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On 14 March, Vice-President Germán Vargas Lleras resigned from his post in a move widely interpreted as the first stage towards launching a 2018 presidential bid.
Outlook and implications
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Colombia's next presidential election is scheduled for 27 May 2018, with congressional elections due two months earlier. Although few political figures have formally announced their candidacy (they are unlikely to do so much in advance of the registration deadline in May), a handful of likely presidential hopefuls already enjoy favourable poll ratings. Of those expected to run for the presidency, Humberto de la Calle, the government's lead negotiator during peace talks with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) insurgents, has the highest approval ratings, gaining the backing of 49% respondents in a Gallup poll published on 2 March. Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín who is also broadly supportive of the peace agreement, has the second-highest approval rating, with 44%. Germán Vargas Lleras, the outgoing vice-president, has fallen to third position with 40%, down substantially from his 61% approval rating in December 2016. Running against these likely candidates will also be the eventual candidate from the Democratic Centre (Centro Democratico: CD) party, led by former president Álvaro Uribe. The enduring support of Uribe – who headed up the successful campaign to defeat an earlier version of the peace deal at a referendum in October 2016 – together with the continued discontent of many Colombians with the peace process, means that the CD party's eventual candidate is likely to reach an anticipated second-round run-off for the presidency. Most likely, the CD candidate would face an opponent who is generally supportive of implementing the existing FARC peace deal.
Although Colombian politics has long been dominated by a small group of centre-right parties, their electoral strength is less assured at the 2018 elections than at previous ballots. Primarily, this is because of a campaign financing scandal involving Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, which has already damaged the electoral prospects of some of the traditional parties' leading candidates. The highest-profile casualty thus far has been Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who stood as the CD candidate in 2014 and reached a run-off vote against President Juan Manuel Santos. On 9 March, he announced the "suspension" of his pre-candidacy after the Public Prosecutor's Office claimed to have evidence suggesting payments made by Odebrecht on behalf of his 2014 electoral campaign had violated electoral rules. He denies any wrongdoing. Similar accusations also have been levelled against several high profile members of the Santos administration, damaging the prospects of those, like Vargas Lleras, who are associated with the government. As investigations into Odebrecht's political ties are ongoing, more of the country's political heavyweights may later become implicated and will likely see a collapse of their electoral prospects if accused of wrongdoing. In turn, such developments could open up the political space to more candidates and parties on the centre-left, which may enjoy an electoral boost as a result. This will be especially true if, as is likely, the presidential vote goes to a second-round run-off, forcing centre-right parties to seek alliances with other candidates and parties in order to secure victory. This trend could also be reinforced by the upcoming entrance of the FARC's soon-to-be-formed political arm, which under the terms of the peace deal will gain five reserved seats in Congress and five in the Senate for two legislative terms from 2018. Although the party is unlikely to obtain many more seats than those it has been explicitly guaranteed, its presence could serve to alter the composition of future administrations' coalitions, potentially giving left-leaning parties greater influence in both houses on issues where there is common ground with FARC's political arm in Congress.
A significant issue determining the outcome of Colombia's presidential and congressional elections will be how the FARC demobilisation process proceeds over the coming months. For instance, widespread violations of the terms of the deal by former guerrillas would push public opinion towards stricter treatment of insurgents. This would improve the prospects of any CD candidate and perhaps also those of Vargas Lleras, who has been more ambivalent over the peace agreement than have many of his coalition partners. Indeed, increasingly it seems that overseeing the full implementation of the agreement with the FARC will ultimately be a task for the next administration.
Although Santos aims to fast track approximately 50 legislative bills in order to bring the provisions of the agreement into effect, less than 10 of these have been approved so far. In a further setback on 9 March, the Constitutional Court overturned the first of these fast-track decrees, increasingly the likelihood of delay for the others. Delays for this legislation would prove particularly problematic, as it would bring debates over the legislation into the congressional campaigning season, when the pace of activity in the legislature notably slows. So far, the FARC's broad compliance with the terms of the deal, and the progress already made by both sides in securing their demobilisation, means that any agreement is now unlikely to be revoked in its entirety. However, should the Uribistas eventually prove victorious at the next election, the incoming administration would be highly likely to make some terms of the deal significantly less favourable to demobilising insurgents. Such a move would increase violent risks (terrorism, extortion, kidnappings), as more FARC fighters would likely abandon the process to return to criminality or insurgency, while also complicating a newly launched effort to secure a peace deal with the Ejército de Liberación Naciona (ELN), Colombia's second-largest insurgent group.