Opinion

Juan Manuel Santos steals a win in Colombia --- can he keep it?

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Elections,Colombia,South America

How does a sitting president get re-elected, despite sporting a 56 percent disapproval rating with approval ranking in the 30s?

Juan Manuel Santos built a most formidable organization and controlled such massive finances that, whatever the polls said, he was virtually certain to win. And ultimately he did, but by just 51 percent of the vote.

In hindsight, the outcome may have been obvious: Santos left virtually nothing to chance, was backed by an aggressive team and liberally used government funds in the process.

Since late 2013, his administration has doled out massive amounts of money out to cooperating politicians. Officials, both national and local, received financial support from a government fund totaling well in excess of two billion dollars – what Santos himself termed “marmalade” – to use as they saw fit.

Another estimated 800 million dollars of government funds were spent advertising the Santos administration's central campaign thrust of peace, despite three years of unsuccessful negotiations with the communist/criminal FARC in Havana.

FARC, the largest narco-trafficking and terror group in the country, has demanded and received commitments from Santos’ negotiators that it may enter the political process, plus broad guarantees of non-prosecution for deadly behavior. The group's response was to announce that it would refrain from killing civilians through the end of June.

For four decades, the Marxist FARC have flaunted its disdain for the electoral process. Nonetheless, the moment its supporters are in elective office, they will expand their beachhead ruthlessly until they have taken full control of government and turned Colombia into a mirror Image of the Venezuelan dictatorship created by the late Hugo Chavez.

Perhaps Santos' most blatant spending example occurred the day before the June 15 election: Advertising during the Colombia-Greece World Cup soccer match, watched by most Colombians, was dominated by government-paid commercials lauding the president's peace program.

In fact, the huge expenditures on media advertising bought the subtle but solid support of the mainstream media - print, radio and television.

An unknown amount was spent on election day literally paying citizens to vote, as witnessed and reported more than 60 times by citizen observers. Some 200 violent incidents, most orchestrated by Santos supporters, were reported from throughout the country, mostly in opposition areas.

As for the voting, remarkable – indeed, incredible – numbers were reported on June 15, as contrasted with the initial voting on May 25. Forty-eight percent of registered voters went to the polls on June 15, while 40 percent voted in May. Stunningly – and unrealistically – the votes registered for Santos mushroomed from the first to the second elections.

In the capital Bogota, the president received 444,000 votes on May 25, which more than tripled to 1,337,000 on June 15. Similarly, in Barranquilla and surrounding Atlantico department, Santos received 195,000 votes the first time around and 541,000 votes the second.

The pattern was similar nationwide, clearly reflecting massive corruption at the polls. In reviewing these figures, political analyst Diego Corrales Jiménez commented sardonically, “This is the voting that was fundamental in order for Santos to win.”

Interestingly, a Santos supporter and newly elected senator, Claudia Lopez, had applied vote reality rules to elections in 2002 and was able to prove fraud that led to the successful prosecution and jailing of several political operatives. She will most certainly not be challenging the vote on June 15.

Despite all the organization and expenditure – unprecedented in Colombia’s more than 200 years of democracy – President Santos received a meager 51 percent of the vote, besting opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga’s 45 percent and four percent who voted for neither candidate. It is worthwhile noting that Colombians living abroad, where the Santos effort was negligible, voted 58 percent for Zuluaga and 40 percent for Santos.

Former president Alvaro Uribe, once Santos’ mentor, has demanded a comprehensive investigation of the June 15 results. By far the country’s most respected political leader, it's quite possible that he will be successful in his demands for a well-organized review of all aspects of the election.

Clearly, the political situation in Colombia has become murky, indeed. A country, long the closest U.S. ally in South America and long respected for its adherence to democratic norms, has been handicapped and its reputation degraded by an administration determined to maintain power at all costs, both financial and legal.

Santos, supported by a clear minority of his countrymen and victorious by force of fraud, faces a decidedly difficult four years.

CORRECTION: This story has been changed to correct the pen name of the author.

"Ian Alexander" is the pen name of a veteran journalist working in Colombia. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.
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