Juan Manuel Santos seems poised to become Colombia’s next president. A number of opinion polls last week confirmed that he is the most popular candidate out there, and given President Uribe’s absence from the presidential race, Mr. Santos has received the people’s favor. Despite his lack of electoral experience (he has never been elected by the people for any position in government), Mr. Santos’ lead in the race looks very solid, and if there are no surprises along the way, he will have few things to worry about. Right now, Juan Manuel Santos is President in waiting.
There are a number of elements that will account for Mr. Santos’ easy victory, which I will discuss in the following paragraphs. One wonders how a candidate whose bid for the presidency started only a month ago, who spent a good portion of last year outside of Colombia, and who has no previous experience with political campaigns, has the lead in the most important election in the country. The answer lies in three important factors.
First, there is no other candidate who can honestly compete against Mr. Santos’ for the title of keeper of President Uribe’s legacy. There are no Andres Felipe Ariases in this race, and with Uribito (little Uribe, the nickname for the former Minister of Agriculture) out of the race, it is safe to assume that Mr. Santos has the blessing of President Uribe. Even if there are other candidates who sincerely want to preserve the work and the philosophy of the Alvaro Uribe government (namely Noemi Sanin and German Vargas Lleras), Mr. Santos remains the only true uribista on the ballot in the eyes of the electorate. That already gives him a huge advantage over the other candidates, whose burden is now to prove to the voters that they have enough uribista credentials, while those of Mr. Santos have never been put in doubt.
The second factor that explains Mr. Santos’ lead is a combination of two events that occurred within two weeks of each other: the Constitutional Court’s denial against the referendum for Mr. Uribe’s reelection, and the sweeping victory that the pro-government Partido de la U had in the Congressional election. The first of those events left hordes of uribistas disappointed and bitter. Many people had already taken a third Uribe candidacy for granted, and after the Court blocked the referendum, they started to look desperately for a new candidate to support. They were like victims of a shipwreck anxiously swimming to the nearest island, where Mr. Santos was patiently waiting, ready to allay their fears. Partido de la U getting 28 seats in the Senate on March 14 was the last confirmation that many uribista voters needed in order to support Mr. Santos, the party leader. To put it bluntly, the political defeat of Alvaro Uribe, forever banished from presidential politics by the Constitutional Court, represented a sweet moment for Mr. Santos, who saw the crown of uribismo fall automatically on his head.
The third factor behind Mr. Santos’ great electoral performance so far is his own reputation as a tough, experienced decision-maker. As he likes to repeat (and, as they say, it is not bragging if it is true), the Armed Forces had their greatest victories against FARC under his tenure. Few Colombians forget the overwhelming feeling of power and hope that came after operations Fenix and Jaque, which resulted in the death of Raul Reyes and the liberation of a dozen high profile FARC-held hostages. For a nation that had been in retreat for too long, hiding in fear of terrorism and death, and with so much pessimism having taken hold of the population for many years, Juan Manuel Santos represents a period of assertiveness and victory against terrorism. After President Uribe, Mr. Santos is perhaps the person most closely identified with the government’s policy of Democratic Security. And that gives him enough political capital to be the frontrunner in the presidential campaign.
So how confident should Mr. Santos be? The last opinion poll gives him a solid 36% of votes, followed by Noemi Sanin, who has a relatively weak 17%. Antanas Mockus and German Vargas are next in line with 9% and 8%, respectively. As of now, Mr. Santos’ passage to the runoff election is absolutely certain, a vote that he apparently would also be able to win (against Ms. Sanin, Mr. Santos would get 44% of the votes, while she would have 30%; a similar thing would occur in a Santos vs. Mockus, or Santos vs. Vargas scenarios). With about a 20% advantage against his nearest competitor, I bet Mr. Santos has been sleeping like a baby, free from campaign stress, and that he already sees himself as the 40th President of Colombia.
But politics is the realm of the unexpected, and it is a well-known fact that Murphy’s Law applies with greater rigor to politicians than to the rest of the human species. Mr. Santos cannot rest on his laurels, and although two months (what separates us from the election) seems like a very short time for drastic changes in electoral opinion, he had better keep his guard up. This election has already seen some big surprises (think of Sergio Fajardo’s descent into irrelevance and of Antanas Mockus’ newfound political stardom), and when you are in first place, the only other way you can go is down. Of course, I am not predicting Mr. Santos’ defeat, as all the odds point to the other direction. I am simply reminding Mr. Santos that he should watch his back, as the candidates running behind him will not let him take the presidency without a good fight.