Colombia: New President-Elect, Same Old Story

 (IPS) – Former Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos was elected president with the votes of just 30 percent of all voters on the electoral rolls, while turnout stood at a mere 45 percent in this country caught up in a civil war since 1964.

But of the votes cast in Sunday’s runoff election, Santos, seen as right-wing President Álvaro Uribe’s heir, took 69 percent.

Over nine million people in this country of 45 million backed Santos — more than the 7.3 million who reelected the popular Uribe, in office since 2002, in 2006.

In his victory speech, Santos said it was the largest number of votes “ever won by a candidate in our history. And I receive it with humility and gratitude.

“If we have gone far, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” he added, paraphrasing the famous quote first attributed to French philosopher Bernard of Chartres and famously uttered by British physicist Isaac Newton.

Santos also garnered more votes than all of the pro-Uribe candidates together in the first round, while his allies will hold 80 percent of seats in Congress, which takes office Jul. 20.

The foregone results, the football World Cup matches on TV and pouring rain conspired to drive down the traditionally low turnout to less than 45 percent, compared to just over 49 percent in the first round and the average of 48 percent since 1958.

Former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus of the Green Party, who refused to negotiate for the support of the left in the second round, calling instead for a “citizen alliance”, took just 27.5 percent of the vote: 460,000 more than the 3.59 million voters who backed him on May 30.

Mockus announced that the Green Party would take an “independent” stance with regard to the new government: “We will support those who are good, after an exchange of arguments free of pressure,” he said, acknowledging his defeat.

The 1.3 million voters (nine percent of the total) who backed the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) in the first round mainly abstained Sunday, although some cast blank ballots. The party had called on its supporters not to vote for either candidate.

The number of blank votes more than doubled, from 1.5 percent in May to 3.4 percent.

Skirmishes were reported Sunday, with nine members of the security forces killed near the Venezuelan border in the northeastern province of Norte de Santander.

The guerrillas called for voters to stay away from the polls and managed to hinder public transport in the southern provinces of Caquetá and Putumayo. Power lines and the Trasandino oil pipeline were sabotaged in Nariño in the southwest.

Referring to the main rebel group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Santos said “I repeat that time has run out for the FARC. Colombians know very well that I know how to fight the guerrillas.”

The vice president-elect is former trade unionist Angelino Garzón, a former communist and ex-governor of the western province of Valle. “He is a champion of human rights, of the defence of workers,” Santos said, referring to his running-mate.

Seven human rights defenders and rural leaders were killed in May. Four of them were demanding the return of their land, occupied by far-right paramilitaries, who are accused of the most atrocious human rights crimes committed in the last 20 years in Colombia.

And death threats were received by more than 100 rural, labour, human rights, women’s, black and indigenous organisations in May and the first week of June.

In his speech, Santos “mentioned neither the paramilitaries nor the victims” of the civil war,” said Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of the Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE).

“There was not a word about peace or about a negotiated solution to the conflict,” Cepeda, a PDA congressman-elect, told IPS.

Referring to Santos’ call for a “government of national unity,” the activist said the president-elect’s invitation was more about “unanimity than national unity.

“If he truly aims to respect the autonomy of the judiciary, he should eliminate his proposal to annex the attorney general’s office to the executive branch,” Cepeda said, referring to an announcement by Santos.

This month, Uribe called for an expansion of the jurisdiction of the military courts, which, under a Constitutional Court ruling, do not have jurisdiction in cases of members of the armed forces accused of human rights abuses. The president-elect, in line with the outgoing government, proposes a reform of the justice system.

But Cepeda said the reform “must not include limits on the advances made in bringing to justice human rights abusers and perpetrators of crimes against humanity, such as the widespread extrajudicial killings” by the army.

Santos “will have to respond to the country with respect to his role in the killings of 2,279 people presumably by the security forces” while he was defence minister (2006-2009), cases that are under investigation by prosecutors, the MOVICE spokesman said.

In the last few days, threats have been stepped up against the Mothers of Soacha, a group of women seeking justice in the murders of their sons, whose bodies were passed off by the military as guerrillas killed in combat in the years when Santos was defence minister.