Colombia’s 2014 presidential elections marked a watershed in the country’s politics.  This was not because incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos won by nearly six percentage points after having narrowly lost the first round to Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a hardliner backed by Santos’s political nemesis, the former president Álvaro Uribe. 

Rather, the campaign offered—as never before—starkly opposing visions of how to end Colombia’s 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC):  through direct peace negotiations with the FARC on a tightly-constructed agenda, or exclusively through military action aimed at the FARC’s defeat or surrender. 

Understanding how the elections became a referendum on the peace process—and on uribismo itself—requires looking less at the candidates themselves than at the alliance, and then bitter parting, of Santos and Uribe.

Santos and Zuluaga had served together in Uribe’s cabinet, Santos as defense minister and Zuluaga as finance minister.  Both had similar attitudes toward Colombia’s economic opening and management, which has led to record levels of foreign direct investment and growth rates well above the Latin American average. 

As Uribe’s defense minister, Santos had presided over the most important military blows against the FARC in Colombia’s history.  He ran for president in 2010 with Uribe’s blessing, winning by a landslide and expected to continue on the path laid out in the Uribe administration’s “Democratic Security Policy”—a long-term strategy to regain control of the country through an increase in the number of troops and police units fighting the guerrilla insurgency.  His change of course—dispatching his brother secretly to meet with the FARC to assess their interest in peace talks—and the subsequent launch of talks in August 2012 ignited a verbal and political war between Santos and Uribe that continues to this day. 

Zuluaga garnered international accolades during his years as finance minister, but was largely unknown in Colombia when he became the candidate of Uribe’s Centro Democrático (Democratic Center) party following a raucous and divisive party convention last year.  In January 2014, scarcely four months before his first-round victory, Zuluaga was favored by a scant 8 percent of the country’s voters.

The split over security strategy is so deep that Uribe, Zuluaga, and their supporters do not recognize the existence of an internal armed conflict in Colombia.  They define the threat to Colombia as originating in the actions of terrorists and drug traffickers, abetted by radical leftist regimes in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.  The distinction has led to opposing remedies.  Uribe insisted, as did Zuluaga during most of the campaign, that the only appropriate subject for peace talks should be the FARC’s unconditional surrender, not to mention an end to attacks on Colombia’s civilian population.

Uribe’s opposition to the negotiations was so implacable that he went so far as to leak the military coordinates of FARC commanders about to be airlifted out of Colombia to join the talks in Havana in May 2013, possibly endangering the lives of those involved in the operation and the peace process itself. His access to this information was presumed to reflect the deep unpopularity of the peace negotiations within parts of the armed forces. 

Santos, meanwhile, believed the increased military weakness of the FARC created the kind of ripe conditions for talks that had been absent in the past.  Moreover, when he took office, the FARC was still estimated to have upwards of 7,000 fighters--down from approximately 30,000 only a decade earlier.  Although they had been driven out of all major urban areas into remote border zones, they were still able to attack infrastructure and bleed lightly-defended police and army outposts in a classic war of attrition.  With hundreds of millions of dollars in income annually from the drug trade as well as illegal mining (by conservative estimates), the FARC retained a significant capacity to wreak havoc on the country far into the future. 

Colombia’s resurgence—economically and socially—depended on ending the insurgency, one of the longest-running in the world.

Whatever the validity of these competing narratives, they remained peripheral to the central concerns of Colombian citizens.  A poll taken by the Colombian research and consulting company Cifras y Conceptos in January 2014, two months after the campaign officially began, showed that 60 percent of respondents ranked unemployment, access to quality health care and education, and corruption as the principal problems facing Colombia’s next president. 

Only 12 percent identified the guerrillas or the need to reach a peace accord as the most critical issue.  A Gallup poll taken two months later showed an even wider gap, with common crime displacing the guerrillas as the fifth-ranked concern. 

Moreover, a nationwide poll on the peace process conducted last year by Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes and Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project showed majority support for the peace process but also a majority skeptical that it would be successful.  Notably, the poll showed widespread opposition to the FARC’s participation in politics at any level—local or national—as well as huge majorities against allowing FARC members to avoid prison terms even if they confessed their crimes. 

One of the most poignant conclusions of the study was that people actually living in conflict zones were more supportive of the peace process overall, and had a greater openness to pardon and reconciliation with demobilized FARC fighters.   

As the presidential campaign came to a heated close, Santos stepped up his defense of the peace process, casting the June 15 vote as a referendum on “an end to the war or war without end.”  He announced that “exploratory conversations” had begun in January with the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), driving home the message that important momentum in the peace talks could be lost were he not re-elected. Zuluaga also sharpened his attack on a “peace with impunity.”  But to pick up the endorsement of the first-round’s third-place winner, former defense minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, he was forced to back away from a vow to end the peace talks if elected. 

Santos won by convincing Colombians to vote their hopes and not their fears.  With the endorsement of the leftist Polo Democrático’s candidate, Clara López, his campaign racked up votes in the capital, emerging victorious in Bogotá and dramatically increasing voter turnout in Santos’s strongholds on the Caribbean coast. But if the campaign is any guide, Santos will have to acknowledge the deep skepticism of the peace process, the visceral rejection of impunity for the FARC, especially in the country’s urban core, and the fact that governing means doing what the majority of Colombians want:  expanding employment, improving public services, and making the country safer, not just from guerrilla threats.  

 Americas Quarterly, Summer 2014, Volume 8/No. 3

Dr. Cynthia J. Arnson is director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.