THE END OF THE BEGINNING: Antanas Mokus and the second round of the Colombian Presidential Election

THE END OF THE BEGINNING:  Antanas Mokus and the second round of the Colombian Presidential election.

Gerard Coffey

June 15 2010

There is now just less than a week to polling day in the second round of the Colombian Presidential Election, and it appears almost certain that Juan Manuel Santos, the candidate of the ‘U’ and Alvaro Uribe’s ex Minister of Defence, will win fairly comfortably. The polls give him some 65% of the vote, compared to the 27% of his opponent, the Green Party candidate, Antanas Mokus. The polls could be wrong of course. They could even turn out to be as far off the mark as they were in the first round, when Santos won by a wide margin after the survey numbers showed that he and Mokus were in a technical dead heat. But that seems unlikely.

A vote for transition

To put it mildly, the first round was a major surprise. Red faced pollsters were left scrambling to find credible answers and salvage at least a little of their profession credibility. Others spoke of a possible fraud, after all the results came in remarkably quickly. But the gap was so great, more than three million votes between the two leading candidates,  that it would not have been fraud at all, it would have been a coup. In any case, the failure of the polls also extended beyond the principal candidates. The Conservative Party candidate and ex Colombian Ambassador in the UK, Noemi Sanín, ended up in fifth spot rather than the third place she seemed assured of.  In the end, Germán Vargas Lleras of Cambio Radical overtook her, as did Gustavo Petro the candidate for the left of centre Polo Democratico.

In retrospect the key was probably the four debates that took place in the week before the elections, when the pollsters were not allowed to publish their findings. The candidates’ performances were more varied than expected: Mokus and, to a lesser degree Sanin, undermined their campaigns, while Vargas Lleras, and Petro did rather better than predicted. There is also a certain amount of truth to the observation that for Mokus to have won, the ethical revolution he spoke so much about would have needed to have already taken place. For her part, Senator Piedad Córdoba, an active participant in negotiating the freeing of FARC hostages and a leading member of the Polo Democratico, argued that the Mokus wave was a fiction manufactured by the media and the establishment in order legitimise the election.

Córdoba also spoke of hundreds of cases of fraud, and that there was some fraud is not hard to accept. But Colombian institutions are fairly strong and not so easily manipulated. The running battles with the Supreme Court and Attorney General can be taken as proof that President Alvaro Uribe and his regime do not have it all their own way.  It is also worth remembering that Uribe once lost a referendum. Besides, widespread fraud is not an intelligent option if you are convinced that your candidate is going into to the second round, and going in with a good chance to win. And if the final round is tight, as it was in Mexico or the United States a few years ago, then the vote would certainly need to be well scrutinised.

In any case, the evident enthusiasm for Mokus on the street and the internet, and the very real sense that he stood for something new, clean, and refreshing in Colombian politics, belies Córdoba’s opinion. Her statements, and the fact that the Polo has somewhat surprisingly (a fit of pique?) called on its supporters to abstain in the second round, have as much to do with political rivalry as anything else: the Green Party candidate has stripped the Polo of its status as the main opposition force. An indication of the problem the left wing party group was the statement of Gloria Gaitán, daughter of the slain Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and a high profile member of the Party, publicly stated her support for Mokus.  It was not she said, because the Mokus campaign represented what she truly believed in, but that “a vote for you is a vote for transition, and that your government can pave the way for a true democracy in Colombia”[i]

It is possible that it was all a farce, but the most likely explication is that, besides his inability to shine in the debates, Mokus was simply out organized by the Santos-Uribe people once they realised they had a fight on their hands. And they did have a fight on their hands. According to the polls Mokus overtook Santos at one point, and the U party campaign either believed the percentages or at the very least was taking no chances. The party machinery went to work, importing the Venezuelan negative campaign specialist, JJ Rendón, who had also worked with Porfirio Lobos, the de facto Honduran President. Rumours then began to circulate about Mokus’ plans to cut popular social programmes, and about his being an atheist, which may be no crime but is not a positive factor in a catholic country such as Colombia. The other major factor was clearly Uribe himself. The President had endorsed Santos as his preferred candidate for the Party of the ‘U’, and the intent of his continual statements about protecting the gains made by his policy of Democratic Security was hard to miss. On the more creative side, some Santos’ radio ads featured the voice of someone who sounded exactly like the President.

