Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and his allies were already taking candidate-like precautions before the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that his run for a third term would be unconstitutional.
Juan Manuel Santos, one of Uribe’s closest disciples and a former defense minister, refused to launch his campaign as long as the possibility existed of a third term for Uribe. Meanwhile, other candidates and pre-candidates for the presidency limited their campaign activity while waiting waited for the rules of the game to be set.
Hardly a few minutes after the president publicly accepted the court’s ruling, Santos launched his campaign, asking Colombians to show their support for the current administration’s policies by voting for him. The next day Santos and Uribe met in Cali, where Uribe expressed his support for Santos’ political project.
But Santos is not alone as Uribe’s top pick. The president has also offered his strong backing to Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias.
Of the many who would like to succeed Uribe, Santos and Arias are among the few who are not registered candidates. Santos is expected to be chosen by the Partido de la U at a virtual national congress on Monday. Arias is competing in the Partido Conservador’s primaries against Uribe’s former ambassador to the United Kingdom and two-time presidential candidate Noemí Sanín.
Unlike Arias, Sanín opposed the president’s run for a third term and has been more critical of Uribe in her campaign. The primaries—to be held during the congressional elections on March 14—will determine whether Arias or Sanín will represent one of Colombia’s longest-standing parties in this year’s presidential elections. If Arias is chosen, a potential alliance between the Partido Conservador and the Partido de la U could be a winning ticket.
But while both Arias and Santos are hopeful for a firm nod from the president, neither is even certain to make it to the second round.
The first poll since the Constitutional Court ruling shows Juan Manuel Santos with 23 percent of the vote, followed by Polo Democrático Alternativo’s Gustavo Petro with 11 percent. Both Cambio Radical’s Germán Vargas Lleras and Compromiso Ciudadano por Colombia’s Sergio Fajardo trail with 9 percent each. After these top polling candidates, other contenders include Partido Liberal’s Rafael Pardo, Partido Conservador's Andrés Felipe Arias and Noemí Sanin, and Partido Verde’s three pre-candidates: former Bogotá mayors Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa and Luis Eduardo Garzón. The final candidate for the Partido Verde will be determined during March 14 primary elections.
A second round of voting is almost certain and the alliances that will come about after the first round could make the difference. If Germán Vargas Lleras does not make the second round, he would support the Uribista candidate. It is less clear who the Partido Conservador or the Partido Liberal candidates would support. Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo would probably support each other, and the Partido Verde candidate is likely to support either one of them. But most potential alliances are still very much up in the air.
The candidate’s rejection rate among some voters may also be crucial in these elections. The latest poll asked citizens which candidates they would never vote for. Twenty-three percent said they would never vote for Petro and over 15 percent would never vote for Santos, Arias or Sanín. In contrast, only 8 percent of voters state they would never vote for Vargas Lleras and 6 percent for Fajardo.
With a second round a very likely possibility at this point, not being disliked, as much as being liked, could define the elections.
*Sebastián Chaskel is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is an independent analyst based in Bogotá and was previously a Latin America research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.