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Tight race ahead of Colombia polls

In a close race, it remains unclear how recent scandals and legacies of violence affects voters ahead of Sunday’s poll.
Last modified: 20 May 2014 21:24
Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is a confidante of former hardline president Alvaro Uribe [AP]

It’s been one of the nastier election campaigns in recent memory. Ahead of Sunday’s tight race, a leaked video purportedly showing a hacker offering presidential hopeful Oscar Ivan Zuluaga classified military information to aid his campaign is causing a stir across Colombia.

The shaky video, released Saturday by Semana magazine, shows Andres Sepulveda, a former Zuluaga campaign aide who was arrested May 5, claiming to have access to military data on FARC rebels obtained by Colombia’s army and US Southern Command.

“I have access to their [US] AWAC airplanes, which monitor [insurgent] communications,” Sepulveda said in the five-minute video, reportedly filmed by disgruntled campaign staff members.

Peace talks with FARC rebels have been a key campaign issue in a country where more than 215,000 people have died in political violence in recent decades.

Juan Manuel Santos, the incumbent, has accused his opponent of using criminal tactics to discredit ongoing peace negotiations in Havana.

Public distrust

Zuluaga, a confidante of former hardline president Alvaro Uribe, doesn’t believe in the negotiations, preferring a military option for Colombia’s long-running internal conflict.

In Medellin, a city where support for former president Uribe and his chosen successor runs high, many voters didn’t seem particularly surprised by the tape, but some were concerned.

“We don’t trust the political class,” said Marcela Yepes, an architect, as she shopped for groceries. “Here in Colombia, we aren’t having more social inclusion [compared to other counties in Latin America] because of corruption.”

Jose Reyes, a retired engineer, doesn’t believe that senior politicians who break the law, as many say Zuluaga has done, will necessarily be brought to justice. “The biggest problem here in Colombia is our ineffective justice system,” he said.

Gloria Elena Lotero, a pensioner enjoying an ice cream with her husband, said the tone of the campaign, and new allegations stemming from the video, are examples of larger problems. “Colombia is a rich country, but corruption won’t allow us to move forward,” she said. “Corruption and lies are stopping social inclusion.”

Enrique Penalosa, presidential candidate from the Green Alliance who significantly trails the two frontrunners, called for Zuluaga to quit the campaign and step down. “We shouldn’t even consider the possibility of electing a president who will spend his time defending himself from going to jail, where he will probably end up anyway," Penaolsa said.

The possibility of Zuluaga dropping out seems unlikely.

Two months ago, Santos looked on track to win a second term. But support from Uribe and a slick campaign have helped Zuluaga, a former senator and businessman, edge ahead of his rival, according to recent polls.

The ghost of popular and controversial two-term president looms large for Zuluaga’s campaign. Billboards advertisements showing the two men standing side-by-side stare down at motorists on highways around the country.

Security improved drastically during Uribe’s rule, but the current video scandal is reminiscent of controversies that plagued the conservative leader. Among several transgressions, his administration was implicated in the “false positives” scandal, where poor farmers were murdered by security forces and posthumously dressed in rebel uniforms.

In some respects, the current campaign can be seen as a referendum on Uribe’s legacy. “He [Uribe] did give us better security,” said Oscar Jimenez, a taxi driver in Medellin. “But he only cared about the big companies and his rich friends, he didn’t help the common people economically.”

In a close race, it remains unclear how recent scandals and legacies of violence will affect voters ahead of Sunday’s contest.