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Colombia election final stretch

There are still six days until Colombians select their next president, but this past Sunday was the day of important rolling up the sleeves.

Last modified: 25 May 2010 04:41
Photo from AFP

 There are still six days until Colombians select their next president, but this past Sunday was the day of important rolling up the sleeves and spelling out ‘closing arguments’ face-to-face with voters for all the candidates. Unlike the United States, for example, in Colombia there is a moratorium on formal campaign activities the week before the election.

So Sunday was a crucial milestone for the candidates to make their final appeals to their supports, and undecided voters. It’s now also a good time to briefly assess how each candidate framed their closing pitch.

Photo: Antanas Mockus courtesy Mockus campaign

Antanas Mockus, without question the flavor of the moment in Colombia, has been surging in the polls in recent weeks in jaw-dropping fashion. His message of better education and common sense talk has resonated in Colombia like no other, and he is now making a strong push to win the election on the first round of voting (if no candidate gets 50% of the vote, it goes to a runoff June 20). My colleague, Teresa Bo has been in Colombia a lot lately covering the election and previously blogged about Mockus' rise. Mockus held his final campaign rally in a rainstorm in central Bogota’s Plaza de Bolivar in front of an estimated 10,000 supporters (his campaign claims it was 20,000). Wearing a green sweatshirt, a trademark of his Green Party, Mockus hit all the same notes that have helped his campaign catch fire. The former mayor of Bogota and university professor told his supporters: "No more fear." "This stage of Colombia’s history will be written with a pencil, and not with blood,” he said in reference to his policies to improve Colombia’s education system and move on from Colombia's bloody past. He held up a sunflower, which has been the symbol of his campaign. Mockus’ chances depend largely on a huge youth, first-time voter turnout. He has over 680,000 supporters on his Facebook page (683,667 as I type now) - well more than double of all the other candidates combined. All over Bogota you see mostly young people wearing green t-shirts with Mockus face on the front and green wrist bands as a sign of their allegiance to him. It is similar in so many ways to the youth-driven movement Barack Obama created in 2008.


Photo: Juan Manuel Santos courtesy of Santos campaign

Juan Manuel Santos, from President Alvaro Uribe’s La U party, has been trying his best to stave off the charge from Mockus' urban youth brigade. Santos has been running as the security candidate, which was an obvious given he was Uribe’s defense minister under a period which saw Colombia’s military wage a high profile and highly successful war against the Farc guerillas. The security situation in Bogota especially is better, most everyone agrees about that. Everywhere he goes, Santos’ message has been razor sharp: I am the candidate to keep Colombia safe. I am the proven, tough one. But in recent weeks Santos messaging has shifted to jobs, jobs and more jobs. At his closing rally, held in a convention hall in the coastal resort city of Cartagena, Santos relentlessly hit the employment theme (polling shows most Colombians are concerned primarily about this issue). Santos blared to his supporters, “My biggest commitment: That (my government) will work for Colombia to work.” He promised to create 2.5 million jobs and reduce unemployment to single digits by 2014. And the words "Jobs, jobs, jobs..." now are the banner headline on his web site. Santos is the institutional candidate who has almost everything in his favor: He has the security issue voters locked up. He is from the party of a still largely popular president. And his family even runs Colombia’s largest and most influential media empire. The close of the campaign was a deliberate effort to poke working class voters between the eyes with his vision on the issue that means the most to them.

Noemi Sanin, in baseball cap. Courtesy Sanin campaign.

Noemi Sanin, by far the most conservative candidate, has been polling in third place behind Mockus and Santos but quickly faded in recent weeks as Mockus has surged. She has been fighting an image problem, perceived by many as elite out of touch with the working class. It’s a reputation she has been harnessed with that comes with being the Colombian ambassador to England, Venezuela and Spain, all jobs which Sanin has held and that are reserved for only the most elite in Colombian society.  Sanin has tried to present working class credentials and position herself as the candidate of families and women. “The hour of the woman has arrived in Colombia,” she often heralded in her stump speech.  She spent her last day campaigning in a heavily populated Bogota suburb hitting hard on her main talking points, saying she is fighting for “my people, for the displaced, the mothers who are the head of the household, the kids, and those who want a house without a down payment.”

Three senators are bringing up the rear of the campaign, all of which are legitimate candidates but all of whom are polling in single digits. Gustavo Petro, the most leftist politically of all the candidates, finished his campaign in Cali with the oddly timed revelation to his supporters that there is a plot by Farc guerillas to kill him. (Doesn’t seem like an upbeat note to end a campaign on.) Senator Rafael Pardo, who is a trained economist and university professor, spent Sunday running around Bogota hitting his theme of equity and equality. “A just country,” has been Pardo’s one-liner throughout. Lawyer and Senator German Vargas Lleras finished his campaign in Medellin again telling his supporters his priority as president would be to counter corruption and build a transparent government.

But with just under six days to go until Colombians go to the polls, the accepted outlook here in Colombia by those in-the-know is the race has come down to Mockus and his urban/youth ‘change’ movement against Santos and his institutional party machinery, name recognition, and security credentials. Sanin could possibly play a ‘spoiler’ role, taking enough votes away from Santos and/or Mockus to throw the election to a second round.

Mockus’ people worry about a second round, because it could mean an alliance would form between Sanin and Santos camps that could thwart the Mockus surge. Or, Sanin could form a partnership with Mockus? Either way, the Mockus people badly want this thing over in the first round of voting while their campaign is peaking. 

But this is all hypothetical.

The actuality will take place Sunday when Colombians cast their vote.