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The Stakes in the Presidential Election in Colombia


This presidential election (first round on 26 May 2002; second round, if needed, on 16 June) will be crucial for the future of Colombia’s democracy and its struggle against insurgents and paramilitaries, drugs and widespread poverty. Social and economic distress is now widespread. Public frustration with the ill-fated peace process of the Pastrana Administration over the past three years, its definitive rupture on 20 February 2002, and increased attacks by the main rebel group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) on civilians and infrastructure since mid-January have made “war/peace” and “violence” the key vote-determining issues. The failure to negotiate a solution to the longstanding civil war over the past three years has polarised the electorate.

The atmosphere is apprehensive and tense. In recent elections the insurgent groups, particularly the FARC but also the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), have challenged the legitimacy of the electoral process with intimidation and violence. The escalation of fighting this month between FARC and paramilitary forces in the north-western department of Chocó, which killed more than 110 civilians and an unknown number of combatants, demonstrates again the disregard both groups of irregulars have for the population as they pursue territory and power. It also puts into perspective the limitations of the government’s forces, which reached the scene only days later. All presidential candidates are under death threats. In mid-April, the front-runner, Álvaro Uribe, barely escaped the fate of candidates who were killed in earlier presidential races. Presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt and her vice presidential running mate, Clara Rojas, were kidnapped by the FARC a month earlier and remain hostages.

Since at least September 2001, voters provoked by rising frustration with a deadlocked negotiation and a worsening conflict appear to have found the tougher rhetoric of “dissident Liberal” candidate Álvaro Uribe appealing. Far behind in the polls last year, Uribe emerged as the unrivalled leader by January 2002 and has essentially maintained his advantage over the past four months. The advocates of the primacy of a political settlement, including “official Liberal” candidate Horacio Serpa, were compelled to adjust their strategy. Serpa, who in mid-2001 still supported President Pastrana’s negotiating efforts, although he viewed them as flawed, shifted toward the harder Uribe line. It is unclear, however, whether this adjustment will regain him enough support to prevent a first-round Uribe victory.

Two and a half months after the parliamentary election, eleven tickets are competing to lead the executive branch. Since the 1991 constitution introduced a second round, no president has been elected in the first round. However, the latest polls suggest that this trend might be broken. Although there have been slight fluctuations during the spring, Uribe stood at 49.3 per cent a week before the 26 May vote. His main contender, Horacio Serpa, who had 27.4 per cent in April, was at an unprecedented low of 23 per cent. In a projected run-off, Uribe outdistances Serpa, 54.9 percent to 32.8 per cent. The top candidates are both from the Liberal Party, one of the two traditional parties (although Uribe is running as a “dissident” Liberal). For the first time in Colombia’s history, the Conservative Party, the other traditional power centre, has not fielded a presidential candidate.

Since September 2001, the standing of each of the four main contenders – Luis Garzón, Noemi Sanín, Horacio Serpa and Álvaro Uribe – has fluctuated between 5 per cent and 36.1 per cent. The relatively steady trend lines suggest both a significant degree of voter realignment over the past nine months and a firming up of present preferences. Thus, in September 2001, 61 per cent of interviewees stated that they would not reconsider their choice of candidate; in January 2002, that number had grown to 68 per cent and in February 2002 to 79 per cent. The penultimate poll (April 2002) reported that 86 per cent of those inclined towards Uribe were certain to vote for him, while 81 per cent, 69 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively, of those expressing a preference for Serpa, Garzón or Sanín called themselves definite. Furthermore, Uribe has a favourable image with 73 per cent of voters, followed by Sanín (58 per cent), Serpa (52 per cent) and Garzón (38 per cent). While 31.2 per cent of interviewees stated that they would never vote for Serpa, only 18.02 per cent said this regarding Uribe, 16.64 per cent regarding Sanín and 14.09 per cent regarding Garzón. In sum, the available pre-election data suggests that the basic question is not who will be Colombia’s next president but whether Uribe wins in the first or second round.

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