There were no surprises in yesterday’s electoral results. Álvaro Uribe’s 62.2 percent majority was higher than any U.S. president has won in the past 200 years, but it was right in the middle of what the last few polls of Colombian opinion had been predicting (they ranged from 57 percent to 67 percent). Any speculation that Uribe would be hit by low turnout and forced into a second round of voting was done away with very quickly.
The only interesting twist was the performance of leftist candidate Carlos Gaviria, who tripled his standing in the polls since March, ran a brilliant campaign, and ended up in second place with 22 percent of the vote. Colombia’s long-standing two-party system, which has pitted Liberals against Conservatives (at the ballot box and on the battlefield) for over 150 years, is nearly dead: Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa finished a distant third, and the Conservatives backed Uribe and ran no candidate.
So now Colombia looks forward to four years with an even stronger Uribe government. The president has a huge mandate for his policies and a congressional majority in the vicinity of 70 percent.
But that doesn’t mean Uribe’s second term will be easier than his first. To the contrary: between now and 2010, Colombians will discover whether their president has set the country on a permanent course toward security and development, or whether he has merely swept some of its worst problems under the rug for a little while, only to see them re-emerge – perhaps during the president’s second term.
Many of Uribe’s most serious challenges could be results of his own first-term policies. Like many second-term presidents worldwide, Uribe could find himself reaping a harvest of trouble from the very seeds that he planted (or failed to plant). Here are some examples.
Security: Improvements in security are the principal reason why Uribe was re-elected. Now we will find out whether they can be sustained. The FARC is far from defeated, and in fact has seen little disruption to its leadership, its structure of fronts and blocs, or its income stream. Analysts like Alfredo Rangel of the Security and Democracy Foundation predict that the guerrillas’ current strategy seeks to draw the Colombian military into more remote areas [PDF format]. They are doing so with attacks on bases and populations in sparsely populated zones beyond the reach of Uribe’s security policies. Sending more troops to those zones, Rangel says, will leave towns and main roads less protected, opening them up to a renewal of FARC bombings, attacks and kidnappings.
In areas considered “re-taken” from the FARC, meanwhile, Uribe’s strategy has been incomplete. While military and police presence has been beefed up in zones like Cundinamarca, eastern Antioquia, or parts of the “Plan Patriota” zone, investment in civilian government presence has been scarce. The troops will eventually have to be drawn down or sent elsewhere; when that happens, the failure to consolidate a real government presence could negate all of the Uribe strategy’s gains. The president must complete his partial approach by devoting far more resources to civilian governance in territories being wrested from guerrilla control.
Paramilitaries: The aftermath of Uribe’s demobilization of paramilitary groups could be the re-elected president’s true Achilles’ heel. The negotiations were the easy part. Now Uribe’s government must ensure that paramilitary organizations are really being dismantled. It must act if “former” paramilitary leaders are found to be ordering killings or sending drugs overseas. If they are sending drugs overseas, it must respond to U.S. extradition requests or risk a souring of relations with Washington. It must work assiduously to reduce the “demobilized” organizations’ grip on political and economic power in many parts of the country. In areas where the paramilitary rank-and-file has truly demobilized, it must provide security to prevent a guerrilla re-entry. It must help the paramilitaries’ many victims to achieve reparations, especially the return of millions of acres of stolen land. And it must have a well-financed, well-planned program to re-integrate former fighters into civilian life – and not merely as a parallel army of coca-eradicators, “unarmed” police auxiliaries, informants and private security guards.
Drugs: Uribe’s U.S.-supported “spray and spray” strategy has been an utter failure. There is just as much coca being grown in Colombia today as there was when the president’s term began in 2002. This means that a large cohort of narco-criminals continues to enjoy great wealth and power, and that armed groups (probably including “former” paramilitaries) continue to see little reduction in their ability to buy weapons and pay recruits. A dramatic change in strategy, with less fumigation and more basic civilian governance to make a legal economy possible in neglected rural areas, is badly needed – and not foreseen in Uribe’s campaign promises.
Scandals within the security forces: In April, Colombia was shaken – but Uribe’s approval ratings unaffected – by revelations that the chief of the presidency’s security and intelligence service (the DAS) may have been doing favors for paramilitaries and narcos, while drawing up lists of activists to be murdered. A military patrol last week massacred a ten-man elite police counter-drug unit, raising strong suspicions of foul play. In February, charges of widespread torture of recruits forced the Army chief’s resignation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ last report documented an increase in complaints of troops dressing murdered civilians in camouflage uniforms and passing them off as guerrillas killed in combat.
Investigations into scandals in the security forces will occupy a lot of space in Colombia’s newspapers during Uribe’s next term. However, the rapidity of these revelations – all of them emerging within the past few months – leads one to wonder whether more is on the way. By demanding ever-increasing results from the security forces and showing a reluctance to investigate or prosecute wrongdoing, Uribe may be creating an environment that incubates politically damaging scandals, which could proliferate in his second term.
Impunity: A key reason why security indicators have improved is that Uribe has deployed soldiers and police throughout populated areas. As a result, citizens have been more protected, and – so far at least – they have only occasionally complained of being victims of abuse or corruption at the hands of soldiers and police. However, the Uribe government has been notably reluctant to pursue claims of human rights abuses committed by members of the security forces. If such behavior goes unpunished when it occurs, there is a danger that Colombians could experience negative changes in their relationship with the soldiers and police charged with protecting them. Security forces who benefit from impunity can easily shift from being protectors to being a burden on the population. Uribe’s government must avoid this outcome by ensuring that charges of military abuse of civilians are investigated and punished.
Poverty: Elsewhere in Latin America, where security is less prominently on voters’ minds, economic concerns have catapulted leftist presidents into office. In particular, citizens have voiced frustration that some of the strongest economic growth in thirty years has failed to affect poverty rates significantly: under the so-called “neoliberal” economic model, new wealth is not trickling down. (See this recent article on the subject in The Economist.) Colombia is not immune to this high-growth / low-distribution phenomenon, but voters’ preoccupation with security has eclipsed economic concerns. If it persists, however, Colombia’s over-fifty-percent (perhaps over sixty percent) poverty rate could benefit the left in the 2010 presidential elections.
These are some very daunting challenges, and Uribe’s second term could easily run aground on any one of them. The re-elected president must be prepared to change course when the policies that made him popular during his first term begin to drag down his second term.