May 15, 2014 10:10 am

Tight poll points to a paradox in booming Colombia

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia©AFP

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia

It should be an easy ride. Colombia’s economy is growing fast, peace talks may soon end a 50-year rebel insurgency and a vast infrastructure programme is under way. Yet President Juan Manuel Santos’s re-election attempt is struggling.

Rebel attacks on oil pipelines, judicial bungling, bribery allegations and a nationwide farmers’ strike have sapped support for the centrist Mr Santos ahead of the May 25 presidential vote, seen as a plebiscite on the peace talks.

Further complicating the picture for Mr Santos are vitriolic attacks by popular former president Álvaro Uribe, who has criticised the peace talks even though the majority of Colombians appear to be in favour of ending a conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and contributed to hemispheric drug trafficking.

“Peace would help us and any business in Colombia a lot,” says Javier Gutiérrez, chief executive of national energy company Ecopetrol, which has suffered from repeated rebel attacks on pipelines that have cost the country’s oil industry $300m in lost revenues this year.

The tense election environment – the latest polls show Mr Santos in a dead heat with Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Mr Uribe’s proxy candidate – is in many ways a paradox given how well the country is performing on some fronts.

“Economic indicators are good and, even if there are still a lot of problems in Colombia, social indicators are pointing in the right direction,” says José Antonio Ocampo, a former finance minister.

Leftwing rebels continue their attacks on energy infrastructure in Latin America’s fourth biggest oil producer, despite statements from Farc leaders in support of the peace talks in Havana.

Analysts say the attacks are a way for the Farc to press its agenda in the peace discussions. For the ELN, a smaller rebel group, they are a way of pushing for their own, separate peace talks with the government.

Peace “will certainly bring a dividend by making Colombia more competitive globally”, says Daniel Linsker at Control Risks, a consultancy, although he notes violence, inequality and corruption would linger.

Mauricio Cárdenas, the finance minister, estimates peace could add an extra percentage point to economic growth, currently forecast at more than 4 per cent this year.

Then there is the government’s $50bn transport infrastructure programme, under way after long planning delays. Luis Fernando Andrade, the head of the national infrastructure agency, says it will add as much as 1.5 percentage points to economic growth during construction, and 0.7 percentage points once the new roads are operating.

One problem, critics say, is that the president’s reform agenda has promised much but delivered little; it is a government of worthy studies, but less action. Additionally, Mr Santos’s patrician background – the Harvard-educated 62-year old is the scion of a publishing dynasty – has not helped him connect with voters.

“The economy as a whole is going well. But it is dissociated from national politics, regional politics, businessmen, judges, farmers and guerrillas, all of whom fight their corners,” notes Carlos Caballero, a former mines and energy minister who lectures at the University of Los Andes.

“That translates into a lack of delivery coming from the president, who does not really strike a chord with people.”

Another problem is Colombia’s intense legalistic traditions, which Mr Santos calls a “spider’s web” and that has sometimes tied him in knots. This year he was forced by courts to sack and then reinstate the mayor of Bogotá.

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