Colombia’s recent presidential election pitted current President Juan Manuel Santos against Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who was backed by former president Alvaro Uribe Velez. Zuluaga’s candidacy represented a split between Santos and Uribe, his former mentor and boss. Although Santos was Uribe’s hand-picked successor the first time he ran for President, during his presidency Uribe became an increasingly vocal critic of Santos’ policies, in particular the peace negotiations with the left-wing FARC guerrilla group. 

Uribe waged an aggressive campaign against Santos, often standing in for Zuluaga during the campaign and tweeting extensively, lending his significant popularity to the cause. All the same, Santos won the presidential runoff on June 15th with nearly 51 percent, with Zuluaga taking 45 percent.  The election was viewed as free and fair by international observers and Zuluaga conceded immediately once the votes were counted; however, former President Uribe continues to insist that the vote was fraudulent and corrupt, which means that the political drama will continue as long as both Santos and Uribe are in government. 

There are major philosophical differences between a Santos presidency and one backed by Uribe, especially with regards to peace talks and relations with Venezuela.

Colombia’s recent presidential election pitted current President Juan Manuel Santos against Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who was backed by former president Alvaro Uribe Velez. Zuluaga’s candidacy represented a split between Santos and Uribe, his former mentor and boss. Although Santos was Uribe’s hand-picked successor the first time he ran for President, during his presidency Uribe became an increasingly vocal critic of Santos’ policies, in particular the peace negotiations with the left-wing FARC guerrilla group. 

Uribe waged an aggressive campaign against Santos, often standing in for Zuluaga during the campaign and tweeting extensively, lending his significant popularity to the cause. All the same, Santos won the presidential runoff on June 15th with nearly 51 percent, with Zuluaga taking 45 percent.  The election was viewed as free and fair by international observers and Zuluaga conceded immediately once the votes were counted; however, former President Uribe continues to insist that the vote was fraudulent and corrupt, which means that the political drama will continue as long as both Santos and Uribe are in government. 

There are major philosophical differences between a Santos presidency and one backed by Uribe, especially with regards to peace talks and relations with Venezuela. At the same time, there are significant similarities between the two men, particularly with regards to their dedication to ensuring economic growth through an open economy. By now, the conflict is deeply personal, and President Santos will face ongoing challenges during his second term now that Uribe is a Senator – and leads the second-largest party in the Congress. 

The rift between Uribe and Santos started soon after Santos became President in 2010. He softened relations with Venezuela, and opened talks with the FARC in 2012, both moves that deeply offended Uribe’s sensibilities. The FARC remains the Western Hemisphere’s largest guerrilla army; it has waged war on the Colombian state for over fifty years, and is responsible for an estimated 220,000 deaths. 

The Colombian government has attempted negotiations with the guerrillas on multiple occasions and failed. However, the current negotiations do seem to be making progress. Negotiators have reached agreements on land reform, political participation and drug trafficking and are now working on reparations for victims and transitional justice for the former guerrillas. These last two issues are reportedly the most contentious, given the desire of most Colombians to see the perpetrators of violence brought to justice. 

The presidential election was widely viewed as a referendum of the talks, and Santos campaigned heavily on the peace agenda. Uribe continues insisting on a harder line: that the talks need to be dictated more by the government, and that former guerrillas should be prevented from joining the political process. The Santos administration counters by arguing that this would cause the talks to fail.

Though the Colombian people gave Santos a mandate to continue negotiating peace, Uribe’s vocal opposition will continue. In the Senate, Santos’ party holds 21 seats to Uribe’s 19, with a series of smaller parties who may align themselves with one side or the other. It is expected that Santos will generally hold the upper hand, with most of the left-leaning will parties supporting the President and some of the Conservatives backing Uribe. 

But winning a seat in the Senate himself gave Uribe another platform to vocally oppose the talks as well as other aspects of Santos’ foreign policy such as rapprochement with Venezuela. Under Uribe, relations ended between the neighboring countries due to the intense and mutual dislike between him and his ideological foe, Hugo Chavez. With the arrival of President Maduro, however, Santos reopened relations. Venezuela is also facilitating the peace talks with the FARC in Havana, and is an important trade partner for Colombia. 

Trade is one major area where the policies of Santos and Uribe overlap, as both favor a strong free trade regime. For example, the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was initiated by the Uribe administration and concluded by the Santos administration.   Since its ratification by the US Congress in 2012, the FTA has helped stimulate bilateral trade, with a 5 percent increase between June 2012 and February 2013. 

Both the Uribe and Santos administration maintained strong bi-lateral relations with the US which, in addition to being an important trade partner, also assisted Colombia with military aid for its fight against drug gangs and the guerrillas. As a continued demonstration of the nation’s ties, Vice President Joe Biden visited President Santos three days after the election to reaffirm US support for Colombia and for the peace talks. In addition, they reviewed the FTA and discussed the visa-waiver process which has begun in the US Congress which would allow Colombians to enter the US without a visa. 

The Santos and Uribe economic policies have kept inflation at one of the lowest rates in Latin America and this, along with growing trade and the extractive industry, have translated into one of the strongest economic growth rates in Latin America – the nation enjoyed 4.1 percent growth in 2013 and is expected to reach 4.6 percent in 2014. Although the economy is always an electoral concern, it did not play a major role in the recent election since the past two decades have seen many Colombians lifted out of poverty and into the middle class, and it is expected that the Santos administration will continue practicing sound economic policies. 

The political drama in Colombia will certainly continue, however, with battles in the Senate expected as Uribe continues to voice his energetic opposition. As one Colombian analyst, Miguel Silva, noted at a recent event at the Atlantic Council, Uribe could become a “fantastic, constructive” member of Congress, but that more likely he would remain a pain for the President.

Judging by Uribe’s recent Twitter and social media statements denouncing the peace process and the election, the latter seems more likely. One can only hope that the negotiations progress regardless and that Colombia gets a chance at peace.