Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt had not run himself against his protege William Howard Taft in 1912 but had sponsored another candidate who went on to beat both Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Or alternatively imagine a presidential election in which John McCain and Mitt Romney are battling it out not in the primaries but in the general election.
No analogy is exact but that gives you a bit of the flavor of the Colombian presidential election. The first place finisher, with 29.25 percent, was former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. In second place was the incumbent president, Juan Manual Santos, with 25.69 percent. Since neither man got more than 50 percent (three other candidates split the rest of the vote), they will have a second-round runoff on June 15.
The numbers do not reveal the extraordinary drama behind the campaign, which was characterized by charges of cheating and skullduggery from both campaigns. Zuluaga came from almost nowhere to run ahead of an incumbent who was widely viewed as a shoo-in for reelection not long ago. This turn of events was due almost entirely to the intervention of former President Alvaro Uribe, who left office in 2010. Santos was his former defense minister and designated successor but, like TR turning on Taft, Uribe grew disenchanted with his protege, in no small part, one suspects, because Uribe misses the limelight.
The ostensible cause of their break were the peace talks that Santos has launched to get FARC, the long-running rebel group which has been battling the state since the mid-1960s, to finally lay down its arms. Uribe views the negotiations, which have been going on in Havana, as a sell-out to the rebels and Zuluaga has echoed his view. Santos, on the other hand, believes that the talks, which have already made progress, have the potential to bring peace.
To an outsider, it is not always easy to tell why Uribe is so worked up over talks being pursued by his former partner in the battle against FARC. The fact that peace is now possible is due in large measure to the policies that Uribe implemented while in office. But if Zuluaga wins it is likely that the peace talks will end, although Zuluaga has left himself an opening to continue negotiations if FARC shows its sincerity by stopping its armed struggle.
Whatever happens, Colombia is likely to remain Washington’s closest ally in Latin America. Indeed, while other countries in the region are seeing the emergence of anti-Yanqui leaders inspired by the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Colombia is seeing a run-off between two conservative, hawkish, pro-American candidates. That’s good news.