It was one of Colombia’s most hard-fought presidential campaigns in recent history, and a race in which voters were essentially choosing between continuing or seeking an end to an armed conflict with leftist guerrillas that has dragged on for five decades.
On Sunday, the heated election ended with incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos grabbing nearly 51 percent of a runoff vote, giving him a 6-point advantage over his rightwing challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.
The contest was seen as a referendum on the Santos government’s push to seek peace with the rebel army known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in negotiations that are currently underway in Cuba.
Zuluaga wanted to continue the armed-engagement approach initiated by former president Alvaro Uribe — a process that Santos had inherited with his 2010 election win and, as Uribe’s former minister of defence, had pledged to continue. But Santos broke with his predecessor soon after his inauguration. While military operations against the FARC continued, Santos began exploratory talks with the diminished insurgency in order to finally end the conflict.
Uribe declared this move a betrayal and has agitated against Santos ever since. He threw his support in the presidential election behind Zuluaga, who promised voters that he’d end the peace process immediately if he won. The tight nature of the campaign signaled Colombians’ general unease with the prospects for peace; Zuluaga won the first round of voting on May 25, shocking Santos by 3.56 percentage points.
A Santos campaign source told VICE News his defeat in the first-round — Santos didn’t even come in second place in several cities, including the capital of Bogota — led to a major campaign shift aimed at winning over liberals in urban areas and rallying support on the Atlantic coast.
In Atlantic coastal areas, the Santos campaign pumped its local operatives with cash for a get-out-the-vote drive that reversed the president’s fortunes from the first round.
Tough times ahead
Hard work lies ahead for the president. Political divisions in Colombia worsened during the campaign, reaching a level of polarization rarely seen in the country.
“It’s possible that many wounds that remain in certain sectors of the country will be difficult to heal,” political analyst Mauricio Reina told VICE News.
The peace process with the FARC, which launched in October 2012 in Havana, will make or break Santos’s second term. His administration also recently engaged in preliminary discussions with the country’s other major guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army.
If these are both successful at forging a lasting peace, Colombia will have finally ended a conflict that claimed some 218,000 lives between 1958 and 2012, according to Colombia’s Center of Historical Memory, making it one of the longest and deadliest wars in Latin American history. The United States has partially financed efforts to fight the war with a $7.5 billion aid package called Plan Colombia.
Some Colombians regard any sort of negotiation with the FARC and other rebel forces as anathema, viewing such talks as an affront to the conflict’s many victims. Some 25,000 people remain “forcibly disappeared” because of Colombia’s civil war.
“This will not be a peace with impunity,” Santos said after declaring victory on Sunday, acknowledging the distrust within some sectors of the public. “This will be a just peace.”
Uribe, the former president, is expected to lead opposition against Santos after winning a seat in Colombia’s Senate — ensuring choppy political waters in Santos’s second term.