BOGOTA -- The day after winning a come-from-behind election victory, President Juan Manuel Santos said that he had a “mandate” to speed up a peace process with the country’s guerrillas and he invited his foes to back the talks even if they oppose him.
“I’m obliged to put my soul, life and hat into this process,” he said. “It’s what Colombia wants, the region wants and the world wants.”
In his first news conference since defeating former Finance Minister Oscar Iván Zuluaga, Santos said he was determined to clench a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with “justice” and “without impunity.”
Zuluaga and his chief backer, powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, contend the administration is making too many concessions in the name of peace.
On Sunday, Uribe went further, accusing Santos of buying votes and using state resources to win the election. Santos, he said, had “promoted the greatest corruption in history in the name of peace.”
Asked about the allegations, Santos echoed the views of election observers who said the vote was largely transparent. But he refused to be baited by Uribe.
“Yesterday we turned the page on hate, bitterness and false accusations,” he said. “Today, I’m interested in writing a new chapter.”
Santos also said he would push for a reform to eliminate reelection but extend presidential terms from four to “five or six years.”
One-time reelection was introduced Uribe, his predecessor.
Much has changed since Santos first took office in 2010. Then, the 62-year-old was seen as a right-wing hardliner who had burnished his credentials as one of the country’s most effective defense ministers under Uribe.
When he launched a cross border raid on a FARC encampment in Ecuador in 2008, regional tensions were at a breaking point and the country was on the verge of war with Venezuela and Ecuador.
Now, Venezuela is a guarantor of the peace process with the FARC and Ecuador has offered to host eventual peace talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).
“Colombia’s position has changed radically in the last four years,” Santos said. “We are going to continue our foreign policy, which has brought us dividends.”
While the stance has eased regional tensions, it has also brought complaints that Colombia has turned a blind eye to civil rights abuses among its neighbors.
While Zuluaga and Uribe have accused Santos of being a “traitor,” his ability to embrace whiplash change likely helped him win the election, analysts said.
Santos is an avid poker player, said Javier Loiaza, a Bogotá-based political analyst. “And poker players know that sometimes they have to dump all their cards to get a better hand,” he said.
In Santos’ case, he’s ditched old allies on the right and embraced new ones who could guarantee his reelection and preserve the peace process.
On Sunday night, as Santos waved to supporters with “ Paz” scrawled on his hand, he thanked a long list of some of his new supporters including “leftists, independents, intellectuals, artists, social movements, women, victims, farmers, Afro-Colombians, the indigenous, environmentalists, teachers and unions that joined us because of our desire for peace.”
By using peace as his trump card, Santos managed to invigorate the campaign and win over longtime foes, Loaiza said.
“The president bet on polarization, on the idea that ‘I’m for peace and the other guy is for war,” he said. “The Zuluaga campaign was never capable of reacting and got pushed into a corner. Santos took possession of the role as the candidate for peace.”
Going for broke with peace was a late-game gamble. During April and May, as Santos prepared for the primary, he touted his achievements during the first four years, including the growing economy, trade agreements and falling unemployment, but he failed to inspire passions and seemed trapped by approval ratings that never exceeded 30 percent.
On May 25, the first-round vote, Zuluaga beat him 29 percent to 26 percent amid anemic turnout. The results rattled the campaign: In the last 20 years only one other presidential candidate had managed to turn a first-round loss into a second-round victory.
But by that point, his campaign was already being retooled.
In a statement, his election strategists said they took the “risky exercise” of focusing on peace for the second round.
“We have been preparing since before the end of the first round to focus all the strategy on peace, with President Santos in the lead,” said Antonio Sola, managing partner of OstosSola, who helped coordinate the general strategy for the campaign.
Santos won Sunday’s race 51 percent to 45 percent.
At the heart of the campaign are ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC that have been taking place in Havana since November of 2012.
Those talks are taking place behind closed doors, but negotiators say there is progress.
But Zuluaga and Uribe tried to raise the alarm that too many concessions were being made. And they demanded new conditions for the talks, including that the FARC declare a unilateral ceasefire — a stance that many believe would have scuttled talks.
While Zuluaga tried to make the case that he, too, wanted a negotiated solution but with more rules, the Santos campaign painted him as a warmonger and an Uribe puppet.
The tactics worked, said César Valderrama, the head of the Datexco polling firm, which had Santos as the frontrunner.
“People are moved by fear,” he said, “and the frustration of a population that has lived with war for more than 50 years were evident.”