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| 10/7/2009 12:00:00 AM

Piece of Cake

The results of the opposition primaries and the Great Survey leave Uribe closer to his third presidential term.

Even though president Alvaro Uribe is known for his lack of sleep, he is probably sleeping well these days. After months of intense debate, criticism and scandals that hurt his government, this week he received good news: the opposition did not do well in their primaries and he aced the most recent survey practiced on Colombians. His third term seems closer every day.

Unlike other Latin-American or European presidents, who suffer from an accelerated erosion of popularity on the eve of their re-elections, Uribe, so far, doesn’t know what it’s like to be on the loosing side. Furthermore, Uribe has successfully maintained his good image. In the poll it reaches 78% and more than 63% of Colombians intend to vote in favor of his third term.

Not even the wire-tapping scandal in the country’s top intelligence agency (DAS), the suspicious visits of dubious characters to Casa de Nariño, the rise in unemployment rates, or the scandalous business deals of his sons Tomas and Jerónimo, have hurt his good image, the positive perception of his government or the credibility of his figure.

Not even the economic crisis hurts him. Colombians may find the crisis a terrible problem, one that will lead Colombia to a negative growth rate—the first in ten years—or the scandal of DMG pyramid that left millions broke, but these are events that do not touch president Uribe. Before him, everyone blamed national problems on the president. Now, people are thankful that Uribe is president, because he does not hide in times of uncertainty, he faces the problems.

Although nobody expected that the rejection towards Uribe would grow, some did find it possible that more people would reject a new presidential re-election. The growing ranks of uribists against the second reelection made people think, just for a moment, that the opposition could win those belonging to the elite, urban middle classes, and students that, although they appreciate Uribe, consider that a third term is harmful to the democracy.

But the results of the second Great Survey conducted by an alliance between SEMANA magazine, La FM radio station, RCN radio and RCN television, and the results from the opposition primaries (The Liberal Party and the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA) held primaries recently) knocked that hypothesis down. Both episodes evidence that although the opposition has performed well, it has reached a standstill. And that Uribe, on the contrary, is still going strong. Seven out of every ten Colombians express strong or very strong support towards him (68 per cent) and the other presidential candidates appear as dwarfs against a giant.

63 per cent of those included in the poll would vote for president Uribe while the winners of the opposition primaries, Gustavo Petro for the PDA and Rafael Pardo for the Liberal Party, in the midst of their victory, reach second and third place with 8 and 5 percent respectively.

Evidently, the power of the presidency works as an advantage for Uribe over the other candidates, but is it also true that a bad government would work in favor of the candidates. The truth is that never before in Colombia’s history, after seven years of government, has a figure been able to maintain such magnetism over the public opinion.

Why does Uribe remain strong? What has he done to make the country plunge into unknown adventures like a second re-election?

Firstly, there is the fear factor. Security is still vital for human beings, even more so for Colombians. And just like the FARC guerilla became the campaign manager for Uribe I and II, now Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been the chief promoter of Uribe III.

When the thesis that the guerrilla was controlled -if not defeated- became popular in Colombia, other presidential candidates, with different profiles to that of Uribe, made their appearance on the political stage. But their fifteen minutes ended swiftly. Before they knew it, the government had created an enemy in Hugo Chavez. A difficult position for Uribe President, but without a doubt favorable to Uribe, the candidate.

When Colombia allowed the use of military bases by the United States, the relationship with Venezuela was the only thing everybody talked about. Against Chavez’s insults and his frightening arms race, Colombians, apparently, don’t want to improvise with a new president and feel it is better that Uribe, a natural leader with a “strong hand”, stays another four years in power.

In second place, there is the referendum factor. In may, when the first of four polls was conducted, the project for the referendum was practically dead in Congress. Just a month ago it was resurrected and, although it must first go through the Constitutional Court and the public vote, many take it as a given.

This new impulse may have influenced the survey’s results. Not only seven out of every ten Colombians agree with the re-election, but many—more than half— are in favor of an indefinite re-election.

“This country has been reluctant towards re-elections. But we must bear in mind that the difference lies in the fact that a very big number of those polled are young people who have not had prior experiences with a re-election. The only referent is president Uribe. They have liked his work and they do not measure the consequences” affirmed Javier Restrepo, director of Ipsos-Napoleon Franco, the company in charge of the survey.

