You know how it is--it's every four years so you know it's coming, but with work and play and wasting time on Daily Kos, you totally forget that the Colombian presidential election is coming up and you have no idea who to vote for! I mean imaginary votes, like for all those House and Senate and Governor races in states you don't live in. So it's not like you're not used to it. And who knows, maybe you actually are Colombian (now would be a good time to check) so the information below could be useful to you.
After Alvaro Uribe's plans to rule forever, or at least to run for a third term, were shredded by the Constitutional Court a few months ago, we actually got a real race. Uribe might not have won a first-round victory (50%+1) as he did in 2006, but he certainly would have won a runoff victory (as in 2002). Of course, that's easy for me to say now, since we'll never know (although we do have polls).
Having an open seat is healthy for democracy, probably healthy for Uribe (you can't be that tightly-wound forever, I'm guessing), and of course healthy for the other people who'd like to president. All six serious contenders are good options on their own terms...you might run screaming from one or more of them (probably just one, see below), but there's little chance they would face the challenges of governing Colombia with slack-jawed befuddlement. In the US we've had some issues with that minimum standard. As for the challenges of governing Colombia, former president Ernesto Samper said it was like piloting a jet with two engines gone, a wing on fire, and the passengers rioting. Or something like that.
The paper ballot below has 6 serious candidates, 3 non-serious ones (I'm sure their families love them), and if you're really a crank you can vote for none of the above. We'll go in order of their random placement on the ballot (by the way, ballot placement day is the easiest way to get a media interview if you're a Colombian numerologist).
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Rafael Pardo (Liberal): Colombia's majority party forever and still a legislative force, but its last presidential success was 1994. (Uribe used to be a Liberal but he doesn't count, having defeated the party's official candidates in 2002 and 2006.) Pardo is probably the best candidate the Liberals have: he's serious, has done difficult jobs (first civilian defense minister in 40 years when he was appointed in 1990, has Pablo Escobar's demise to his credit), doesn't have unsavory associations, and opposed Uribe when most Liberals preferred to sit quietly. He's got a good program but will mostly get hard-core Liberal legacy voters, and there don't seem to be too many of those. Right now he's sitting at 4% and I can't imagine he'll do that poorly but it doesn't look like he will get to 10% much less a runoff.
Germán Vargas (Cambio Radical): No, really, he is a serious candidate despite that primitive party logo. Cambio Radical was one of the two slapped-together pro-Uribe parties of the early years of his regime (the other is below, under Santos), but Vargas couldn't swallow a third term for Uribe. He has a good reputation but there's not much market for what he's selling, given that there are very clear pro- and anti-Uribe options, plus a third-way option (Mockus) that has captured a lot of would-be Vargas voters.
Gustavo Petro (Polo Democrático): In 2006 the Polo was the only anti-Uribe game in town, and its candidate won a quarter of the vote, far more than any leftist candidate in recent Colombian history. Since then the party has suffered from infighting between those who dismiss Uribe as a fascist (starting with Carlos Gaviria, the party's 2006 candidate), and those who recognize the public's right to obsess about security in a country that's been at war forever. Petro represents the latter group, and now that Uribe isn't a candidate the infighting no longer seems important. Petro has already played a big part in bringing Uribe's popularity back down to earth by revealing the government's secret wiretapping program, but life is unfair and he's not going to get into the runoff. On the plus side, he's a leftist presidential candidate who can travel anywhere he wants in Colombia with no particular security concerns (save for a bulletproof vest in party yellow, and a big police detail). So he's an indictment of Uribe but he's also a vindication.
Nohemí Sanín (Conservative): The Conservatives are the other "historical party" and over the last 25 years they've been at death's door or "feeling much better" like the guy who doesn't want to go on the cart. Uribe represents the triumph of small-town Antioquian conservative values but the party that's always championed those values hasn't reaped any rewards because Uribe preferred to work with purpose-built parties. Sanín is perhaps the candidate who inspires the least confidence, because she's had a long political career but hasn't left a mark. She's currently third and it's a long way up to second and a runoff.
Antanas Mockus (Green Party): Son of Lithuanian immigrants, philosophy degree from Dijon (France), rose through the ranks at the National University to become rector in 1990, became famous by mooning students who wouldn't let him talk. Twice elected mayor of Bogota, where he successfully changed civic culture with mimes, clowns, and extreme preachiness. The end of his second (non-consecutive) term overlapped Uribe's first term, and Uribe effusively praised Mockus in a speech he (Uribe) must regret now. Just a few months ago Mockus and the two also-reformist Bogota mayors who succeeded him, Enrique Peñalosa and Lucho Garzón, formed the Partido Verde and ran a joint primary campaign in which all three promised to work with the winner. This feel-good approach was shockingly successful in attracting voter and media interest, and true to their word, the three are almost inseparable.
