Research: Commentary

Security: An electoral liability for Uribe?

El Espectador, March 27, 2005 | Article

By Adam Isacson

A bit more than a year before the Colombian presidential elections, President Uribe is doing so well in the polls that his likely opponents are either hoping that the Constitutional Court blocks his re-election, or they simply have their gaze truly fixed on 2010.

While today it seems as though Uribe can get re-elected by a wide majority, the coming election year could bring some surprises that might strongly benefit his opponents. And the Constitutional Court isn’t even on the list of potential challenges.

In fact, the major risk to Uribe’s re-election comes from something that, until now, has been his chief strength: the country’s security situation. What would happen if, before May 2006, the improvements in security indicators (massacres, killings, kidnappings, attacks on populations, etc.) lose their momentum, or – worse still – begin to move in the other direction? There are several reasons to be concerned that the coming year may bring some negative surprises.

1. The end of the FARC’s supposed “retreat.” If what the guerrillas say is true, and they really are increasing the intensity of their attacks on vulnerable targets throughout the national territory, this could bring an increase in several violence indicators, a drop in investors’ confidence, and a greater perception of generalized insecurity. These could result even without a significant change in the actual balance on the battlefield.

2. The possibility that the dialogues with the AUC might fail. Uribe and his advisors surely are conscious of the risk that Ralito could become another Caguán. If the “paras” leave the negotiating table and call off the cease-fire they are partially observing, the result could be a strong wave of violence throughout the country. But there is another possibility: if the dialogues stay alight but the Colombian Congress passes a “justice and peace” law that fails to do enough to dismantle the paramilitary phenomenon, the “mafia plus death squad” model that the paramilitaries are adopting in several parts of northern Colombia could multiply throughout the country, leaving the population feeling even less secure.

3. The possibility that “Plan Patriota” could fail due to a lack of social investment. Colombia already has a long history of military offensives that recover territory from armed groups. The problem has always been that the soldiers’ action is never coordinated with the entry of the state’s non-military institutions (courts, social services, infrastructure-building, etc.). When the military leaves the “recovered” zone – and the bulk of their forces must eventually leave when Colombia has only 360,000 military and police to cover the entire country, including those at desk jobs – it leaves a vacuum that illegal armed groups easily fill. If the lack of social investment continues in the vast Plan Patriota zone, there is a great danger that this ambitious offensive will have the same result as its forebears. If this model also fails, it could have important electoral implications.

4. The lack of money. The state of government finances threatens President Uribe’s security programs. With a central-government deficit projected to reach a frightening 6.6 percent of GDP in 2005, it is very possible that there may be neither social investment in recovered zones nor more military resources for the “Democratic Security” policy. Meanwhile, the U.S. government – which has its own credit cards maxed out as a result of the Iraq war – does not appear willing to increase its own contribution to Colombia. To the contrary.

Any of these challenges could do great damage to Uribe’s re-election plans. Of course, it is always possible that none of these surprises may arise during the next thirteen months, or that even if they do they fail to have a fundamental effect on Uribe’s popularity. No matter what, the possibility that Uribe may fall into one of these traps is real, which means that, despite his current popularity, he is assured of nothing next year.

* Director of Programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington

Copyright 2005, El Espectador.

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