The third factor is the orphan syndrome. After seven years of important changes in security, people are afraid to change. One of the most shocking results of the survey is that 47 per cent of those polled think Alvaro Uribe is the only political leader capable of leading Colombia in the correct direction.

In general, the results are evidence that the country is beginning a new chapter in its history: the birth of the caudillo, where society does not want the father to abandon the nest, in other words, power.

The fourth and last factor that helps explain Uribe’s consolidation may be termed the vampire factor. The other pro-Uribe presidential candidates act more like his personal spokesmen than actual candidates ready to succeed him. Every time the former Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos or the former Minister of Agriculture Andres Felipe Arias publicly announce that if Uribe runs they won’t, they are adding their own political capital to Uribe. They will not be able to improve in campaign if they remain in Uribe’s shadow.

In the poll, for example, it is worth noting that Uribe’s favorable image increases (from 74 in may to 78 now) while the other pro-Uribe candidates lose ground. Juan Manuel Santos goes from 61 to 46, Noemi Sanin (former ambassador in London) looses more than ten points and goes from 54 to 42 and Andres Felipe Arias from 50 to 37.

¿What about the opposition?

The voting in the opposition primaries did not even reach 2 million votes and lead many analysts to affirm this too had been a victory for President Uribe. Even though some dissidents like intellectual Eduardo Posada Carbo, disagree, it is evident that the electoral results were a breath of fresh air for the Uribists.

The most important thing was that two of the strongest opposition parties chose their presidential candidates. In the case of the Polo Democratico Alternativo, Gustavo Petro surprised everyone by defeating the “chosen” candidate, ex-magistrate and intellectual Carlos Gaviria. His performance was so remarkable that now he even leads in the survey. If Uribe does not run, Petro ties for first place with Santos and Arias, all with eleven percent. The only doubt that remains is whether Petro’s condition as a former guerrilla member will be tolerated in a country where the insurgency phenomenon is cursed and, more so, remains unsolved.

On the liberals side, Rafael Pardo may have a promising future. He won the primary, commands respect among the politic class and is credible. Now, as the official candidate of the Liberal Party, his job is to consolidate an alliance with German Vargas Lleras, an important senator, with the three “tenors”, Enrique Peñalosa, Luis Eduardo Garzón and Antanas Mockus, the three former mayors of Bogotá who created a new political movement, with Gustavo Petro, or even with Sergio Fajardo, Medellín’s former and very popular mayor. The effort is almost utopical but it will be a chance to show off his best quality: conciliation.

Pardo’s dilemma is that although he is seen as a serious man with the experience needed to reach the presidency and although he won the primary, he has not convinced the public opinion. Out of every 100 persons polled, 44 don’t know him and only 32 have a favorable image of him.

Today, just eight months before the presidential elections, the opposition is ruled by uncertainty. The question many ask is how will they be able to turn into a viable alternative against Alvaro Uribe or his chosen candidate.

The merger of all the anti-Uribe candidates it not a feasible strategy. Nothing could be more counter productive in a Uribized country than creating an anti-Uribe gang. It is not practical either. The only possible convergence would be between Rafael Pardo and German Vargas Lleras. Even if Petro wants to create alliances, his party has tied his hands. They have already said they would run with a single candidate, at least in the first round. Sergio Fajardo has also announced he would run solo. And the three tenors, Mockus, Peñalosa and Garzón, are extras and not yet leading men in the presidential thriller.

The true tragedy for all of them is that even if we add them all together, their polling results don’t measure to Uribe’s. If the elections were tomorrow, Uribe would win by a landslide. The six declared anti-Uribe candidates accumulate 20 per cent, in other words, not even a third part of Uribe’s 63 per cent.

But the survey also shows that in the event that President Uribe does not run, the opposition would improve their standing and the race would be close and exciting. The two sides, pro-Uribe and anti-Uribe, would have approximately 30 percent each and another 30 per cent is still undecided.

It must be said, once again, that the ball is in the Constitutional Court’s field, at least for now. It is quite a paradox that the finale of the most exciting moments of Colombia’s political history is in the hands of—not the politicians or the people— the chief justices.

While the Court issues its ruling, and examining the results of the primaries and the Great Survey, the only thing left to say is that achieving a third term may be a piece of cake for President Uribe.
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Prieto en la mira

La imputación de cargos al exgerente de la campaña de Santos sorprendió. Pero esta no tiene que ver con el escándalo de Odebrecht ni con la financiación de las campañas. ¿Por qué?