A year of campaigning ahead

Preparations for congressional and presidential elections due to be held in March and May 2006 respe
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Assuming a positive ruling on re-election by the Constitutional Court, expected during the third quarter, the president, Alvaro Uribe, will seek a second term. He remains highly popular, owing to the improvement in public security and his strong leadership. The Economist Intelligence Unit currently forecasts that there will be no major setbacks in his programme and that he will win re-election.

- However, this scenario remains vulnerable to several potential risks, both political and economic. If security deteriorates unexpectedly, the demobilisation process with Colombia’s paramilitaries forces backfires or the economic recovery falters, public opinion could shift. This would dent Mr Uribe's re-election prospects.

- Security challenge
Of all the possible risks, a reversal in the recent improvement of security conditions would be the most serious. The Colombian military has stepped up the offensive against the FARC, with 17,000 troops advancing on the remote jungle hide-outs in the south east, where the members of the FARC secretariat are based. In 2003-04 the guerrillas retreated, trying to wear down the advancing army through guerrilla warfare and playing for time. An upsurge in FARC strikes in early 2005, killing more than 50 soldiers across the country, suggests a change in the FARC's tactics, in which case the conflict may be entering another phase. The guerrillas appear to be challenging public confidence in the government's "democratic security" strategy in order to weaken the public's appetite for confrontation in the run up to the 2006 elections.

- Overall, a decisive breakthrough by the security forces still appears elusive, as the FARC retains formidable financial and military power, but we assume that, if the current pressure is sustained, it will eventually force the FARC into conclusive peace negotiations. The second, much weaker, guerrilla group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), appears to be collaborating with the FARC.

- Negotiations between the government and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries that began in July 2003 have so far led around 4,600 troops from eight units to demobilise. However, the AUC’s military structure remains basically intact. Further demobilisation will depend on the outcome of amnesty legislation currently being debated in Congress and there is a risk that the process will break down. Overcoming Colombia's internal conflict is complicated by the illegal drugs trade, in which the paramilitaries and the FARC are heavily involved.

- Political battle
Even with Mr Uribe’s evident advantages, there could be a battle ahead. As this would be the first time in many years that an incumbent stood for re-election in Colombia, political campaigning is likely to be highly charged.

- The president’s cross-party coalition comprises the second-largest party in Congress, the Partido Conservador (PC), dissidents of the largest party, the Partido Liberal (PL), and some independents. This provides the executive with a narrow majority of seats in Congress, but discipline is weak and voting depends on the legislation under consideration. The PC is expected to back Mr Uribe's candidature in return for more influence in the second term.

- The official PL bloc, which has drifted left-of-centre, is in disarray. Its most prominent figure, Horacio Serpa, who stood and lost in the last two presidential elections, is struggling to unite and invigorate the party. The PL’s presidential candidate is likely to emerge at the party’s annual conference in mid-2005. Because it is the largest party in the country, the PL’s chances cannot be entirely dismissed.

- Should a presidential candidate other than Mr Uribe take office in August 2006, continuity of the hardline security policies cannot be guaranteed. There is currently a broad consensus in favour of the higher tax burden needed to finance the hardline stance against the guerrillas. But if progress against the insurgents slows, or there are unexpected setbacks, calls to re-allocate spending to social areas may intensify. Fiscal pressures will in any case make it difficult to sustain increased military spending over the long term.


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