A new hopeful has joined the presidential race in Colombia. Germán Vargas, 47, the former leader of the center-right Radical Change party last week officially launched his long expected bid to become Colombia’s next president in 2010.
A lawyer, veteran political mover and shaker and former senator, Vargas has stood faithfully by President Álvaro Uribe over the years. He led a successful coalition that helped bring Uribe first to power in 2002, and then backed his reelection. But this time around, Vargas won’t be supporting a possible third Uribe reelection.
What makes Vargas different from other candidates is that he is not on standby like presidential frontrunner, Juan Manuel Santos, who has said he will withdraw from the race if Uribe chooses to run for a third consecutive term. Vargas is eyeing the presidency whatever Uribe’s final decision may be. “I’m an Uribista (supporter of Uribe) but not a re-electionist,” Vargas said recently.
Over the years, Vargas has staunchly backed Uribe’s Democratic and Social Security policy that centers on a military defeat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. “I will defend with full rights and conviction the enormous achievements that the Democratic Security Policy has achieved,” Vargas said during his opening campaign speech.
Vargas is a known hardliner who adopts the same resolve and tone when talking about crushing the guerrillas as Uribe does. And like Uribe, Vargas has no plans to negotiate with the FARC. “That isn’t feasible. They (the FARC) lost their chance. There is no way to have a successful peace process and that is what they don’t understand,” Vargas told La Semana magazine. He added his strategy would be to “fight them until the end.”
But while he is keen to bill himself as an heir to Uribe’s Democratic and Social policy, he also brands himself as a politician who will defend Colombia’s poor and vulnerable, as part of what he calls is a much-needed “profound social transformation” in Colombia. He is keen to hark back to his liberal roots under the guidance of Luis Carlos Galán, a popular Colombian liberal leader who was assassinated in the late 1980s. Vargas’s ideology, though, belongs to more to the center-right.
During his opening campaign speech, Vargas focused on a checklist of Colombia’s woes—the country’s 3 million displaced, its 22 million poor, rising unemployment, and rural poverty. He promises to deliver greater health and education coverage and is convinced the lack of infrastructure is holding back progress in Colombia.
This all sounds good. But Colombians have heard these promises before. As a public speaker, Vargas is disappointing and tends to come across as someone with a lack of conviction and sensitivity. And when he does become passionate, he appears conflictive. So far, Vargas has offered little insightful reflection or a vision for Colombia’s future following his recent weeks-long tour of the country. His campaign slogan, “Better is possible” is ambiguous as it is uninspiring.
Just a few years ago, there was a lot of hype about Vargas, and most local pundits believed him to be the clear favorite to succeed Uribe. But does he stand a chance today? It’s too early to tell. It all depends on what Uribe decides. If Uribe is a candidate and Vargas stands against him, local pollsters predict Vargas would lose. But if Vargas were to stand against former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, it could prove to be a tight race.
Meanwhile, there’s been much speculation about whether Uribe will heed President Barack Obama’s recent advice and refrain from seeking a third term. During Uribe’s trip to Washington earlier this week, Obama insinuated that two consecutives terms in office is quite enough.