The most disheartening aspect

The Mokus campaign, and the Green Party he represents, had, and has, has none of the financial clout or political machinery backing Santos. But he is not totally bereft of political support or material to work with. Backed by a number of popular ex mayors of Bogota, such as Lucho Garzón, his vice presidential candidate is also the popular ex mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo. The group gave Mokus strength in depth and at one point it appeared that the group might be able to profit from the multiple revelations/accusations that have plagued the last few years of the Uribe regime. An article published in the Washington Post a few days before the vote linking the President’s brother with paramilitary groups, seemed either a gift or a very clever piece of political manoeuvring. But in the end, the accusations the various cases of corruption, vote buying to legitimise Uribe’s  second mandate, the clashes with the Supreme Court, the accusations of links between  paramilitaries and both Uribe himself and his Uncle and close advisor Mario Uribe, the dirty campaigns of the DAS (the internal security agency) and the scandal of the ‘false positives’ (the killings of civilians that were counted as ‘guerrillas’ in order to boost numbers and thereby the success of the Armed Forces in combating the FARC), had no effect. It is one of the most disheartening aspects of the election.

Santos leading role in the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and the deaths of a number of high profile FARC commanders was apparently more than enough to overcome the problems. It had been suggested by some commentators that Mokus popularity was in part due to the fact that the FARC was no longer a real factor in Colombian politics. Colombians, it was said, might now be ready to think beyond the war and more about social policy. But the idea that the FARC was defeated, while useful in boosting both Uribe and Santos’ profile a year or so ago, was never going to be useful in an election campaign where fear can be, and in this case certainly was, a major motivating factor.

The FARC has not clearly been defeated, and the nine members of the armed forces killed by the Guerrilla group some days before the election played into Santos hands, as did the kidnapping of six people on the Pasto to  ???? road, attributed by government sources to the ELN. The hostages were rescued in record time, and Alvaro Uribe was quick to use the case to call for a general alliance against kidnappings. The empire clearly had to be seen to have the capacity strike back; Colombian armed forces now claim to have eliminated a number of guerrilla fighters in an aerial attack on the area where their nine soldiers were killed. This weekend the coup de grace was delivered. A raid on a FARC camp lead to the freeing of General Mendietta, held by the guerrilla since 1998, and one of their prize prisoners.  While the rescue had been planned for some time, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the timing of the incursion was influenced by political as well as military considerations.

As for the Guerrilla groups, it is hard to be sure about which candidate they prefer, or if in fact it even matters to them. While Mokus might be more socially conscious than Santos, promoting greater state involvement, high taxes for the rich (which of course has cost him votes amongst the middle classes) more programs for the poor etc., but a Green Party Presidency would not be an ideal situation for the guerrilla, who would probably prefer Santos, a more predictably hard line candidate who they could easily love to hate, and who would give them more propaganda opportunities. Before the first round the FARC issued a communication calling for abstention.

United Front revisited

The ’U’ party candidate needs only four more percentage points to make it official; the panorama now appears fairly predictable, and disheartening. Between rounds Santos’ strategy has been to call for a government of national unity, and has even invited the Polo Democratico to take part, an invitation that was unsurprising rejected.  But the candidate for the U has had little difficulty convincing others. The Conservative Party and the third place finisher ‘Cambio Radical’ have given Santos unanimous support; a number of Liberal senators have also crossed the floor, much to the disgust of some of their co members. Simón Gavíria, the son of ex Liberal president César Gaviria,  has even been rumoured to have made a deal with Santos in exchange for the Presidency of Congress.

