Looking at the numbers, it's the lowest approval rating that Gallup has recorded since the Andres Pastrana administration in the early 2000's -- at which point Colombians were bracing against an ongoing FARC onslaught and public security concerns were at an all-time high. Santos had been cruising along in recent months with relatively average ratings, but a barrage of public protests in recent weeks of informal miners and farmers made their way into the major cities (where the Gallup polls are conducted). Santos and his ministers made a number of missteps throughout the process -- clearly, managing public protests hasn't been their forte -- and the combination of lackluster government response, sentiments that Santos is detached and has trouble empathizing with protestors, and bouts of violence have soured public opinion against the beleaguered president. It doesn't help that the poll was taken in the midst of the protests in Bogota.
It will become quite fashionable in the Colombian press, and perhaps the international media, over the next few days to declare that Santos's likely 2014 presidential reelection aspirations are fading fast and that he may as well throw in the towel. Indeed, there are probably a few advisors in the Casa del Narino who might be preparing to send their c.v.'s to new potential employers. But, at this point I'd keep my money on Juan Manuel. Despite the best efforts of the left-of-center and right-of-center political parties and movements, none of the likely opposition candidates have shown much strength in recent poll simulations. It will be interesting to see if and how the protests change these numbers. I suspect that in most cases the focus on rural and agricultural issues probably won't help the conservative candidates (such as Pure Democratic Center aspirant Francisco Santos) but could boost the Green Party or Polo candidates, if they play their cards right.
Finally, it's worth comparing the situation in Colombia to what President Dilma Rousseff experienced in Brazil a few months ago. While they are similar cases in which protests sparked a decline in support for a fumbling (and overly technocratic) government, the parallels end there. The protests in Brazil stemmed from growing dissatisfaction of the middle class with the high cost of living, concerns about corruption within government and heavy expenditures on massive projects (to prepare for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics) instead on things like health care and education. In Colombia, the protests are due to decades of neglect of sectors that are increasingly isolated and less competitive in the face of greater economic liberalization and international competition. I've seen quite a few articles and editorials noting how Colombia is importing a greater number of food products, to the dismay of local farmers. Columnist for Semana Daniel Samper Ospina ejected some humor into the situation to reflect Santos's disconnect with the Colombian people and his insistence on free trade policies:
- Mire: ahora los campesinos botan la leche como protesta. (Santos's driver)- Sí, pero no lloremos sobre la leche derramada. (Santos)
- ¡Y sacan cacerolas!
- No importa: desde hace rato importamos huevos para que tengan qué freír.
- ¡Y pancartas diciendo que a usted no le importa el campo!
- ¡Cómo pueden decir que no me importa el campo si justamente estamos logrando que todo lo del campo sea importado!
In the next months, Santos's approval numbers will probably bounce back to somewhere near where they were before. He and his team will have to convince a dubious Colombian electorate that talks with the FARC are going well, that infrastructure plans are progressing, and that Santos understands the needs of the Colombian people. This will be difficult -- but his reelection still is more likely than the election of someone else. That being said, a real break up of the National Unity coalition (or rather, the Conservatives finally break off, and even the Liberals or Cambio Radical, though unlikely, break away too) could mean that stronger candidates enter the race. Then, we'd have a much tighter election campaign in the works.