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Nov 9, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

6 mins read

What Awaits Colombia's Next President

What Awaits Colombia's Next President
(GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Given the slowing economy and relatively low approval ratings for the president, Colombia's 2018 presidential election could threaten the ruling National Unity coalition's hold on power.
  • The next government will likely have to finish implementing a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), deal with a widening government deficit and begin taking measures to stem rising cocaine production in the country.
  • If a government from the center-right Democratic Center party comes to power, the FARC peace agreement's implementation could be at risk unless the deal is first cemented into national law. 

In mid-2018, Colombians will head to the polls to elect their next president. Already, the country's political scene is crowded: Several major parties on the political spectrum from center-left to center-right will field candidates. The Colombian economy's sluggish growth — expected to hit only about 2 percent this year — and the relatively low approval ratings for President Juan Manuel Santos may conspire to end the 14-year reign of the National Unity coalition. But more than political affiliation, the structural issues facing Colombia will dictate the course of the next administration. In particular, three factors — the sluggish economy, the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a surge in coca production — will be crucial in shaping the country's political landscape after the 2018 vote.

Enduring Economic Woes

Colombia's economic situation will pose a considerable challenge for the next president. Falling prices for oil and mineral commodities have slowed Colombia's economy in recent years, and strong growth, which peaked at about 7 percent in 2007, is unlikely to return in 2017. Although domestic services — which grew by 3 percent in 2015 — continue to drive the economy, the rate will likely not pick up again unless higher commodity prices rejuvenate activity and investment in the country. Future global demand for commodities will continue to play a decisive role in determining the country's economic strength. Its exports are weighted heavily on oil and mineral commodities, which accounted for around 53 percent of exports by value in 2015. Though oil production activities and mining make up only around 7 percent of gross domestic product, the Colombian government derived roughly 15 percent of its revenue from oil royalties and taxes before prices plummeted in 2014. Since then, Bogota has resorted to two tax reforms to make up for its diminished income.

On assuming office, the next Colombian president will inherit not only a sluggish economy but also a deficit that likely will persist until oil prices rise again. This does not mean that the country is on the brink of economic crisis, but without an increase in global commodity or energy prices, Colombia will face more of the same. Low export growth, a growing trade imbalance and a widening current account deficit will contribute to the nation's worsening fiscal straits. The next government will struggle to cover its expenses and may have to levy new taxes to do so.

Coming to Terms With the FARC Deal

The next administration will also inherit the Santos administration's peace agreement with the FARC. The degree to which the deal will influence Colombian politics during the next administration depends on how far it has gotten by 2018. Since the Colombian electorate rejected the previous deal in October, the government has been eager to complete negotiations on a new accord with the rebel group, Colombia's largest, before Santos' second and final term ends. After all, the next administration may have different ideas about the truce. For instance, former President Alvaro Uribe, a long-standing opponent of the FARC deal, would have considerable clout in a Democratic Center-led administration, which might try to delay any agreement's implementation. The ruling coalition is already preparing for this contingency by trying to conclude talks over the agreement before the next election so that it can use the remainder of its tenure to implement a deal. If congress were to pass the deal, or some of its stipulations, into law, a future government would likely have more difficulty deviating from its terms.

Given the Santos administration's urgency in approving and executing the deal, the next government will probably be tasked with implementing the inherited agreement with the FARC rather than negotiating a new one. So far in the presidential race, only the Conservative Party and Democratic Center have opposed the voter-rejected peace agreement. Santos' government will try to assuage some of their concerns by renegotiating certain terms of the deal, such as wholesale amnesty, with the FARC. But the next administration will have to spend its four years at the helm of Colombia's government implementing the peace agreement and dealing with any legal challenges to it.

A Growing Concern

Even if the next government puts a peace agreement with the FARC into effect, Colombia's security problems will persist. As it has for the past four decades, cocaine production will fuel violence in Colombia. Once the deal with the FARC has concluded and the militants have demobilized, Colombia's government and security forces will likely turn their attention to combating cocaine production. Given that the total area of the country's known coca plantations hit 96,000 hectares in 2015 — a nearly 30 percent increase over 2014 — Colombian security forces will have a number of targets. As the military expands its efforts to destroy drug production centers and target criminal groups involved in cocaine production, and as the groups compete for control of acreage and other resources, violence will likely increase. Clashes between drug gangs and security forces, though they will be limited to specific areas of the country, such as the southwestern Pacific coast and northeastern border areas, would hurt travel and investment in these areas.

In light of those political and economic issues, Colombia's next administration will have its work cut out for it. But as the current government steadily advances toward a new deal with the FARC, the next president may have at least one less rebel group to worry about. And despite the increase in coca production, Bogota will face far fewer security threats under the next leader, thanks to the FARC agreement and the relative disunity of criminal groups. 

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