BOGOTA, Colombia -- Just a few months ago, Colombians were looking forward to the World Cup to break the monotony of a brutally boring presidential race that seemed like a mere formality to keep President Juan Manuel Santos in the Casa de Nariño for four more years.
With a thriving economy, falling unemployment and a historic peace deal with leftist guerrillas in the works, some analysts were predicting Santos, 62, would win in the first round.
But with just days to go before Sunday’s vote, Santos is in trouble — and there’s enough drama in the race for any adrenaline junkie.
A raft of surveys show former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga, 54, surging in the polls and either matching or beating Santos in a five-way race — setting the stage for a June 15 runoff.
In question, however, is how wounded Zuluaga is after a surreptitious video surfaced that seems to show him accepting information from an alleged hacker, Andrés Sepúlveda.
In that video, Sepúlveda — a former Zuluaga staffer who is currently detained on espionage allegations — offers the candidate what he claims is classified information from military intelligence and U.S. Southern Command about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas.
Zuluaga’s critics say the video, which was released after a moratorium on new polls took effect, could lead to criminal charges against the candidate for wire-tapping, conspiracy and dealing in classified information.
On Monday, Zuluaga said he would not step down and that the video was a manipulated “montage.”
“I have never asked for or shared information that was illegally obtained,” he said. He also warned that new videos and “traps” would likely be sprung in the final days of the political “dirty war” he blamed on Santos and his rival’s former campaign strategist, Miami-based J.J. Rendón.
In many countries, the video might constitute a bombshell, but in Colombia it’s not likely to be a game-changer, analysts said.
Carlos Julio Lemoine, the president of the Centro Nacional de Consultoría polling firm, said Zuluaga’s principal backer, former President Álvaro Uribe, has been hounded by scandals for years but remains exceedingly popular.
That same political Teflon is likely to protect his protégé.
“The people who were already backing Zuluaga will rationalize the video,” Lemoine said.
But even flesh wounds might prove mortal in this race. A closely watched poll by Ipsos-Napoleón Franco gives Zuluaga 29.5 percent of the vote vs. Santos’ 28.5 percent. While that’s well within the margin of error, it means Zuluaga has risen 14.5 points in the past three weeks, while Santos is up a mere 5.5 points. The poll also has the men tied in a runoff at 32 percent.
Worrisome for Santos is that he’s never pulled more than one-third of the vote in polls, said Ipsos Director Javier Restrepo.
“It’s not that he’s losing ground, but he’s never been able to grow,” he said. “To be tied at this point has to have him terribly worried. There’s no clear road for Santos.”
Three other candidates lag far behind: Former Bogotá Mayor Clara López has 10.1 percent, former Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez has 9.7 percent and former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa has 9.4 percent.
The Santos camp seems spooked. Over the weekend, the president held six different closing rallies in a virtual sprint across Bogotá that seemed designed to put him in front of as many eyeballs as possible. He has also brought former President César Gaviria onto his team. While Gaviria’s title is “debate chief,” his role seems to be attack dog.
Uribe is one of the nation’s most popular politicians but also one of the most controversial. When he accused the Santos campaign earlier this month of accepting $2 million in dirty money to cover past debts, the administration seemed flatfooted, analysts said. But over the weekend, Gaviria fired back, challenging Uribe to prove his accusations and leading the crowds in a chant of “Uribe is a liar!”
“That’s what Gaviria is for,” Lemine said. “To hit back as hard as possible.”
Santos is trying to stay focused on his landmark peace process with the FARC. For 19 months, negotiators have been meeting in Cuba in hopes of putting an end to more than 60 years of civil conflict that has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives.
During a closing rally over the weekend, Santos paced a gymnasium stage in southern Bogotá as supporters waved cardboard cutouts of white doves.
In jeans and rolled up shirt sleeves, Santos accused his rival of trying to “sabotage” the talks and condemning the nation to more years of violence.
“How is it possible that a handful of Colombians want to assassinate the hope of the immense majority who want to reach peace?” he asked. “I still don’t understand it.”
Santos can point to progress. Last week, negotiators wrapped up the third point of the six-part peace agenda, with the FARC agreeing to break ties with the drug trade, embrace a crop-substitution program and help eradicate anti-personnel mines.
Shortly after the announcement, Zuluaga derided the move at a campaign rally.
“A legitimate and democratic government doesn’t discuss its drug policy with an organization that has created so much terror and has been financed for so many decades with the dirty and criminal money of trafficking,” he said.
Zuluaga’s tough stance has struck a chord. While most Colombians support the peace process, many also fear the price the country will have to pay.
While the administration has suggested that the FARC might avoid jail time and participate in politics as a result of the deal, Zuluaga has been demanding accountability and incarceration for guerrilla leaders. He also says he will cancel the talks unless the FARC agree to cease all hostilities.
When Uribe first embraced Zuluaga as his candidate seven months ago, few thought the mild-mannered technocrat would inspire much passion. The fact that he’s now a contender speaks to Zuluaga’s evolution but also the power of Uribe to play kingmaker, said Jairo Libreros, an independent analyst.
“He’s a monster when it comes to politics,” Libreros said of Uribe. “He’s taken Zuluaga, who was an insipid candidate, and turned him into someone who has a chance at being the next tenant of the Casa de Nariño.”