infrastructure and in the countryside. A large part of what can be invested will come down to how much revenue the government pulls in from the lucrative oil and gas sector.
Colombia is Latin America’s fourth largest oil exporter, and while the economy continues to grow – it is predicted to grow by 4.6 percent this year – so too do guerrilla attacks on the country’s oil sector. Last year there were 259 acts of sabotage against oil pipelines, a 72 percent increase year-on-year, according to Ministry of Defense figures. This significantly reduced output in 2013. So long as there are Marxist rebel groups at war with the Colombian state, bombing and sabotage attacks against oil and gas installations around the country will continue to be a thorn in the industry’s side, limiting production and investment.
But Santos has an opportunity to put an end to these attacks through a peace accord with FARC, and also by entering into similar talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, as was announced on Tuesday last week. Though the timing of the announcement is extremely suspicious, the rebel group and the government said they are currently engaged in exploratory talks. Even the most cynical observer among us has to admit that this is at least on the surface a positive development. And neighbouring countries are already lining up to broker talks. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has on several occasions offered to host such peace talks, as did Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa last week.
|Santos has a very real opportunity in the next four years to make history by bringing 50 years of protracted civil conflict to an end.
Santos has a very real opportunity in the next four years to make history by bringing 50 years of protracted civil conflict to an end. A conflict that has ravaged entire communities, left thousands dead and millions more displaced. A conflict that has no winners and more losers than one can count. A peace accord with the FARC – however imperfect – would set a precedent for talks with the ELN and bring members of both rebel groups back into civil society and the political arena, where they would be free to fight for their ideals in the senate and at the ballot box.
This would bring Latin America’s oldest and bloodiest insurgency to an end. It would make kidnappings of oil workers and oil pipeline attacks a thing of the past, spurring further growth and making Colombia even more attractive to foreign investors. A Colombia at peace with both its rebel groups would translate into increased oil output, a safer investment environment, and a revenue windfall for the government through taxes, licensing and royalties.
Aside from playing up the “new Colombia” marked by peace and security on the international stage, Santos will have the opportunity to serve out his remaining term on a high note by investing this newfound revenue into the sectors of society that need it most – support for the nation’s campesinos, fixing the broken, corrupt healthcare system and the near-bankrupt education system, infrastructure development and investment in job creation, particularly for Colombia’s young people.
The president-elect did himself few favours in his first term and turned off many of his supporters with a mix of empty promises and cynical opportunism. But he now has the chance to build a legacy based on peace and principle, and be the kind of president that even his detractors can admire. Will you seize the opportunity before you, Señor Presidente?
By Mark Kennedy