2014 Colombian Presidential Elections: Cliffhanger for Peace?

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Author: Allison Lopez

Santos y ZuluagaCREDIT: Carlos Ortega / EL TIEMPOIn most democratic countries, elections, presidential elections in particular, are usually of great importance. After all, a country is deciding its fate for the next four years or so. However, based on the low voter turnout, it seems that most Colombians feel this year’s elections are as pointless as carrying water to the sea. An astonishing 60% of Colombia’s 33 million eligible voters did not exercise their constitutional rights during the first round of presidential elections that took place on May 25. The low turnout during the first round of the presidential elections comes at the heels of a
similar showing of 63% of eligible voters abstaining or casting blank or null votes earlier this year during the March congressional elections.

What is more surprising is that this surge in voter apathy (up 15% from the 2010 presidential elections) comes amidst a crucial turning point in this Andeans country’s history: the peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC, which could potentially bring an end to Colombia’s sixty-year old armed conflict. Despite the fact that roughly two-thirds of all Colombians support a negotiated end to the armed conflict, that optimism and support has not translated to the polls. During the first round of the elections, President Santos, a proponent of the current peace process, only managed to garner 25.69% of the votes. Meanwhile, his political opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who is/was against the current peace process, fared only slightly better, managing to capture 29.25% of the vote. Some analysts note that even though Mr. Santos was successfully moving the peace negotiations forward, he did not invest enough effort in explaining the process and involving the Colombian public.

As the second round of the elections nears, both candidates have modified their campaigns in an effort to garner more votes. While President Santos has retained the same view vis-à-vis the peace talks in Havana, and indeed proposed accelerating the talks, Mr. Zuluaga’s stance regarding the peace process has taken a turn: whereas he initially rejected the peace process outright, saying that there could be no peace with impunity, he is now saying that if elected president he would continue the peace talks, albeit with some preconditions that could make it difficult to continue.

So how will these changes affect the outcome of the second round?  What we do know: it will be a nail-biter. One poll predicts that Mr. Zuluaga will be the winner of the second round, garnering 47% of the vote versus President Santos’ 45% of the vote. Meanwhile, another poll predicts that the second round will be much closer but that in the end, President Santos will be re-elected with 38% of the vote against Mr. Zuluaga’s 37%. Regardless of who the winner is, most if not all polls, point to a much higher abstention rate than in the first round and that, although the blank vote will not “officially” count, it will garner 15% of the votes –an increase of nine percentage points since the first electoral round. This second round will not only define who will be the next President of Colombia but also the fate of the country: will the armed conflict continue indefinitely or will there finally be a lasting peace?