Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the right wing candidate who has become the front-runner in Colombia’s presidential election, is little known outside his country.
He was hardly known by Colombians, either, before campaigning began last year. In November 2013, for example, polls showed that less than 10 percent of Colombians even recognized his name.
Yet Zuluaga has managed to force President Juan Manuel Santos into a run-off election on June 15, after neither candidate obtained 50 percent support in the first round of voting this past weekend.
Zuluaga has promised a tougher approach to law enforcement that would include the possible cancellation of ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. Thanks to this, he managed to garner 29 percent of votes in the first round of elections, topping Santos’ 25 percent. Three candidates from smaller parties obtained the remaining votes and will not participate in round two of the elections.
Zuluaga’s surprising performance has many people wondering what his presidency would look like, if he keeps his lead over Santos in the second round. It also has many wondering what future would lie ahead for peace talks between the government and the Marxist rebels of the FARC.
Here are some key things to know about Zuluaga, the conservative who’s rocked Colombia’s political establishment.
Zuluaga was born in Pennsylvania, a small town in the coffee-growing Caldas region. His father was a coffee merchant and importer of exotic goods who eventually set up an import export business in Bogota.
This makes Zuluaga quite different from Santos, who hails from one of Colombia’s long-time political dynasties. Zuluaga and Santos both served as ministers in the government of former president Alvaro Uribe, but while Santos broke with Uribe, Zuluaga has remained a loyal disciple of the conservative Colombian president. In fact he's cast himself as the candidate who would protect Uribe’s legacy.
Zuluaga has said that if he wins the election, he will declare a one-week moratorium on peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. He has criticized Santos for keeping the talks secretive, and for continuing talks while the guerrillas stage attacks on military personnel and civilian populations across the country.
Zuluaga has also said that he will only continue talks with the FARC if the rebels “cease all criminal actions against Colombians.” This makes him very popular with the millions of Colombians who’ve lost faith in the talks. But it also means that the negotiations could break down if he becomes president.
As a disciple of Alvaro Uribe, Zuluaga would bring back security policies in which Colombia’s armed forces seek the cooperation of citizens to combat insurgency and crime. Such policies, which include paying citizens to become “informants” for the army, came under heavy scrutiny from human rights groups during the Uribe administration.
Experts agree that Zuluaga would jack up miltary and police operations against rebel groups across Colombia, as he would likley not be involved in negotiations with the guerrillas. This would lead to greater confrontations with armed groups, but possibly would increase security for people who work in the countryside, who are most subject to kidnappings and extortion at the hand of the guerrillas.
“We’d see the return of informant’s networks, and operations in which police seek cooperation from private security guards,” says Vicente Torrijos, a political analyst at Bogota’s Rosario University. “But there would also be technological innovations like placing thousands of cameras in cities, the use of drones adn satellite technology to track the movements of illegal groups.”
On this point Zuluaga and Santos don’t differ too much. Both are supporters of free markets and have backed free trade deals with the U.S. and other countries in the region. Zuluaga and Santos have both made efforts to increase foreign investment in Colombia, particularly in the mining sector, and both believe that the government should have a limited role in the economy. Under Zuluaga, efforts to improve economic integration with Peru, Mexico and Chile, the countries that make up the trade block known as the “Pacific Alliance,” would continue.
Santos and Zuluaga have very different views on how to deal with Venezuela’s socialist government, and what to do about human rights abuses in that neighboring country.
Santos has taken a conciliatory approach towards Venezuela during his presidency, refraining from making any criticisms on that country’s political and economic system. Venezuela has returned the favor by acting as a mediator with the FARC, who are ideologically aligned with former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Zuluaga has said outright in presidential debates that “Venezuela is not a democracy.” He said he’d be wiling to confront Venezuela on human rights abuses, and would place diplomatic pressure on that country to obey international human rights conventions.
“You might also see him working with certain U.S. politicians to pressure Venezuela,” says political analyst Vicente Torrijos.
Critics of Zuluaga worry that commerce with Venezuela would be affected if Zuluage challenges that contry’s government. But supporters of Zuluaga say that commerce has already fallen for the past five years anyways, due to currency exchange controls and other difficulties of doing business with Venezuela.
Zuluaga is also likely to make stricter demands on Venezuela to hand over members of Colombian rebel groups who are hiding in that country. This would increase diplomatic clashes between both countries.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.