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Do Colombians think Santos can lead them to a brighter future?

Supporters of Colombia’s beleaguered president Juan Manuel Santos describe Sunday’s run-off election as a “choice between war and peace.” Such a polarizing description obscures the plain reality that Colombians are deeply ambivalent toward Santos and his stewardship. Indeed, the key U.S. partner in South America is roiled by anxiety about whether any Colombian politicians offer a viable vision for their future.

In the first round of balloting on May 25, 75 percent of the votes were cast for candidates other than Santos; 60 percent of those eligible did not even bother to vote. These numbers are devastating for the incumbent and they point to broader doubts among Colombians about whether their politicians and institutions measure up to the country’s challenges.

Santos owes his election in 2010 to his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the popular two-term president whose tough, energetic leadership cut two armed insurgencies down to size and restored economic growth to the country. Immediately upon taking office, however, Santos signaled his independence by reaching out to Uribe’s fiercest domestic and international foes. When Santos declared the bellicose Venezuelan despot, Hugo Chávez, his “new best friend,” many Colombians questioned the new president’s judgment and sincerity. But, they also hoped that Santos would turn the page and begin to address pressing social and economic issues.

Unlike his workaholic mentor Uribe, Santos adopted an aloof governing style — delegating responsibility to his ministers to tend to the nation’s domestic challenges. On the security side, by mid-2011 to early 2012 an uneasy public saw attacks by elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as evidence that Santos had let down the country’s guard to a resurgent guerrilla threat.

In September 2012, Santos surprised many by launching talks with the FARC to end the 50-year armed conflict. For more than a decade, a majority of Colombians have favored a negotiated solution to the war, with two-thirds supporting negotiations even when the hawkish Uribe was president. At the same time, however, most Colombians see the FARC as a criminal organization that is guilty of the most heinous human-rights violations and it enjoys scant political support.

The spectacle of their elected government negotiating rural development and political reform with FARC kingpins, even as murderous FARC attacks continued, stirred their doubts about the process. Moreover, Colombians believed such matters should be dealt with by their elected Congress, which was consumed by infighting and alleged corruption.

Santos might have been forgiven his quixotic bid for peace if all else were going well. However, an August 2013 uprising of impoverished farmers signaled broad dissatisfaction. Transportation workers, teachers, nurses, student groups and others expressed solidarity with the farmers, who brought their disruptive protests to Bogotá and dozens of other cities. The farmers’ initial demands were for economic assistance to make them more competitive in the globalized market, but they expanded their agenda to call for economic and political empowerment and investments in health and education.

While government ministries scrambled to respond to the protests, a frustrated Santos declared, “This so-called strike does not exist.” Even sympathetic countrymen saw him as disengaged from the country’s business, as the negotiations in Havana dragged on. His approval rates began to plummet last summer.

Santos’ challenger, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, has faulted the president for failing to place conditions on the peace talks and accused him of ignoring the country’s other problems. Zuluaga’s powerful patron is former President Uribe, who has used his popularity to pummel Santos. The bruising campaign has divided the country, and the outcome may depend on whose supporters are angrier.

Self-aware Colombians recognize that, although the economy is growing around 4.4 percent, the country must modernize to reach its full potential. Colombia is treading water in terms of global competitiveness, stuck in 69th place since 2009 among more than 130 countries ranked in the World Economic Forum’s annual study. In addition to “institutional” weaknesses, the country lacks modern roads, railways and ports and lags in basic education and health, according to Rosario Córdoba, of the Private Council on Competitiveness.

Last April, it was announced that Colombia ranked last among 44 countries participating in an international test measuring reading and math skills of 15-year-olds. Along with anxiety over the country’s public healthcare, Colombians are asking why such fundamental issues are not a bigger priority in the presidential campaign.

Santos is hoping that Colombians see Sunday’s election as a choice between war and peace. However, it may end up being a referendum on whether they trust him with their country’s future.

Roger F. Noriega was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His firm, Vision Americas, represents U.S. and foreign clients.