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Give peace a chance: Colombians head to the polls

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Colombia’s election on Sunday will determine how and whether the peace process with the FARC moves forward.

Colombians will head to the polls again on Sunday to choose their next president for the 2014 to 2018 term. In first round voting on May 25, none of the five major candidates managed to capture the required 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Now on Sunday, incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos of the Social Party of National Unity (who won 25.69 percent in the first round) will face ÓscarIvánZuluaga of the center-right Democratic Center (who won 29.25 percent in the first round).

Different polls show mixed results ahead of Sunday’s election: two polls referenced by Colombian daily El Tiempoin the last few days, show either candidate winning by a margin of over 5 points. However, all polls show that around 25 percent of voters remain undecided, meaning that Sunday’s race could belong to either candidate.

Whether voters choose Santos or Zuluaga should have little bearing on the performance of Latin America’s third-largest economy. Televised debates ahead of the election show the candidates differ little in terms of economic policy. Both have expressed a commitment to fiscal orthodoxy, free trade, and the measured economic management that has made the Colombian economy an increasing target of investor interest in recent years. Relations with the United States will remain warm either way, and the country will certainly continue membership in free trade blocs such as the Pacific Alliance (with Chile, Mexico, and Peru).

The issue that divides the two is the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which have been ongoing in Havana, Cuba since November 2012. Santos has promoted the talks as a way to bring peace to the country’s 50-year insurgency which has cost thousands of lives and internally displaced millions. But Zuluaga and his mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe, have criticized Santos for being soft on guerrillas, saying peace will equal impunity for the insurgents. Zuluaga claims the peace process threatens the security of the country, a fact which rings true with many ordinary Colombians who highlight security as a major issue in this election.  For example, a recent poll of members of the Chamber of Commerce of Bogota showed that 47 percent of respondents say they or a member of their family have been victims of a crime; for the sake of comparison, that number was only 20 percent in 2011- the first year of Santos’ term.

Just six months ago it seemed Santos would be a shoo-in for reelection. But Santos performed poorly as a candidate, and his presidency has not been an overwhelming success. The five sectors he proposed as “engines of economic growth” for the country as a candidate: housing, mining, agriculture, infrastructure, and innovation, have shown mixed results. In particular, there were notable stalls in infrastructure and innovation. In agriculture, farmers and miners have held several national strikes in protest of topics such as poor infrastructure or erosion of benefits due to a free trade agreement with the United States. The peace talks in Havana have moved slowly, and have produced few concrete results.As a result, despite having four years of the presidency under his belt, Santos has little to show.

Zuluaga meanwhile was able to capitalize on this weakness, and Colombians’ uncertainty about the peace process with the backing or Uribe, who has been a fierce critic of Santos. Although Zuluaga’s campaign has been beset by a number of scandals –including one where he was accused of hacking into military intelligence and the communications of FARC peacemakers in Havana – he managed to win first place in the first round of voting. He has changed his stance on the peace talks since the May election, saying he no longer opposes them outright, but would demand certain preconditions such as a ceasefire, and prison time for insurgents. However, many analysts say this could cause them to break down.

When Colombians go to the polls on Sunday they will choose their future. The question will be if they want an imperfect peace under the more moderate but perhaps feeble hand of Santos, or a more uncertain but satisfying peace under the strong hand of Zuluaga. 

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