BOGOTA (Reuters) - With one hand on the wheel of a 1940s jeep, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos edges through the crowd in a coffee-farming town, handing out subsidies and promises of a brighter future.
At any other time, it would not have been newsworthy, except that it comes just months before he must declare whether he will stand in elections next year.
While Santos said he will not discuss the topic until the second half of 2013, the tone of his appearances in the last few weeks smacks of a man in search of a second four-year term and his remarks sound a lot like campaign speeches.
The 61-year-old must declare his candidacy six months before a May 2014 election, so around November, but weak poll numbers mean he probably needs to start gaining momentum now.
“There is no doubt Santos is looking for re-election,” said Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a former finance minister and likely challenger next year.
“He has not said it publicly, but it is a fact due to the way he’s communicating, the government events and how he is governing with one objective: try to get re-elected.”
Santos won the last vote in 2010 by a landslide thanks in part to the support of his ex-boss, former President Alvaro Uribe, who is now the de-facto head of the opposition.
While Santos came to power promising to maintain Uribe’s tough stance against rebels, he left open the chance for peace - a move that would later coalesce into talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.
‘THE CLOCK IS TICKING’
The biggest unknown and risk for Santos are these on-going negotiations with the country’s largest rebel group, which Santos wants completed this year.
If talks succeed and Colombia goes from war to peace - big “ifs” after five decades of war - Santos’s re-election would be all but clinched, making him the third two-term leader after Uribe and independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Given the government’s desired timeline for talks with the FARC, some analysts argue that even if discussions fail, Santos would have enough time to recover before the election.
His revamped defense strategy that makes the destruction of strategic rebel military and financial units as much a goal as the killing of their leaders has already begun to bear fruit.
A peace agreement could let the FARC participate in the election too, for the first time in its history.
“For both Santos and the FARC, the clock is ticking,” said Christian Voelkel, the Colombia analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.
“Santos needs to show at least substantial results by November, if he wants to have a go at re-election,” he said.
“The FARC, or their political expression, want to participate in the 2014 elections, which will only be possible if there is a deal sometime in the second half of this year. And both want to impede bolstering the Uribistas.”
At Pradera town in southwestern Valle del Cauca province, which will be important in the election given its population, Santos was giving away 91 houses this week from around 100,000 that he will dole out to poor families over the next year.
And not only homes.
The former finance minister said he would build a school nearby and he gave each family about $150 to hook up their houses to the Internet.
At one point, Santos was one of the most popular presidents in Colombia’s history. But in the last year his ratings have fallen because of a perceived reversal in the security gains and as the economy began to stall.
Opponents will try to capitalize on whatever comes out of the peace process, the slowing economy, social problems such as poverty, and a ruling by a Hague-based U.N. court that removed resource-rich fishing areas from Colombian waters.
The main challenger next year will likely be an ally of Uribe, who is still popular for his blows against leftist rebel groups that made the Andean nation much safer. He is increasingly critical of his former defense minister, Santos.
The fallout began almost immediately after Santos took power in August 2010 when he re-established ties with Uribe’s long-term nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and their relations have only worsened from there.
Uribe’s ex-finance minister, Zuluaga, already announced his intention to run and will make up part of the “Uribista” list.
But Uribe’s support does not guarantee a win - in local elections in 2011, his preferred candidates for mayors of Bogota and Medellin lost.
A split between conservative supporters over whether to support Uribe’s choice, or Santos, could open space for a third candidate to make headway.
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Vicki Allen