Mockus is the most programmatically conventional of the three--Garzón is a lifelong socialist, and Peñalosa is a radical exponent of public infrastructure and amenities--but he's the most "antipolitics" of the three which is how he won in an open primary that attracted "antipolitics" voters. He never raises his voice (in enthusiasm, much less in anger) and he's probably the only candidate who would stop a speech to observe a flock of birds (in Monteria, I think). He's the candidate of radical self-improvement, aided by the government. While Vargas's slogan is "Better is Possible," Mockus says (finger pointing into the crowd) "you can improve, you can improve, you can improve, I can improve." A semi-lapsed Catholic, he's all about the sacred; his two dominant themes are "Life is Sacred" and "Public Resources, Sacred Resources." If you don't mind mumbly Spanish, Mockus's parable of "the hair in the cheese" tells you everything you need to know:
Executive summary: Let's say you find a hair in your cheese. You pull out the hair and keep on eating. But what if it's a cheese factory that does a lot of exporting, and someone finds a hair in the cheese: they don't just pull out the hair, they send the whole order back. So what do you do? You can hire a bunch of overseers and make everyone wear caps and punish anyone who doesn't conform...or you can create a culture in which everyone feel like they can gently remind those around them about the need to keep hairs out of the cheese. (The first model is Uribe, the second model is Mockus.)
Mockus is the Facebook candidate--he's now #9 on the friended-politician list worldwide, with over 600k. His supporters are enthusiastic but they may or may not be reliably representative of the Colombian population...they're like Obama supporters in late 2007, kind of an enigma. But they have a Hitler video, so they're definitely getting somewhere--Hitler complains to his generals (representing the Colombian media) that he's being defeated by "a martian and his green midgets" which is pretty much the traditional political class's assessment.
Juan Manuel Santos (Partido de la U): On paper that's the "Social Party of National Unity" but the U really means Uribe and nothing more. The U is the party that stuck with Uribe through everything including a failed re-re-election bid, and Santos was the reserve candidate in case Uribe wasn't allowed to run. At one point there was a contender for Uribe-in-waiting, a former Minister of Agriculture, but he was sunk by a scandal leaving Santos intact. And it's hard to deny that Santos is the perfect neo-Uribe, if that's what you want: like Uribe he's a hard worker who's succeeded at everything, and he's completely single-minded about security. For show, he now claims to be equally single-minded about job creation but nobody believes him or cares. Santos was, most recently, an effective Minister of Defense, but under his watch hundreds of people were picked up off the street by criminal gangs and killed, their bodies sold to the military to bulk up their "killed in combat" figures. This has been called the "false positives" affair, but now most candidates have the decency to preface that with "badly-named" to counter the euphemism.
This ought to be a deal-breaker for any candidate, and it may end up doing that for Santos, but his defense is that he fired everyone involved (including the top army commanders, despite their successes against the guerrillas), and that dozens of people are in jail. That's been the standard Uribe defense against both pecuniary scandal and human rights violations: it happens, but now there's accountability. It's not clear that this is enough for voters, now that the security threat isn't what it used to be, and now that there is a Mockus candidacy that (without ever criticizing Uribe or Santos directly) emphasizes every day that for Santos, life isn't all that sacred. Santos is a perfect test of whether it's possible to steamroll another four years of uribismo into power: he's so uninterested in countering Mockus antipolitics that his web page brazenly highlights "Politicians with Santos," a bunch of video clips by people that most Colombians might assume were dead (Jorge Mario Eastman) or in jail (Jose David Name). Like Nixon in 1972, Santos kind of doesn't give a shit. And he may be right, since it's almost impossible to claim that Colombia in 2010 is worse-off in any way than it was in 2002; even the majority faction of the Polo would admit that, and certainly Mockus would.
In the end there are two completely continuista candidates (Santos and Sanín, though she doesn't really say much), two who reject Uribe personally while pledging not to undo his security accomplishments (Petro and Pardo), and two who are agnostic about Uribe while pledging to reach a new stage of legality (Vargas and especially Mockus). So there's something for everyone although it's almost certain the runoff will be between Santos and Mockus. There's plenty more to be said, on topics from health care reform to free trade to relations with Venezuela and Ecuador and the United States, but I just saw a flock of birds so I'm out of here.