The deals will give Santos control over 80% of the seats in the Colombian legislature, at least in the short term, and should guarantee him the ability to govern.  But he is hardly the type of person to cede much ground to his political rivals, even if they are of the same general political stripe, and the move can be seen as an attempt to consolidate his Party at the expense of the smaller political fish. Some observers have likened his efforts to unite Liberal and Conservative factions with the United Front that governed the country in the 1950’s in an attempt to put an end to the factional violence that began with the assassination of Gaitán in 1948. After ten years it fell all apart, and the guerrilla groups such as the M-19, the FARC and the ELN came into the picture in a major way. The present context is different, but the difficulties in maintaining a coalition are obvious, especially where personal interests are the glue that holds the thing together.

However close he may have been to Uribe, Santos is no clone.  He is an experienced politician who has had the Presidency in his sights for a long time, and whose brother, once a FARC prisoner, is currently Vice President.  Nevertheless, there seems little likelihood of positive change; the President’s hard right line is unlikely to be altered. Santos has said he wants to end the fight with the Supreme Court, but the statement can be read in a number of ways. One is that there may some sort of dialogue and peace accord and an all-round improvement in the justice system and an end to impunity. A more cynical view is that the new regime will do what it can to bring the Attorney General under Presidential control, and as a result lessen the problems with the Court by reducing the number of troublesome cases against legislators accused of links the paramilitaries or drug traffickers. Santos has also apparently declared that for him the comparisons that have been made between Colombia and Israel are in fact a matter of pride, and that the issue of the country’s seven US bases is no issue at all. At the same time, responding to the accusations levelled at the now ex head of the Armed Forces, Freddy Padilla, for his possible responsibility in promoting the ‘false positives’[ii], the Ministry of Defence stated that it was time to ‘attack moral terrorism’.

And if Mokus Wins?

If on the other hand Antanas Mokus were to achieve the seemingly impossible and reverse the voting pattern it would not only be astonishing, it would also be wise, as in the case of Barak Obama, not to expect too much.  It is clear that Mokus represents change, but the change would not be radical, at least in terms of his political programme. The Green Party label should not be taken as a guide, this one is unlike other Parties of the same name. Its candidate does have some environmental credentials, but he is no left winger; like his rival, Mokus supports Democratic Security and will give no ground to the FARC, and has even told Uribe that he, as with Santos, will guardar los huevos de la Seguridad Democrática. Although to be honest, it is hard to see anyone being elected without supporting Democratic Security, which most Colombians, in particular those living in major urban centres such as Bogota, Cali and Medellin, see as their shield against the effects of the country’s decades long civil violence.

Mokus’ line is that the Green Party is a party of the centre (more like centre right) and will continue to be so. No dilution permitted here. The Colombian media continues to emphasise the lack of alliances, but Mokus only real option was the left of centre Polo Democrático, which in practice was no option at all. During the initial campaign Mokus made a distinct effort to put distance between himself and the Polo, seen in some sectors of the population – thanks in particular to the media – as linked to the FARC.  Mokus even went as a far as to say that he believed some of the member of the Polo still maintained their links with the Guerrilla. He later toned down his accusation but rejected a second round programmatic alliance, partly because it would not help him win, and partly because it may have given his rival another arm to use against him. The Green Party, he says, is looking only for an ‘alliance with the citizenry’.

That Mokus has been able to form some sort of alliance with the citizenry – three million voters in the first round –  is a major break-through, and if the Mokus – Fajardo partnership can hold itself together, this campaign may turn out to have important consequences for Colombia. That said, there is little doubt that Mokus would prefer to win, but at this point his participation in the second round has the feel of being about more than winning. And that is part of the attraction. This Green Party campaign has the feel of a movement, of a crusade whose major goal is to change Colombia for the better, not merely govern it.

[i] Author’s Translation of letter published in the Blog of Constanza Viera of  Inter Press Services.

[ii] The ‘false positives’ issue was one of the major points in the last round of debates between the two candidates. It is no small matter. The United Nations has calculated that the number of people killed at around 1,800 people., and that they were “…… carried out in a more or less systematic way by a significant number of members of the Colombian Army and are a State crime” Author’s translation of article printed in The Telegraph of Ecuador, ‘ Colombia. Los “falsos positivos” son cerca de 1.800, según ONU´ 14 July 2009.