FIGRI context: narratives and strategies in the first round presidential debates

Daniela Franco, Finance, Government and International Relations coordination assistant, makes an analysis, with professors of our House of Studies, on the current presidential race in Colombia.

Now begins, what is perhaps, one of the most exciting moments of the Presidential election race: the debates, in which the leading candidates present their Government programs and ideas before their opponents and the country. This is an analysis of the first round of discussions, from the election marketing and campaign strategies, emphasizing the construction of stories, audience management, topics addressed by the candidates, and the opponents challenging them.

Although nothing should be left to chance, Angie González, Coordinator of the Specialization in Political Marketing and an expert in electoral campaign matters, states some candidates are neglecting fundamental issues for a successful campaign. Repetitive and non-effective speeches, not knowing how to connect with the public, and blunders before a camera, are some of the issues being neglected by the candidates.

When experience counts against them

According to González, candidates’ experience and political track record could play against them, despite their good proposals; they have not prepared adequately to convey an effective speech in front of television cameras. For example, an unforgivable mistake committed by Fajardo has been to let the cameras catch him making gestures and not paying attention to his rivals. Carelessness, such as this, leads to ridicule and criticism on social networks.

As far as discursive, we see that Vargas has focused on recounting and re-recounting his past achievements and efforts, generating audience tediousness and lack of clarity in his proposals for the future. Showing results can be a successful strategy for candidates with a long trajectory, especially when it can be used as an argument against the candidate leading the polls, but the purposeful part of the campaign cannot be disregarded. At the end of the day, most Colombians know that Vargas accomplished different infrastructure projects, but it is not clear what he is going to promote, if elected.

Not everything is bad. González points out it is clear how in recent months, Iván Duque has worked on his camera/staging, and so far, has reflected excellent results. The candidate does not lose sight of the camera during his interventions and handles very well the gestures used to address the audience.

“Do not think about an elephant”

In the Political Marketing academic study is a very clear example reflecting the strategy being used by many of the candidates. A teacher tells students to perform a very simple exercise; to pass, they only need to carefully follow the instructions; first: “don’t think about an elephant” the result? We all immediately think of an elephant, of which we should not be thinking.

For each candidate, the elephant takes on many shapes: the post-conflict difficulties, corruption, lack of experience, or even, another candidate. For example, we see that in his speeches and debates, Germán Vargas does not pay much attention to Sergio Fajardo; this could be a strategy to avoid giving importance to his opponent, as both seek to be Center candidates, and are fighting for those votes. Another example could be the existing questions on the management of post-conflict resources by De la Calle. Remember, if we do not talk about the elephant, no one thinks about it, and it does not become an agenda item.

From another perspective, some candidates create elephants or climb on those created by other candidates and capitalize on them. One is the peace agreement which, although can be detrimental for some, is a plus for Vargas Lleras, who despite being critical of the process, today understands that Duque and his vice presidential formula, Marta Lucía Ramírez, control the discourse against the peace process and that it is advisable to capture the Center votes with speeches supporting the process.

Now, for González, the fact the “castrochavismo” elephant has managed to permeate all candidates, is quite interesting. In debates and interviews, all the candidates have referred, in one way or another, to this phenomenon.  All have adopted the elephant, initially created as part of a particular group’s strategy, and has become a story addressed in the campaign, regardless of the political spectrum. When Duque launched his proposal to eliminate courts, even the candidates denying the existence of castrochavismo have pointed out the proposal would mount the country on this elephant. Castrochavismo and the fear of Venezuela have become an agenda issue that must be handled, one way or another, by whoever is elected.

A country that punishes for thinking differently?

A worrisome element in these elections is the polarization climate existing in social networks. Although it is important to note that in all the world’s societies polarizing climates are experienced in election times, perhaps even more with the presence of social networks, the tension experienced by users in a country in the process of democratic openness following the signing of a Peace Agreement should be noted. Plurality of opinions and debate in a minimum respect and security framework should be already obtained; but, recent events demonstrate we are still a country that punishes for thinking differently and has little respect for those not agreeing with us.

The most notorious case, which should set off the alarm is, without a doubt, the threats to cartoonist “Matador.” Although several users threatened the artist on various occasions, a particular threat provoked his departure from social networks. Regardless of the cartoon content and the satire employed, no individual should be threatened for expressing a political preference, and much less, fear for his life for poking fun at a particular candidate. What happened to “Matador,” in a country having a history of political violence, is a latent problem; and although it is the most publicized case, it is not uncommon to find threats, insults, and all sorts of expletives exchanged in social networks by supporters of particular candidates, independently of the political trend.

On the above subject, González emphasized companies such as Cambridge Analytics or “bots” used to feed networking controversies, work from previous studies on users’ behaviors. Certainly, these studies may reflect people’s emotions that perhaps they would not express unless external bots, algorithms, and tools of this type – reinforce them. This means these companies do not “make up” sensations, but they emerge from an already existing situation, and the companies strengthen it.

For the expert, today we live in a context where we are constantly receiving information of what is happening in the national and international scene. This has facilitated communication strategists to more easily mobilize negative feelings, such as indignation, rage, hatred, among others, that drive voters to choose a candidate.

Lastly, González says the narrative and the center of the debate have been the same for 16 years: security, war, and “how to punish the villains.” No doubt, a regrettable situation for a society that created a political process to accommodate other narratives, speeches, and elephants.

Analysis: Daniela Franco