By the Blouin News Politics staff

Colombia election hinges on rebel peace talks

by in Americas.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos listens as U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks in the Oval Office of the White House December 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama and Santos commented on last year's free trade accord among other subjects. (Photo by Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on December 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

Colombian rebels announced a cease-fire Friday that will last from May 20 to May 28, a period that includes the May 25 presidential election. The move comes as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas continue peace talks with the government, in the works since November 2012.

Source: ECR

Source: ECR

The gesture may prove too little, too late – for President Juan Manuel Santos at least. The incumbent began the campaign season with a bang: an expanding economy, which is set to grow 5% this year, waning poverty, and low inflation. Yet Santos’ failure to advance rebel peace talks and end a fifty-year-old insurgency has dampened his momentum, and is expected to cost the president critical votes at the ballot box. Indeed, Santos has staked his re-election campaign around a peace deal, which he hoped to see finalized by election time. But the negotiations, which are being held in Cuba, are at a stalemate, with the two camps split on disarmament and possible amnesty.

Santos’ opponents have been quick to seize on the delayed talks. Former President Alvaro Uribe in particular has criticized the negotiations as a sign of weakness – this after backing Santos in his first presidential bid. His chosen candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga has also taken an aggressive stance against the talks, which he dismisses as a “farce,” and posited a possible military offensive against FARC if the rebels don’t make appropriate concessions. In the meanwhile, Santos has been hounded by protesting farmers angry about delayed government reforms, and scandal within his campaign, namely the resignation of a top advisor accused of accepting bribes from drug traffickers. (His main opponent has seen his fair share of scandal as well, thanks to reports that Zuluaga’s campaign team hired a computer hacker to intercept government emails in an attempt to sabotage peace talks.)

The bad press is taking its toll. Santos, who had approval ratings above 50% a few months ago, is now trailing Zuluaga, albeit by a sliver, according to a Gallup poll published Thursday (29% compared to 29.3% of votes.) In a June 15 run-off, Gallup predicts that margin would increase, with an estimated 31.5% for Santos and 42.5% for his competitor. With neither candidate expected to surpass the 50% vote threshold in the first round, that run-off is likely. According to recent voter surveys, the FARC peace process is ranked below concerns about health care and unemployment. But with the main differentiation between Santos and Zuluaga being their position on the peace process – the two candidates hold the same investor-friendly stance when it comes to economic policy — look for the issue to play a preponderant role come May 25.

Santos has ten days to regain his steam. Help could come from, fittingly enough, FARC, which has been displaying a conciliatory side as of late, i.e., a music video released this week encouraging Colombians to support the peace process. But if Santos does win, it will be with a weak voter mandate. And then there will be that pesky question of peace to contend with.