BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA — In Colombia’s presidential elections on Sunday, Juan Manuel Santos secured an overwhelming mandate to continue the strong security policies of his popular predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. “This is also your victory, President Uribe,” said Mr. Santos, calling him one of the “best presidents” in Colombia’s history.
But in order to lead effectively, Santos must quickly stamp his own mark on government, political analysts say. In particular, he must address the concerns of millions who voted for runner-up Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of Bogotá promising change in Colombia’s corrupt political culture that led to numerous scandals under Uribe.
“The time has come for national unity, the time has come for harmony, the time has come for us to work together for the prosperity of Colombia,” Santos told a crowd of cheering supporters gathered in a sports stadium in Bogotá. He won 69 percent of the vote, while Mr. Mockus, running on the Green Party ticket, won 27.5 percent.
In a pre-election interview, Santos said his government would be different from Uribe’s in priorities and style. Uribe’s folksy manner won Colombians over in weekly town hall meetings throughout the country where he would micromanage even the smallest problems presented to him. Santos, from an elite Bogotá family, prefers to delegate.
“I rely on teamwork,” he said.
But just a new approach won’t be enough, says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.
“[Santos] is going to have to show that while he follows the general course that Uribe has set, he is not beholden to Uribe,” he says.
Investigations into Uribe-era scandals
Though a proud heir to Uribe’s successes on the security and investment fronts, Santos inherits the burden of scandals that tarnished Uribe’s two terms as president.
Prosecutors are investigating more than 2,000 cases of extrajudicial executions by government forces accused of killing innocent civilians and presenting them as battlefield deaths, and the civilian intelligence agency known as DAS is under investigation for illegal wire tap and surveillance of opposition figures in a scandal that US human rights groups have labeled “worse than Watergate.”
“Santos is not going to be able to escape the scandals that marred Uribe’s rule,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “He’ll have to take them on and distance himself from them.”
It was weariness with such scandals that boosted his rival, Mockus, a former university rector, whose campaign mantras referred to the “sanctity”of
life, legality, and public funds.
Shifter warns that Santos’ overwhelming win should not mean he disregards Mockus’ message of transparency, legitimacy, and legality that managed to capture the imagination of millions of scandal-weary Colombians.
“Even though the election [wasn’t] close, he’s got to take the Mockus phenomenon seriously because it shows there are a lot of people concerned about corruption and scandals,” he says. “People voted for him because they are scared to go with Mockus but Santos has got to tackle these issues and make them his issues.”
Apparently understanding that, Santos said on Sunday night that Mockus had gotten Colombia to “think about the value of life, the value of transparency and legality.”
“You and I share those banners,” he said.
Santos’ fence-mending job
Santos will also have to try to mend fences broken by Uribe both at home and internationally. Uribe has been in constant confrontation with the country’s Supreme Court for years since the magistrates began investigating and convicting dozens of lawmakers – most of them members of the government coalition – for collusion with right-wing paramilitaries.
Beyond Colombia’s borders, relations are strained with neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador. Venezuela “froze” relations with Colombia last year after sending troops to the border and has vowed to cut imports from its neighbor. Ecuador severed ties with Colombia after the 2008 cross-border raid on a FARC base and while there has been a tentative rapprochement, tensions remain high.
Shifter says Santos would likely be more accommodating than Uribe. “Santos is more sensitive to public opinion both domestic and international; Uribe just does what he wants,” he said.
Indeed, in his victory speech Santos said “diplomacy and respect” would guide international relations in his government.
While a thaw in relations with Venezuela may be on the horizon, Shifter said no one should expect “a lot of warm abrazos” between the two.
Santos a scion of powerful clan
Santos, an economist educated at the University of Kansas, Harvard, and the London School of Economics, is a member of the powerful clan that long controlled the leading newspaper, El Tiempo. He has been minister in three administrations, holding the key posts of trade, finance, and defense.
As head of trade, he created the trade ministry and an export promotion agency and increased commerce with Venezuela; as finance minister he managed the nation’s recovery after a 1999 recession; and as Uribe’s defense minister he oversaw some of the most paralyzing blows against leftist rebels for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
“That experience makes him uniquely positioned to address the major issues facing Colombia,” says Farnsworth.
And while beating back leftist rebels and fighting powerful drug trafficking mafias will remain central to his policies, Santos identified the country’s high unemployment – Latin America’s highest, at 12 percent – as a main concern for his government.
“My priority is employment and I want to push unemployment down to one digit,” he said. Key to making that goal will likely be Angelino Garzon, a former labor minister and union leader, whom Santos chose as his vice president.
Uribe hands over power Aug. 7
Uribe will hand over the government to Santos on Aug. 7 though he is unlikely to shrink away from public life. “Uribe is not going to go back to the ranch ride horses and forget politics,” says Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue. “He’s a political animal and wants to be a player.”
Uribe was required to step down after serving two terms – a limit he tried but failed to remove.
Santos said he would welcome Uribe as a close adviser. “It would be a huge help for me to have him as a counselor,” he said. “No one knows the country like he does.”