On 30 May 2010, German Vargas Lleras won a million and a half votes in the first round of Colombia`s presidential election.
The Cambio Radical hopeful had come a surprise third, beating candidates from Colombia`s big two traditional parties; Conservatives and Liberals. The next day, I posted on Facebook, long before I had set up Colombia Politics, “German Vargas Lleras, 2014-2018”, in an allusion to the possible outcome of the next election.
Six and a bit months to go, and this is still a real possibility. Here`s why:
For months Vargas Lleras had led in the polls. In May he was even more popular than Alvaro Uribe, who is constitutionally prohibited from running, but who is now head and shoulders clear of all other politicians in Colombia.
If the election were held tomorrow, Vargas Lleras would beat not only President Santos, but also Uribe`s choice, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, and the left-wing alternatives of Clara Lopez and Antonio Navarro Wolff.
Vargas has dreamt of the top job since he was in short trousers. He has dedicated his life to the ascent of the greasy pole, for decades working his magic in corridors of power. Most recently he has been for three years straight, President Santos` “ministro estrella” or “star minister”.
In the first years of the Santos administration, Vargas pulled the strings for his boss in congress, setting the parliamentary agenda and whipping the National Unity coalition into shape. Latterly he has donned a hard hat to dish out free houses for the poor.
Vargas has been so good, so loyal and indispensible to President Santos, that the commander in chief has placed him in charge of the Santos re-election campaign.
Santos has tied his man so tightly to the ship that even if it sinks he will have no life boat. Or at least that is what Santos hopes. Earlier this year, the president set up Buen Gobierno, a form of think-tank-cum-campaign-headquarters, and swiftly dispatched his right-hand man to be its boss.
Impossible, Santos calculates, for the man leading the charge to extend the administration into a second term, to cut loose and go it alone.
But this is Colombia, and politics here can often seem as scrupulous as the rotten boroughs of early 1800s England.
Rumours circulate that Vargas Lleras is pouring over the endless polling data that put him top; he faces a genuine crossroads moment.
President Santos has a week to announce whether he will run for re-election. If he decides to pass the buck – something virtually no one is predicting – Vargas will almost certainly inherit the crown. But even if Santos does run, Vargas could yet emerge.
Here are three or many scenarios that could encourage Vargas to pull the trigger.
What if Santos does not recover in the polls? At the moment the president is hugely unpopular and less than a third of Colombians will vote for him. In the first round of voting the spoilt ballots would beat the incumbent. If this does not change quickly, Santos is doomed.
What if the peace process with the FARC guerrillas goes awry? Could Santos really be re-elected if the talks collapse.
What happens if a new wave of protests – like those that brought the nation to a standstill in August – flares up? Coffee farmers and agriculture workers continue to complain of government broken promises, and it is not difficult to see how these or those against health reforms currently going through congress, would take to the streets again. Santos has shown himself incapable of handling such crises, can he really survive more public unrest?
Frankly, such is the antipathy, that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Colombians decide enough is enough, that Santos whatever the cost, should not be allowed four more years.
So come January once the Christmas festivities are out of the way and Santos has not improved in the polls. Or come March when congressional elections show Santos supporting parties have tanked.
What better time for Vargas Lleras to step forward and offer Colombians a bit of charismatic leadership?
Cometh the hour.
Read our political biography of German Vargas Lleras.