Upcoming Elections In Colombia Get Sidetracked

May 22, 2014
Originally published on May 22, 2014 6:46 pm
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Colombia's presidential election is Sunday. The incumbent says he needs a second term to conclude peace talks aimed at ending Colombia's 50-year-old guerrilla war. His leading opponent is harshly critical of those talks but both candidates have been sidetracked by sensational accusations, from spying to taking drug-money payoffs.

John Otis reports from Bogota.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: As he stumps for votes, President Juan Manuel Santos would seem to have the advantage. Colombia's economy is growing and peace talks in Cuba, with Colombia's largest guerilla force, known as the FARC, are moving forward. Last week, the FARC agreed to end its involvement in drug trafficking if the two sides reach a final peace accord. Santos claims a peace treaty could be signed by the end of the year if he wins a second term. So, at this rally he urged voters to stay the course.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: He said, your votes will represent clear instructions saying: President Santos, secure the peace.

MARIA VICTORIA LLORENTE: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Still, Santos' early lead in the polls has evaporated. That's because many Colombians oppose cutting deals with the guerrillas who have kidnapped and killed thousands of innocent civilians. Maria Victoria Llorente is director of the Bogota think tank Ideas for Peace.

LLORENTE: It has to do also with the fact that the FARC, you know, really did bad things to the Colombians. So it's very easy for Colombians believe that Santos is now with the FARC, with the bad guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

OTIS: This perception has boosted opposition candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, Santos' main challenger. He is a right-wing businessman and a former government minister. Zuluaga has pledged to cancel the peace talks unless the guerrillas put an immediate end to all of their illegal activities. But the FARC is unlikely to accept those conditions.

These are life and death issues. Yet, the five-candidate race has been sidetracked by lurid accusations. The first casualty was a Santos campaign advisor who resigned this month amid allegations that he accepted a $12 million payoff from drug traffickers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Then, a news magazine posted this video of Zuluaga meeting with a campaign consultant who was later arrested for hacking into government email for information on the guerrillas. Colombia's attorney general described it as an effort to sabotage the peace talks. The scandal forced Zuluaga's campaign manager to step down.

OSCAR IVAN ZULUAGA: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: In this TV interview, Zuluaga suggested that, in desperation, the Santos team had infiltrated his campaign now that he has moved into the lead in some polls.

Not surprisingly, many Colombians have simply tuned out.

JOHN YEPES: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: This campaign has been too dirty, says Bogota businessman John Yepes. There are no proposals to improve health and education or to build highways. There's nothing concrete.

But the mudslinging may continue. With none of the candidates expected to garner enough votes for outright victory on Sunday, polls are predicting that Santos and Zuluaga will meet in a June 15th runoff.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.