Defying the pollsters who had predicted a tight presidential election and pleasantly surprising defenders of democracy in Latin America, Colombian voters Sunday gave a resounding first-round lead to a strong U.S. ally and rebuked the growing socialist movement that has been spewing anti-American sentiments throughout our hemisphere.
Former Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, 58, the symbol of continuity for the Colombian government's U.S.-backed war against drug-trafficking leftist rebels, stunned most political observers, especially those of us who had been misguided — and scared — by the polls.
Vowing to continue pursuing President Alvaro Uribe's successful "Democratic Security" policies, Santos, Uribe's heir apparent, came close to an outright victory. He failed to secure the majority needed to avoid a June 20 runoff. But in a field of nine candidates, Santos received more than double the votes of his closest contender, former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, who may have been hurt — more than the polls anticipated — by his declared "admiration" for Venezuelan President (and socialist despot) Hugo Chavez.
Although polls correctly predicted that Santos and Mockus would go to a runoff, they had these two candidates in a virtual tie, expecting each to garner slightly more than 30 percent of the votes. Some of the same polls also predicted that Mockus — although eccentric and unpredictable — could finish a close second in the first round and then go on to defeat Santos in the runoff.
But much to everyone's surprise, Santos received 46.5 percent of the votes — nearly crossing the 50 percent threshold, which would have given him an outright victory — and Mockus got only 21.5 percent of the ballots.
No one — not even Mockus — is predicting a Mockus victory now. In a radio interview Monday, he said his chances of winning the runoff are "unlikely but possible."
Yet he got such a trouncing Sunday that it is hard to imagine how that is possible. Some say he would have to recruit new voters from the millions who were eligible but refrained from voting Sunday. Yet among the other seven candidates, some of the most popular are conservatives who took votes away from Santos in the first round and now are likely to endorse Santos in the runoff.
Before Santos' surprising showing Sunday, the polls told us that national security had begun to be less important than jobs, health care, education and other issues promoted by Mockus. The Colombian media led us to assume that the Colombian people failed to appreciate the huge security and economic gains their country has made under Uribe and Santos and that they were ready to move on to other issues and other politicians — even before finishing the job of defeating terror. We even assumed that the Colombian people were intimidated by threats of border conflicts and economic embargos from neighboring Venezuela.
But this time — hallelujah — the polls were wrong!
This time, it was the voters who stood behind the U.S.-backed security measures that have restored law and order to Colombian society. It was the voters — participating in Colombia's freest, cleanest and safest election in more than 40 years — who would not allow Colombia to fall back into the state of terror that it was in before Uribe and Santos took over the government. And it was the Colombian voters who rejected scare tactics from a foreign government.
In an obvious effort to intimidate Colombian voters into voting for the left-leaning Mockus, Chavez warned that Santos "could generate a war" with Venezuela. The tactic obviously backfired, igniting nationalistic sentiments among many Colombians who would not be intimidated.
For many years, Colombians have been the strongest U.S. allies in Latin America. While other countries in the region are closing or seeking to shut down U.S. bases, last year Colombia gave the U.S. military greater access to its own bases.
It has been a pillar of democracy and pro-American values in a region where democratic principles have been crumbling. And Sunday, even when the polls made us doubt their resolve, Colombians showed the world they still are standing tall.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.