Colombian voters will elect a new President this month; the controversial reign of Álvaro Uribe will come to an end.
The first round of voting took place at the end of May and the two remaining candidates will learn their fate as voters once again take to the urns. In one corner is the close Uribe ally and ex-Minister of Defence Juan Manuel Santos. In the rival corner is the surprise phenomenon, the ex-Mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus.
Whilst on the surface the campaign revolves around a choice between continuity or change, and whilst there are indeed certain key differences between the candidates, on many of the key issues they both promise much of the same.
On the campaign for continuity is Juan Manuel Santos, a member of the elite Santos family; the family controls the country’s principal broadsheet, El Tiempo, and his cousin, Francisco Santos, is the current vice-President. His period as Minister of Defence was extremely controversial. The bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuador in 2008 broke international law and killed numerous civilians as well as the guerrilla commander Raul Reyes. Indeed the Ecuadorian judicial system has recently taken out a warrant for his arrest. He has faced also continued condemnation from international human rights organisations for his presiding over the Colombian military’s systematic campaign of murdering innocent civilians and dressing them up as guerrilla fighters. Recent reports have suggested the number of murders committed by the military, in what is known as the 'false-positive' scandal, exceeds 2,000. Judicial investigations are ongoing although until now impunity has reigned.
His campaign has promised a continuation of the militaristic policy of Álvaro Uribe, also known as the policy of 'Democratic Security', unshakeable support for foreign investment, and a continuation of the close military relationship with United States.
In the other camp, the campaign has seen the meteoric rise of the ex-mayor of Bogotá and Green Party candidate, Antanas Mockus. The somewhat eccentric part-Maths professor, part-philosopher, who promises a focus on legality, is seen as many voters and commentators as the choice for change. There are undoubtedly some significant differences. Firstly, Mockus, unlike Santos and the current President, does not face repeated accusations of close relationships with paramilitary groups.
Their attitudes to the justice system, perhaps not unconnected, also seems to distinguish them. After the Supreme Court recently condemned the ex-Coronel Alfonso Plazas Vega to 30 years behind bars for his role in the disappearence of 11 people in the infamous storming of the Palace of Justice in 1985, the two candidates reacted in very different ways. Whilst Santos criticised the decision and questioned the viability of civil authorities investigating military personnel, Mockus gave his full backing to the decision and defended the role played by the judicial branch. In a country where impunity for state crimes is alarmingly high, this is no moot point.
However, the truth is that Mockus has compromised himself to continue with much of Uribe’s programme; significantly in his security and economic policies. Perhaps most notable is his unequivocal commitment to the much criticised Democratic Security policy – a policy that has led to the militarisation of the country and an intense harrasment of civil, community, and human rights organizations. He also maintains a similar dedication to foreign investment which, when centred around projects such as the cultivation of African Palm or the excavation of natural resources, has often led to massive displacement in the countryside and has offered few benefits to the small-scale Colombian farmer. Indeed, on the question of unequal land distribution, widely accepted as a root cause of the Colombian conflict, very little has been offered. The more reactionary forces in Mockus' Green Party have recently blocked a possible deal with the leftist coalition, the Democratic Pole, which may have forced the land issue onto the agenda.
Whilst Mockus may not inspire the confidence to suggest that his presidency will change the social conditions needed to impact significantly the state of the Colombian conflict, his candidacy has inspired a huge amount of support. Many have seen him as an opportunity for change after two successive Uribe governments. However, if the results of the first round and the recent success of the Santos campaign to gain the backing of the other conservative parties are anything to go by, it appears unlikely that the result will render any change at all.