June 16, 2020 / 1:00 PM / 22 days ago

Colombia's beleaguered president gets approval bump during pandemic

BOGOTA, June 16 (Reuters) - The coronavirus pandemic has battered the popularity of governments and leaders around the world, yet Colombia’s Ivan Duque has actually received an unexpected boost in public opinion.

With unprecedented media exposure during the pandemic, the president’s approval rating more than doubled from 23% in February to 52% by the end of April. Fighting the outbreak has allowed him to shift his government’s focus from social unrest and accusations of corruption.

But politicians and analysts predicted that when the crisis ends, Duque’s popularity will fall again under renewed pressure from unions, students and opposition politicians in a country where the pandemic has worsened existing social and economic challenges.

Just days after Colombia reported its first case of COVID-19 in early March, Duque declared a state of emergency, allowing him to issue decrees without congressional approval.

The state of emergency and subsequent quarantine declared to control the spread of coronavirus threw water on twin political fires of social unrest and a scandal over alleged vote buying by a rancher accused of having links to drug traffickers.

Since the pandemic’s arrival, Duque has appeared on television each night, allowing him to flex his independence and muting criticism that he was a mere errand boy carrying out orders of his political mentor, ex-president Alvaro Uribe.

“He’s demonstrated that he is capable of governing without needing his hand held,” said German Varon, a senator for centrist party Radical Change.

The pandemic has changed Duque’s agenda in Colombia’s congress, Varon said, where the government has allocated millions of dollars in subsidies to poor people and to businesses to mitigate the economic impact of the quarantine.

Previously, Duque’s government was focused on bills to modernize the country’s justice and electoral system and trying to push through unpopular pension and labor reforms.

While pension changes look to eliminate the highest retirement subsidies, labor reform would allow companies to hire workers by the hour, a move opposed by unions and a large section of congress.

FRAGILE POPULARITY

Varon said Duque will not be able to maintain his current popularity during an economic recession and rising unemployment.

“It won’t be easy. His popularity and support are fragile and if the pandemic and its effects aren’t properly managed, people will feel endangered and those gains will be lost,” Varon said.

Rising cases of COVID-19 also could tarnish Duque’s image, warned Sergio Guzman, an analyst at Colombia Risk Analysis, despite the fact Colombia has fewer cases and deaths than neighboring countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Left-wing opponents have vowed that they will not let the pandemic bury the scandal involving allegations of vote-buying scandal by the rancher during Duque’s presidential run in the second round of the 2018 election.

Recorded phone calls of rancher Jose Guillermo Hernandez referring to Duque as “my brother” and hinting at resources to support his campaign in Colombia’s La Guajira province, as well as photos of Hernandez and Duque together, landed Colombia’s leader in hot water.

Better known as El Nene Hernandez, the rancher from Colombia’s northern coast was shot and killed in Brazil in 2019 while under investigation for alleged connections with drug traffickers.

Although Duque admitted Hernandez attended certain events he has denied receiving donations from him. Opposition politicians said they will revisit the issue once the pandemic has been controlled.

“There will certainly be an intense political debate once the crisis has abated,” said senator Ivan Cepeda of the left-wing Democratic Pole party.

Guzman agreed with Varon, that Duque’s popularity is skating on thin ice as the situation around the pandemic begins to change.

“The reasons driving discontent are still there, I don’t think they will disappear on their own,” Guzman said. “President Duque will face greater difficulties in his last two years due to the deep divisions the country still has, its precarious economic outlook and its complicated security situation.” (Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by David Gregorio)

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