|Interpreting their parents' concerns. Photo © Curt Carnemark / World Bank|
Polls matter to political leaders because they reflect public sentiment about what is important and what is not. They are no crystal ball, however, and can be interpreted and acted upon in very different ways. President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, who will step down later this month, used polling data in his first term to justify a decisive break with past policies. It is an interesting example for the WDR team as we look at how leaders in conflict-affected states prioritize policy actions and the extent to which they do so by listening to the people.
By 2002, after years of zero growth and declining living standards, Colombia's institutions were under increasing pressure from the narco-clans, the militia and the FARC.
With presidential elections in the offing, polls showed the country was almost equally divided between those who wanted more focus on social programming and poverty alleviation and those who thought the government needed to get tough and crack down on violence.
The response of a succession of governments to similar polling data over the previous decade reflected their quite different takes on popular sentiment. As a result, the policy pendulum swung from security to social programming and back. Some presidents started soft and ended hard when negotiations with the violent factions failed.
Then, in the presidential elections in 2002, Alvaro Uribe, the governor of the nation’s third largest state, came from obscurity to win the presidency. He did so by offering an alternative vision for tackling the country’s problems. It was not a choice between social programming and security, he insisted. People wanted both—and rightly so.
He argued that security and the legitimacy of the state were a necessary precursor to economic and social investments and insisted that the two policy strands should be rolled out with a short lag between them.
Essentially, Uribe re-interpreted what previously had been seen as lack of consensus among the electorate on which of the two courses to follow. He believed that people wanted both security today and economic hope for tomorrow. His response was to exercise determined leadership on the sequencing and timing of what he saw as the necessary policy actions.
The Colombia example shows that polling, however good, is not a substitute for vision. Nor does it necessarily make hard decisions any easier to take. What proved crucial in Colombia was the way President Uribe interpreted opinion data and used it to justify a new approach to old challenges.
This confirms what is coming through from the WDR research: common to successful leaders is their ability to redefine citizen and elite expectations and to transform public policies and institutions in ways that enable the state to address immediate and long-term sources of conflict.