In Colombia’s heated race over the peace process, could soccer tip the balance?

As President Juan Manuel Santos struggles to hold onto his office this weekend and clench an ambitious peace deal, he may face one last hurdle: the World Cup.

Colombians who don’t hit the polls before 11 a.m. Sunday will have to choose between casting a ballot in a white-knuckle political race or soaking up three back-to-back soccer games. Fútbol fever is running exceptionally high this year as Colombia trounced Greece 3-0 on Saturday in this nation’s first World Cup game in 16 years.

Whether the win pushes people to vote or provokes too much partying, might just determine the winner in a race that polls say is too close to call.

Low voter turnout — if it does materialize — is expected to hurt Santos, 62, and benefit the chances of his rival, former Finance Minister Oscar Iván Zuluaga, 54.

Of five major polls released last week, three give Santos the lead and two show Zuluaga winning.

As Pedro Contreras, 26, stumbled out of a Bogotá bar after the game, he said he planned to party until a 6 p.m. ban on alcohol sets in. But he said the festivities weren’t going to keep him from his civic duty.

“I’m going to vote early because this country needs a change,” he said. “Then I’m going to watch soccer the rest of the day.”

Zuluaga, who has the backing of popular former President Alvaro Uribe, has struck a chord by challenging Santos’ peace process with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

Uribe has a fanatical base of supporters that his Centro Democrático party can count on Sunday, said Jaime Duque, a Bogotá based political analyst. Santos, on the other hand, has cobbled together a broad coalition and will depend on many voters who are only supporting him to keep Uribe — he served from 2002-2010 — from holding sway over the presidency again.

It’s those ambivalent voters who might have a hard time peeling away from the television set.

“The fewer voters who come out, the more likely [Zuluaga] is to win,” Duque said. “We know that the uribistas will vote for sure. They’re not going to let soccer get in the way.”

Studies suggest Colombia’s win should be a boon for Santos. Researchers at Loyola Marymount University and Stanford found that a win by a sports team within 10 days of an election “causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote…with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support.”

Peace in the Balance?

That an athletic competition might play a role in this presidential race is a testament to how rapidly the political landscape has shifted. A few months ago, Santos was riding high on the back of a growing economy and falling unemployment. His signature initiative, the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had raised hopes that the country’s half-century conflict might be near an end.

So it came as a shock to many to see Zuluaga — a virtually unknown former cabinet official — surge as a spoiler and win the May 25 first-round vote by three points, amid weak turnout.

Zuluaga has tapped into concerns about the peace process and the direction of the country. He insists that FARC commanders serve jail time and has said he will only continue talks if they meet preconditions, like a unilateral ceasefire.

He has also accused Santos of ignoring human rights violations in Venezuela, and to a lesser extent Ecuador, in order to protect the peace process. (Venezuela is a guarantor of the talks.)

Santos and his allies accuse Zuluaga of being a warmonger and say his demands are tantamount to pulling the plug on negotiations.

But voters see it differently, said Javier Restrepo with the Ipsos-Napoleón Franco polling firm. While the vast majority of Colombians favor peace, they also worry about the concessions being made in Cuba, he said.

When Ipsos asked potential voters about Sunday’s election, half didn’t believe it was a choice between “war and peace” as Santos contends, but between “two different ways of making peace,” Restrepo explained.

This election has been vitriolic. Zuluaga’s campaign has been accused of hacking the communications of peace negotiators in Havana and relying on classified information that might compromise the process. That investigation is ongoing but Zuluaga maintains the allegations are part of a Santos dirty-trick campaign.

Uribe, who has played the role of Zuluaga’s attack dog, has suggested the Santos campaign took dirty money and is preparing to rig Sunday’s vote. While he hasn’t offered strong evidence in either case, many here are weary of the bickering.

“We’re tired of all this politics,” said Faustino Ramirez, a 52-year-old transportation worker. “They just keep attacking each other all the time; they’re confusing politics with soccer.”

In the waning days of the race, Santos has poured on the promises, vowing more free houses and more jobs. Last week, he announced that the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas will also be joining peace talks.

But even some supporters say there seems to be a hint of desperation in the avalanche of offers.

“If he has a magic wand to make everything happen then why didn’t he use it during his first four years in office?” asked Marleni Lopez, a 46-year-old emerald dealer.

In a sense, Colombia’s World Cup win on Saturday will be a watershed for national politics. The only other time Colombia has won its debut match at the tournament was in 1990, but that was shortly after the elections.

On Saturday, both candidates agreed the win was a precursor to their victory. “Today the team wins, tomorrow peace wins,” Santos said in a statement. Minutes earlier, Zulugua had tweeted: “Today our team wins, tomorrow Colombia wins.”

Ismael Ruiz, 65, who was among a group of trumpet-blaring revelers, said it was silly to try to make political predictions based on a soccer match.

“We’re euphoric today because of this victory,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re excited about [Sunday’s] election.”