BOGOTA, Colombia -- With almost four months to go before the May 25 elections, President Juan Manuel Santos is leading his nearest rival by 17 points — even as a majority of Colombians say they are either undecided or will cast blank votes in protest.
In the poll by Ipsos Napoleón Franco released by a coalition of media over the weekend, Santos is leading the race with 25 percent of the vote. Behind him, with 8 percent, is Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the candidate of the Centro Democratico party founded by former President Alvaro Uribe. Former Bogotá mayors Clara López and Enrique Peñalosa are tied in third place with 6 percent each.
While the race looks like Santos’ to lose, the high number of blank and undecided voters should be cause for alarm at the presidential palace, said Javier Restrepo, the director of public opinion at IPSOS — Public Affairs. The poll found that 27 percent intend to cast blank votes and 23 percent are still undecided.
“When more than 50 percent of the electorate says they are voting in blank or undecided that’s significant, and not good for Santos,” Restrepo said. “Yes, he looks like he’ll win, but I wouldn’t be happy.”
Without a strong public mandate, Santos could find himself hamstrung during his second term, Restrepo said.
One of the reasons driving the voter apathy may be the ongoing peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The talks have been going on for more than a year and negotiators have cleared two of the six points of the peace agenda, yet, there’s growing pessimism about those talks, the poll found.
In November 2012, when the dialogues were launched in Cuba, 54 percent of the Colombian population said they were pessimistic and 41 percent said they were optimistic. Now 58 percent are pessimistic and 37 percent are optimistic.
In this presidential race, those peace talks will be center stage, and the doubts surrounding them are likely to play out at the polls, Restrepo said.
Zuluaga has said he wants peace, but says the Santos administration is capitulating too much to FARC demands.
Unless Santos wins 51 percent of the vote, he will face a run-off in June. But the poll shows that Santos would win by at least 20 points in a second-round match-up against any of his five most-likely rivals. The poll has him beating Zuluaga, for example, by 38 percent to 18 percent.
After seeing his approval ratings tank to 29 percent in September amid farming protests, Santos has been enjoying increased popularity, and his ratings hit 46 percent in January. Those numbers could rise as he actively begins campaigning. Santos is expected to officially register his candidacy this week.
For Zuluaga, a former senator and Minister of Finance, there were very few bright points in the poll. It also underscored the inability of Uribe to play kingmaker. Although Uribe is one of the most popular political figures in Colombia — with 61 percent approval rating that makes him a shoo-in for the Senate in March — his endorsements often fall flat.
The polls show the mild-mannered Zuluaga barely treading water. His approval ratings were down a point from November to January at 20 percent. And a full 56 percent of those interviewed said they either don’t know him or have no opinion.
While Zuluaga has a long and distinguished political career, he’s rarely been in the national spotlight, Restrepo said.
“One of his big problems is his lack of charisma and personality,” Restrepo said. “He’s seen as a very cold candidate who doesn’t have the ability to connect.”
Zuluaga disagrees. On Monday, he posted a picture of himself on Twitter talking to a street vendor.
“The real poll is on the street, talking to our citizens, with the people,” he wrote.