As Colombia’s presidential race heats up, peace talks take center stage

President Juan Manuel Santos registered his candidacy for reelection this week, becoming the frontrunner in a race that many view as a referendum on his signature achievement: ongoing peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

Santos says he needs an additional four years to clench a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that might bring an end to the 50-year civil conflict that has claimed more than 220,000 lives.

The peace talks are happening behind closed doors in Havana, but their fate could be determined on the Colombian campaign trail.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga, 54, a former city council member, mayor, senator and minister of finance is running a distant second in polls, but he’s vowed to shake up the talks.

“I’m a man of peace, but a legitimate state cannot negotiate on equal footing with an organization that keeps committing acts of terrorism and remains the principal drug trafficking cartel in the world,” Zuluaga told the Miami Herald from his home in Bogotá on a recent weekday.

If he wins the May 25 vote, the guerrillas will have to capitulate, he said.

“If the FARC want a negotiated peace, they need to unilaterally cease all criminal activity in a verifiable way,” he said. “They need to quit threatening Colombians. It’s the only way we can build a process that leads to peace without impunity and a peace that’s stable and durable.”

But to pull the plug on peace talks, Zuluaga will first have to win in May.

A survey by the Central Nacional de Consultoría polling firm released last week that pitted a series of hypothetical candidates against each other has Santos leading with 41 percent of the vote, followed by Zuluaga with 13 percent.

But Zuluaga has a powerful ally: former President Alvaro Uribe, who is revered by many despite the scandals that plagued his eight-year administration.

Early this month, Uribe’s Centro Democratico party picked Zuluaga — a relative unknown in the country — to be its standard bearer.

With thinning black hair and a penchant for suits, Zuluaga looks more like a mild-mannered technocrat than a backslapping politician. Even members of his own party admit he’s running a charisma deficit.

But he’s been traveling the country trying to woo supporters and says he wants to defeat Santos with proposals, including boosting foreign investment, supporting education and decentralizing the government.

But it’s his stance on the peace talks that drives headlines. And at first glance, that plank of his platform looks wobbly. Negotiators in Havana have reached agreements on two of the six points of the peace plan. But those two issues — agricultural and land reform — and the FARC’s political future were seen as sticking points. With them cleared, there’s a growing sense that peace might be possible. A Gallup poll from early this month found that 41.5 percent of Colombians think the peace talks should continue versus 33.9 percent who believe they should be abandoned.

But those numbers mask more subtle views about the talks, said Sandra Borda, a political science professor at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes.

“Support for the peace process is strong but it’s not overwhelming,” she said. “And many people who support the talks don’t support any concessions the government might have to make… In that sense, [Zuluaga] represents a good part of the electorate.”

In particular, Zuluaga is worried that FARC leaders might go unpunished. The Havana agreement on the guerrillas’ political future has raised the specter of commanders trading in rifles for seats in parliament.

“Colombians are not going to accept that the heads of the FARC — who have committed crimes against humanity, terrible crimes — are rewarded with political legitimacy,” Zuluaga said. “They cannot enter Congress without spending a day in jail.”

Santos forged his political reputation as Uribe’s hard-nosed minister of defense. When he won the presidency in 2010, it was largely as his boss’ political successor. But soon after taking office, he began secret peace talks with the guerrillas and restored diplomatic and trade ties with Uribe’s arch enemy, late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Uribe went from being Santos’ biggest booster to his most formidable critic. He regularly accuses his former ally of betrayal and giving into the guerrillas.

“If the terrorist FARC are legislating now imagine how it will be if President Santos is reelected!” he wrote on Twitter recently.

Constitutionally barred from running for the presidency, Uribe is making a bid for the Senate and hopes his newly forged party can capture enough seats to be disruptive.

When Santos announced his intention to seek reelection, he cautioned against playing politics with peace.

“A president who rejects a chance at peace is not only irresponsible but is violating the nation’s constitution,” he said. “Choosing more years of violence, more victims, more pain for thousands of Colombians, is an unacceptable alternative.”

While Santos has won high marks for pushing land-restitution and victims’ rights legislation, the last four years have been rough. His administration has been plagued by strikes and the perception that crime is on the rise. A full 58.3 percent of those interviewed in a Gallup poll said they disapproved of his presidency.

Santos enters the race as the clear front-runner, but the political landscape could shift quickly, said Borda, the political science professor.

Among other potential candidates in the race are former FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt, ex-Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa and former M-19 rebel Antonio Navarro Wolf.

The three are expected to face each other in a March primary for the Green Party. If the left manages to gain ground, it could squeeze Santos as Zuluaga hems him in on the right, Borda said. “He would be forced to do a very delicate balancing act,” she added.

Despite his current lead, polls suggest Santos will not be able to win the race outright but would be forced into a runoff.

Zuluaga is counting on being in that second round. If he does make it, it would be the culmination of a long political journey. One of four children, Zuluaga was born in 1959 in Pensilvania, Caldas, in Central Colombia. He began his political career as a city council member for Pensilvania before becoming mayor in 1990. After a stint as the president of a steel firm, he became a senator in 2002. Uribe tapped him to be his chief of staff and minister of finance.

One of Zuluaga’s major achievements in the Senate was to push the constitutional reform that allowed Uribe to run for a second term in 2006.

In May, voters will decide if Santos is the beneficiary of Zuluaga’s work.