President Santos’ fightback?

It never rains but it pours

It is hard for a politician to admit failure or error. But President Juan Manuel Santos started this week by doing just that. ‘We got it wrong’, said Santos told the nation, and ‘there will be corrections’.

Next month Santos celebrates two years in power. For the first year the president enjoyed record levels of public support, often in the 80%s. This honeymoon is now well and truly over, and following a series of difficult political decisions and on the back of a growing opposition from ex-President Alvaro Uribe, Santos has slowly been slipping in the polls. By last weekend, however, support for Santos had, for the first time, fallen below 50%. Santos is 15 points below Uribe’s worst ever poll rating.

How will Santos fightback?

14 days to forget

The last fortnight has been catastrophic – not only for the president but for the whole political class. As reported on this website, the public indignation and the constitutional fiasco that surrounded the eventual shelving of the Justice Reform bill last week opened a chasm between the Santos administration and public opinion.

A Gallup poll published last weekend, just days after the sinking of the Justice Reform bill showed support for Santos had plummeted 16 points. Santos is a politician canny enough to realise that the events of the last fortnight cannot alone account for the fall in support in his administration. For his fightback to be successful he must understand the deep lying causes of public dissatisfaction, not only with his presidency, but also with the direction the country is heading.

On Tuesday, Santos gave rare interviews in El Tiempo newspaper and also on the national television channel Caracol. In these interviews Santos established a mea culpa for the problems of the last few days and then set out his prospectus for regaining the support and admiration of the nation.

On the same day Santos convened a special meeting of his cabinet both to set out his view of what had gone wrong and how to recapture the agenda. Santos’ plan was also to interrogate the analyses of his colleagues. What were their conclusions?

A communication problem?

The main conclusion of the cabinet meeting was that the Santos administration was not communicating well with the public. That both the ministers and Santos himself had not sufficiently articulated the successes of the government, and had allowed opposition voices – such as Uribe – too much oxygen.

Santos in both the paper and television interviews emphasised this analysis. To hammer this home, he read out a long list of achievements that have not been, in his view, sufficiently well presented.

The president pointed to a reduction in crime figures, for example, and the 1.2 million Colombians lifted out of poverty between 2010 and 11. He went on to note the reduction to below 10% those registered as unemployed, the record levels of Foreign Direct Investment, and the run away levels of GDP growth over the last two years.

To those who criticise his government for letting the security situation deteriorate he pointed to the successful campaigns to take out the FARC’s number 1 and 2: He reminded the country that his government had dealt a greater number of blows to the terrorists than any of his predecessors.

Santos concluded that the public was largely unaware or at least unconscious of this list of successes. Santos’ ministers must be more pro-active in taking to the airwaves to communicate their achievements, he argued.

Is Santos’ conclusion correct? Virtually none of Santos’ cabinet are household names and very few appear on television regularly enough for them to be able to construct a narrative. The cold fact is that ex-President Alvaro Uribe is heard in public more often than all but Santos.

Santos himself is a good communicator, he is diplomatic and has much of the media on his side. However, he does not have the folksy charm of Alvaro Uribe. During Uribe’s eight years in power, Colombians had become used to wall-to-wall coverage of their president. Santos, by contrast governs differently – he has good media coverage, but his interviews are rare and his speeches are more technocratic than polemic.

Santos’ fightback is dependent both on the communication skills of his ministers and his finding a way of connecting more closely with the public.

A political problem?

Santos recognises that the problems of his government are not all down to communication. He acknowledges that ‘governing’ – that the difficult decisions taken by politicians once in power – affects the popularity of all heads of state.

In the two years in office President Santos has passed important legislation: The framework for peace law – which sets out the basis of transitional justice for demobalised guerrillas; and the land restitution law -which gives back land to those from whom it was stolen by the paramilitaries or the FARC, for example. Both laws are crucial for the future of the country, but there are elements within the political elite that are hostile to these reforms; they are fighting hard and dirty against them.

What are the other factors? For Jorge Londoňo, head of Gallup Colombia, there are three additional reasons for declining support for Santos: The first is the perceived worsening of public order and the associated increase in insecurity, the second is Colombia’s collapsing health system, and third, is the economy, which after years of sustained growth, is beginning to slow down.

The fightback

Santos has enjoyed until now an almost sublimely uncomplicated presidency. He has had 94% of the congress behind him, and the majority of the media have been on his side.

Following the Justice Reform debacle relations with the congress are now strained, and public support has been in decline since October 2011.

Meanwhile opposition is growing from those on the right – who support a return of Uribism.

We are half way through Santos’ mandate. We should expect things to get more political, and more dirty as we move closer to the elections of 2014.

During the El Tiempo interview Santos talked about his friend former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Blair was famously buffeted by the fickleness of public opinion, but fought and won two re-election campaigns.

Santos’ powers of recovery should not be underestimated.
By Kevin Howlett –


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