Former president Álvaro Uribe (left) and Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who came in first in Sunday's election, but not enough to take the presidency in the first round voting.
Former president Álvaro Uribe (left) and Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who came in first in Sunday’s election, but not enough to take the presidency in the first round voting.

TODAY COLOMBIA – Until recently, he was little known. And the Centro Democratico political party didn’t even exist. Now, he’s on the verge of becoming Colombia’s next president.

Last year, ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe created the Centro Democratico party from scratch to be his vehicle for returning to power, or at least to influence. At the party’s recent inaugural convention, Uribe pulled strings to get his former minister of finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga nominated as the party’s presidential candidate over the better known, more popular and more charismatic Francisco Santos, who’d been Uribe’s vice president.a

Then Zuluaga became embroiled in a spying scandal in which he appeared to lie shamelessly to his country.

Out of this formula for disaster, Uribe has produced the leading candidate to be Colombia’s president for the next four years.

Uribe himself withstood enough scandals to sink a hundred politicians. There were his alleged links to right-wing paramilitary groups, which he continues fighting in court. There was the Falsos Positivos tragedy, in which military units murdered thousands of young men and disguised them as guerrillas in order to earn bonuses and time off. And there was the DAS spying scandal, which many observers compared to Watergate.

But none of those things dented Uribe’s popularity. He had, after all, earned Colombians’ gratitude by beating back the guerrillas which had kept the nation under siege.

By the same token, Zuluaga’s own ongoing scandal, in which he met with a since-imprisoned computer hacker in an apparent attempt to sabotage rival campaigns, spy on the military and interfere with the peace negotiations going on in Havana, doesn’t seem to have cost him support, either.

“Voters see this as a battle between Santos and Uribe, not Santos and Zuluaga,” pollster Javier Restrepo told the Washington Post.

That makes this election a real testament to the continued popularity of Uribe, who himself was just elected senator.

I happened to be in a corner grocery store when the results came in on their television.

“We’re a nation of masochists,” the storekeeper said.

But a Zuluaga voter who owns a small fish restaurant expressed confidence that the scandal wouldn’t hurt the candidate. Rather, the restauranter yearned for a repeat of the Uribe presidency.

“We’ve got to hit those guerrillas hard,” he told me.

But could Zuluaga conceivably militarily defeat the guerrillas, who have withstood the government for a half-century?

And Santos, who was Uribe’s minister of defense, has arguably hit the guerrillas very hard, killing several of their leaders. Paradoxically, however, he doesn’t seem to have gotten much public credit for that.

Santos is also carrying out peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, which have advanced further than any previous peace talks. Under a Zuluaga presidency, those talks would likely founder.

But Zuluaga’s victory is far from sewn up.

The almost half of voters who supported one of the minor candidates will now have to choose between Santos and Zuluaga.

Most of Conservative Party candidate Maria Lucia Ramirez’s 15% support will likely go to Zuluaga, while the 15% of voters who backed the Polo Democratic/Union Patriotica candidate Clara Lopez will shift to Santos – if they vote at all. Key could be whether ex-Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa endorses an ex-rival, as well as whether leftist leaders actually urge their voters to back Santos (or, more accurately, to oppose Zuluaga).

Article by Mike’s Bogota Blog

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