Will the real Mr Santos please speak up

UNTIL a few weeks ago, nobody seriously thought that Juan Manuel Santos would fail to win a second term in an e...

UNTIL a few weeks ago, nobody seriously thought that Juan Manuel Santos would fail to win a second term in an election on May 25th. By any reasonable standard, his has been a good government. Colombia_s economy is in decent shape, and unemployment and poverty have fallen steadily. Yet suddenly the polls suggest that Mr Santos is vulnerable. They give him 25%-35% of the vote, with the rest split among four rivals. So a run-off election (on June 15th) is likely: if his opponent is Enrique Pe__alosa of the soft-left Green Alliance, Mr Santos would lose narrowly, according to one poll.

That would have huge implications for Colombia. For the election comes as the government and the FARC guerrillas are locked in peace talks which offer the country its best-ever chance of ending an armed conflict that has dogged it since the 1960s. Peace would not only improve Colombians_ lives but add a point or more to economic growth, Mr Santos told Bello in an interview in his modest office in the Nari__o Palace in Bogot__. Lose the election, and that chance might be gone for years. Yet paradoxically, this momentous election has failed to engage the voters. The political climate is barely tepid, and turnout threatens to be low.

There are several reasons for Mr Santos_s sudden difficulties. Colombians don_t much like the idea of presidential re-election, allowed only since 2006. A patrician economist, the president is more at home in the classrooms of the London School of Economics or Harvard than the villages of Colombia. He has overpromised, offering to reform every public policy in sight. Colombians recall the failures and take the successes for granted.

Awkwardly, the president_s plan was that the peace talks, begun formally in October 2012, would be completed before the election. He took the wise decision not to declare a ceasefire during the talks_the guerrillas used past truces to rest and recruit. But the result is continuing attacks and atrocities, such as the recent murder of two off-duty police officers. Most Colombians approve of the peace talks in principle but remain sceptical that they will succeed.

Mr Santos_s biggest political problem is his predecessor, _lvaro Uribe. They were once allies: Mr Santos served as Mr Uribe_s defence minister; the support and popularity of Mr Uribe guaranteed him victory in 2010. But Mr Uribe, a pugnacious conservative, objects to the peace talks. He has unleashed a vitriolic personal campaign against Mr Santos, branding the president as a weak leader who is handing the country over to communism.

Faced with Mr Uribe_s _lies and insults_, Mr Santos says: _My policy is to ignore him_. Yet the president_s instinct to try to please everyone has led him to triangulate with the right. As his running mate, he picked Germ__n Vargas Lleras, a hardliner who until recently opposed the peace talks. Mr Santos has tried to deflect conservative ire by changing the subject, focusing his campaign on the economy and social policy.

But the biggest electoral threat to a second term lies not with _scar Iv__n Zuluaga, the candidate of Mr Uribe, whose party won only 19% in a congressional election last month, but to the president_s left. Mr Pe__alosa, like Mr Santos, is an uncharismatic technocrat. He was a transformative mayor of Bogot__ who can exploit Colombians_ discontent with the status quo and the lack of an economic feel-good factor.

Mr Pe__alosa says he would continue the peace talks, keeping the same negotiating team. But a change in command at this late stage of the talks would be hazardous. Although only two of the five points on the agenda have been agreed, that is the tip of an iceberg of understanding, expressed in more than 50 pages of detailed blueprints for implementing peace on the ground. Mr Santos says he hopes for a final accord by December.

The president_s reluctance to campaign as a peacemaker is understandable_he would risk rendering himself hostage to a FARC attack_but looks mistaken. The FARC, whose ageing leaders know they have suffered strategic military defeat, have as big a stake as the president in peace.

An adviser to Mr Santos insists his campaign_s own polling suggests a clear victory. Backed by the media and powerful machine politicians, it would be remarkable if he lost. But the president seems subdued and cautious; his campaign, with half a dozen different advisers, smacks of indecision. If he is to win a clear mandate, Mr Santos needs to face down Mr Uribe, assert his own agenda and tell Colombians that the peace process offers a historic opportunity to transform the country for the better.

The Economist

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