BOGOTA, Colombia -- With 50 days to go before Colombia’s May 25 election, the race is tightening for President Juan Manuel Santos. Most major polls show him being forced to defend his administration in a run-off June 15. And some show former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa defeating him in that second round.
Less certain is the future of Óscar Ivan Zuluaga, 55, the former small-town mayor and minister of finance, who began the race as a contender thanks to the backing of former President Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe, who remains one of the most popular figures in the country despite being hounded by scandals, was recently elected senator and his Centro Democratico party will be among the leading forces of the new legislature.
But Zuluaga — who is headed to Miami this weekend to raise funds and woo voters —hasn’t seen the bump in polls that some were expecting in the wake of the congressional victory. In a survey released by the Centro Nacional de Consultoría polling firm this week, Santos has 26 percent of the vote, versus Peñalosa with 18 percent and Zuluaga with 14 percent.
The study, which polled 1,500 people and has a margin of error of plus/minus 2.5 percent, also found that Peñalosa would win in a second-round runoff with 41 percent versus Santos’ 36 percent. In a match-up between Santos and Zuluaga, however, the president would win 43 percent versus his challenger’s 32 percent.
On the eve of his trip to South Florida, Zuluaga said he isn’t discouraged.
“It’s an open race,” he told the Miami Herald. “The only thing that’s clear is that the president is not going to win the election.”
Santos, he said, can’t break above the 30 percent mark, which makes him vulnerable. A full 13 percent of voters say they’re undecided.
“He has a ceiling and the opportunity is there to win the presidency,” Zuluaga added.
Three other polls released in recent weeks, however, show Santos winning the second round regardless of the candidate.
Zuluaga is trying to take Santos to task on his signature achievement: the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas. While the talks have seen progress in the last 16 months, optimism about the dialogues in Cuba is waning. Even so, the initiative is popular enough that Peñalosa has said he would respect the process and ratify the negotiating team if elected.
Zuluaga, on the other hand, wants to shake things up.
“What we have now is a leap into the void — it’s a failure,” he said. “Colombians don’t understand how the government can sit down without any preconditions with an organization that keeps attacking Colombians.”
Zuluaga wants to suspend talks until the FARC cease all hostilities. But such preconditions would most certainly scuttle negotiations altogether.
Carlos Lemoine, the president of CNC polling firm, said Zuluaga’s combativeness might be hurting him at this point.
“The country is tired of the polarization,” he said. “And that’s making him less attractive in the eyes of many.”
In South Florida, however, Zuluaga is likely to get a warm welcome. Many Colombians living abroad fled the country due to violence. For them, the hard-line policies of Uribe, who led the nation from 2002-2010, helped “rescue the country,” Zuluaga said.
Zuluaga said he’s convinced that the gratitude toward Uribe and his policies will be enough to help him win.
“I’m proud to be the candidate of Uribismo,” Zuluaga said, “ but I am gong to win with the vote of all Colombians.”