Vargas Lleras and the Challenge of Rebooting a Stalled Campaign

Former vice president German Vargas Lleras has performed dismally in the polls, despite a strong showing in the Congressional elections.

German Vargas Lleras on the campaign trail in Cauca (EFE/ERNESTO GUZMÁN JR)

It is not the first time that Germán Vargas Lleras has run for the presidency of Colombia. 2010 was his first effort, and although he did not reach the second round, he came in third place with 1,473,627 votes, besting fourth place Gustavo Petro by 142,360 votes.

Today, Vargas Lleras has his work cut out for him: he must take second place from Petro if he wants to reach the second round, which seems difficult, despite the considerable electoral machinery he has behind him.

It is ironic that the candidate who served as Minister of Interior and Justice (2010-2012) and vice-president (2014-2017) in the Santos administration, and who handled portions of Colombia’s budget, today finds himself in lackluster fourth place in most of the surveys.

But what would happen if his machinery decided to get to work in earnest? Would it make it to a second round? Faced with these issues, we decided to consult several political analysts and discuss with them a possible scenario for Vargas in the second round.

Vargas Lleras in the second round?

Daniel Salamanca Pérez, lawyer and political analyst, affirms that “To suggest the presence of Vargas in the second round implies taking a position that flies in the face of the pollsters.” For Salamanca, either the pollsters are doing their job badly, or the candidate “does not really have the necessary electoral support”, a possibility which Salamanca is inclined to believe.

Javier Garay, a specialist in economic development, affirms that one of the reasons why Vargas is polling badly is because “his image is so poor in the public eye, and in the vote-rich large cities, which is going to make it very difficult to pass on to the second round.”

Political analyst Alejandra Ramírez said that Vargas would not reach a second round because “in the current electoral contest, it is the public opinion vote that has the most value” due to the dissatisfaction of citizens over “the electioneering” which many see epitomized in the former vice president.

The electoral machinery of Vargas

Unlike the other analysts, Camilo Bello, a political consultant, does not rule out seeing him in the second round because “He is the best candidate in terms of alliances,” and he noted the backing he has from influential figures in the states of Atlantico, Bolívar, Santander, Valle de Cauca, and Bogotá. Additionally, he enjoys considerable support from the Christian community, as well as the support of Cambio Radical, the Partido de la U, and Conservative congressmen.

It is this machinery that characterizes Vargas and the one that in the past has been decisive in presidential and legislative elections, so it is somewhat surprising that the candidate has seen no rebound. However, one of the possible reasons is that during the first two months of 2018, Vargas decided to concentrate his machinery on the Congressional elections, in order to strengthen the presence of Cambio Radical, an objective that he achieved with great success, boosting Cambio Radical’s delegation from 24 congressmen to 46.

With respect to electoral machinery, Ramírez said that “his vote share in past elections has never exceeded two million, an amount that would not be enough to reach the second round.” Garay, for his part, said that if Vargas manages to go through to a second round, it will be because “the machines have immense power not only in rural areas but also in urban areas.”

To that machinery, we should add the scarce power that Santos still commands (80% of the population disapproves of his administration, and he has lost strength in Congress and in the regions). Santos would be willing to support the candidate who protects the agreements with the FARC, and the candidate who has the best chance of “protecting his legacy” is Vargas, says Ramírez.

Bello points out that several of the parties related to Santos have already joined the campaign of the former vice president. However, Garay thinks that Santos is more likely to move what little influence he has left to boost the candidacy of “the defeated Humberto de La Calle.”

But if Vargas’s machinery is well-oiled and manages to reach a second round against Duque, what would the left and the center-left do? Without a candidate, there would only be three options left: vote for no candidate (the so-called voto en blanco), an option for which they would be inclined, as affirmed by Salamanca; support Vargas in order to defeat uribismo, as occurred in 2014 when they backed Santos; or leave their voters free to choose.

If the second round features a Vargas-Duque matchup, the main flags that would be waved would be those of uribismo and anti-uribismo, which would further polarize the country. For Bello “the left and center-left have in common their staunch opposition to former president Uribe, which will be decisive for supporting Vargas.”

Garay does not doubt that “the majority” of the left and center-left “would go for Vargas”, and that it would not be strange to see the Alianza Verde Alliance and the Polo Democratico promoting the candidacy of the former vice-president. But he sees the progressives (backers of Gustavo Petro) as more likely to choose the blank vote option.

Bello and Salamanca agree that Humberto de La Calle would be the only candidate of the left and center-left who would be willing to publicly back Vargas in a second round if the other candidate is Duque; he would do so with the sole objective of protecting the peace agreements.

The Centro Democratico and President Vargas

According to Bello, Vargas’ triumph in the second round would be a sign of “the ability of the ‘caciques’ to flex their electoral muscle” and the strength that the anti-uribistas have to impose their discourse on public opinion.

However, Bello also suggests that we should not ignore the fact that Duque “has been traveling the country for more than a year, and has managed to gain recognition of the seriousness of his candidacy. In addition, the feeling of rejection generated by the plebiscite vote is valid.”

But in the event that anti-uribismo and Vargas Lleras’s strong machinery give him a victory in the second round, what would the Centro Democratico, one of the parties with the largest presence in Congress, do? Would they join a government coalition?

For Garay, the complex past relationship between uribismo and Vargas would preclude the possibility of Centro Democratico entering a coalition; however, “they would surely share space in various initiatives,” an assessment with which Bello agrees.

Salamanca and Ramírez think otherwise and believe that uribismo would be willing to make a coalition. There is an “ideological affinity that both parties have,” because “both CR and the CD represent right-wing ideologies,” says Ramírez.

It is possible that if Vargas wins the presidency, the CD would decide to support him in several of his initiatives. However, they will have some differences related to the Santos-FARC agreement, because the victory of Vargas would indicate a decision on the part of the Colombian people to maintain the agreements, something to which Vargas has committed himself, while the CD has proposed to modify them.

Economic policy is what brings Vargas and uribismo closer together, suggesting that a clandestine alliance would be possible. Also, not entering a Vargas coalition government would allow uribismo to keep a safe distance, which could be an advantage in the elections of 2022.

Only if the machinery works

But these scenarios will only come to pass if the alliances that Vargas has pieced together can bear fruit both in rural areas, where Petro and Duque lead and in the capital cities. As Bello affirms, “Elections in Colombia are mostly driven by a political patronage system, and the backing of local political leaders; if these caciques are able to transfer that power to Vargas, he would not only reach the second round but would have the highest probability to win.”

Vargas will not be able to sit on his hands, waiting for his machinery to work. He will have to have a strong showing on May 27, when the first round will be held.

Although Vargas was successful in the Congressional elections, two months have passed since then, and his candidacy has not yet gained steam, and although, as Ramírez affirms, “the so-called machinery can not be measured in the surveys”, his lackluster campaign gives rise to several hypotheses: 1) Santos’ low favorability ratings are hampering Vargas’ candidacy; 2) his political machinery is not committed; 3) his image has been affected by several incidents including the state of his health, his attack on his bodyguard, and CR congressmen involved in corruption scandals; 4) all of the above; 5) that his machinery has a strategy to act at the last minute to score a surprise come-from-behind win.

This note is part of a series of four entries about the main presidential candidates of Colombia.

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