Arias, Fajardo, Pardo, Petro, Sanín, Santos and Vargas. Those are the last names of the seven most important candidates in Colombia’s upcoming presidential election. If President Alvaro Uribe does not run for a third term, it seems that the names of all these seven candidates will appear on the ballot on Election Day.
All of them (one woman and six men) have started their campaigns in an environment of uncertainty: not knowing whether Mr. Uribe will be able to present himself as a candidate again makes things a lot more difficult for those aspiring to succeed him. But they cannot wait until the issues around the referendum are sorted out; if the candidates want to have at least a shot at winning the presidency, they have to start letting Colombians know what they are all about.
I no longer work for any of these campaigns (I volunteered for the Vargas camp last summer), but this column says what I would tell my candidate if I were a close adviser to one of them. How can one win the presidency of Colombia? Or, at least, how can one win a number of votes that one need not be ashamed of (say, second or third place)?
The answers to these questions are not that difficult. Colombians have spoken loud and clear about the kind of government they like, and about the policies and institutions they want for their country. So here, dear candidates, you will find some tips to guide you throughout your campaign.
First and foremost: do not make sharp criticisms of Alvaro Uribe. 70% of Colombians either revere him or have deep respect for him and the changes he has made in the country. To speak ill of the President (say, because he wants to remain in power) will backfire in the opinion polls, and the last thing you want is to upset somebody who is much more popular than you and has the media on his side. Whenever possible, praise the President for his success and present yourself as somebody who will build on his achievements.
Second, talk tough on Venezuela, do not speak about a rapprochement with Caracas, and vow to maintain a close alliance with the United States. According to Gallup, a statistical consultancy, 65% of Colombians have a favorable opinion of the U.S., which happens to be the same proportion of people who have an unfavorable opinion of Venezuela. Fewer things would hurt a candidate more than promising to meet with Hugo Chavez, which could be interpreted as an attempt to appease him. However, a candidate will always have to emphasize that diplomacy is the preferred way to deal with our neighbors.
Third piece of advice: show strong support for the armed forces and the police, for these are the only institutions in Colombia that are more popular than Mr. Uribe himself. 84% of Colombians have a favorable opinion of the armed forces, while 70% support the police. Even after the "false positives" scandal, which broke towards the end of 2008, the lowest level of popularity seen by the armed forces was an impressive 77%. Colombians understand that the soldiers and policemen that serve them so bravely are the true defenders of their safety and their democracy. Criticizing the armed forces or the police for perceived corruption or human rights violations would cost precious votes. One might add that 68% of Colombians believe that Mr. Uribe’s government respects human rights. Along the same lines, dear candidates, you need to assure the voters that you will keep fighting the guerrillas as fiercely as Mr. Uribe has: between 75 and 77% of Colombians approve of the way the government is handling the conflict with the FARC and the ELN.
So, the mantra is: do not propose many changes regarding international relations or the internal conflict, and stick with the Uribe administration on those issues. Instead, the candidates should focus on three main issues: unemployment, the fight against poverty, and corruption. On these three subjects, Colombians’ support for government policy is low, or declining. 72% of voters reject the government's handling of the issue of unemployment, 55% disapprove of the government's goals in poverty reduction and 45% think that the administration is not doing enough to fight corruption (up from 22% in August 2008). No doubt this is a consequence of the recession and of scandals such as that over the Agro Ingreso Seguro program.
Other things that a presidential candidate should show support for are 1) the free trade agreement with the U.S. (67% of Colombians support it), and 2) the extradition of drug lords and guerrillas (63% of voters approve of this). The candidates need to be more careful with issues such as the aerial fumigation of coca plants (only 53% support it), and the humanitarian exchange of FARC prisoners for hostages (an issue that divides the citizens as no other, with 45% supporting and 50% opposing it). In any case, a candidate will scare away fewer voters if she supports aerial fumigation and opposes the humanitarian exchange. A final tip: going to church would not hurt – 63% of Colombians have a positive image of the Catholic Church.
I cannot guarantee that following these very general suggestions will put a candidate in line for the presidency. However, I am sure that doing and saying the contrary of what is written above will spell disaster for any campaign. Colombians have repeatedly shown that they want a center-right president for 2010-2014, and knowing this, even the Polo Democratico Alternativo and the Partido Liberal have chosen candidates (Gustavo Petro and Rafael Pardo, respectively) who are not to the left of their constituencies, but rather to the center.
Perhaps some dislike my implicit assumption that a viable candidate for the Presidency will need to act according to what the opinion polls say. In fact, I dislike it, too. I have always thought of politicians as people that should lead rather than being led, least of all by the pollsters. Alas, I dare anybody to try to win a national election by ignoring the opinion polls.