Only last week, I discussed the rather dramatic events surrounding the presidential election campaign in Colombia. Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the candidate of former president Álvaro Uribe’s new Centro Democrático party, was implicated in a scandal, which saw one of his advisors, Andres Fernando Sepulveda, arrested on a charge of intercepting the emails of President Juan Manual Santos. Santos was Zuluaga’s main competitor in this election, and was in the midst of conducting peace talks with the FARC guerrilla group in Havana, talks that Uribe and Zualaga vehemently opposes. The scandal saw the resignation of Zuluaga’s campaign manager, Luis Alfonso Hoyos and last Sunday, despite Zuluaga’s protestations that he was unaware of Sepulveda’s activity, news magazine Semana published a video apparently showing Zuluaga discussing the illegal interceptions with Sepulveda.
However, the scandal did not unduly damage Zuluaga’s frontrunner status. Zuluaga finished first with 29.3 per cent of the vote, while Santos of the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional finished second with 25.7 per cent. Martha Lucía Ramírez, the candidate of the traditional Partido Conservador Colombiano, and Uribe’s former defense minister, finished third with 15.5 per cent, while Clara López, of the left-leaning Polo Democrático Alternativo, came fourth with 15.2 per cent. Enrique Peñalosa, the candidate of Colombia’s green party, the Partido Verde Colombiano, finished last with 8.3 per cent of the vote. This means that the outcome will be decided in a second round run-off on June 15th.
This run-off will largely act as a plebiscite on the peace talks Santos is conducting with the FARC. In fact, the policies of Zuluaga and Santos differ little except for their stance on this peace process. Zuluaga and Uribe have been intensely critical of Santos’ initiative, and have accused the president of treason. The peace talks have been reasonably successful and agreement has been reached on three of the five issues on the agenda: agricultural reform, FARC political participation and most recently, drug production and trafficking, with only victim reparations and transitional justice to be agreed upon.
However, the legitimacy of this election has been somewhat undermined by a very low turnout. The abstention rate in Sunday’s election was 59.93 per cent, garnering sharp criticism from the Organization of American States (OAS), which suggested that the poor turnout was partly driven by the aggressively negative nature of the campaign. To put this into perspective, only 40 per cent of Colombia’s 33 registered voters took part in this election, meaning only 11.4 per cent of all voters actually supported Zuluaga.
If abstention proves to be an issue for the run-off in June, this could deprive the eventual victor of a democratic mandate. In the meantime, it makes it even more difficult to identify the potential winner of this race.