Following congressional and primary presidential elections in March, Colombians will turn to the polls to vote for a new president on May 29. South America’s second-most populous country now keeps its breath, wondering whether frontrunner Gustavo Petro will become the first left-of-the-center president in Colombia’s history.
Petro has been leading the polls for more than two years and was the clear winner of the primaries of the Pacto Histórico, a group of several leftist parties. The group also placed first in the congressional elections, marking the first time a leftist party performed strongest in the traditionally very conservative country.
Petro was a member of the urban revolutionary guerrilla group M-19, which demobilized in the early 1990s, and later became a senator and mayor of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. His policy proposals are moderate left, not too distinct from the programs of European social democrats. They promise a more redistributive tax system, increased investment into public education and an end to oil extraction.
A Time for Change
According to the World Bank, Colombia is the second-most unequal country in Latin America after Brazil. Almost 40% of the population lives in poverty. So, Petro’s proposals resonate with voters. Petro has been a presidential candidate before. He ran in 2010 and 2018, when he lost in the second round to Ivan Duque of the right-wing Centro Democrático party.
Recent congressional elections reveal that the left is more likely to win this time. Many Colombians feel it is time for a political change after decades of right-leaning governments. In 2016, the government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace deal with the FARC, a guerrilla group. FARC had been fighting a Marxist insurgency against the Colombian army and state-aligned right-wing paramilitaries since the 1960s.
During this internal armed conflict, internal security dominated political discussions, leaving little space for socio-economic issues. For years, leftist politicians and activists were discredited for their supposed links to guerrilla organizations. They often faced stigmatization, death threats or executions.
The peace deal in 2016 and the demobilization of large parts of the FARC enabled social issues to come up in political debates. Consequently, two waves of nationwide protests swept the country in 2019 and 2021, demanding wide-reaching social and economic reforms as well as better state protection of social activists, who have fallen victims to killings.
COVID-19 has boosted the left. “The pandemic hit poor people most severely, and yet the government wanted to put the burden on us,” explains Víctor, a 21-old organizer of last year’s protests in Bogotá. The government’s failure to provide relief and, instead, putting the burden on the poor has caused outrage. Now, a president from the left suddenly does not seem as unlikely anymore even in historically right-leaning Colombia.
What Might Happen in the Elections?
While most observers expect Petro to win the first round of elections, recent polls show that he will likely fall short of the necessary votes to avoid a second round. Then, Petro’s likely opponent will be either Federico “Fico” Guttiérrez or Rodolfo Hernández. Fico was the winner of the primary elections of a coalition of several right-wing parties and, in the past, was mayor of Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. Hernández, an engineer and entrepreneur, who remained outside the primary elections, is a center-right candidate and has only risen in the polls in recent weeks. He is running an anti-corruption campaign despite a corruption scandal of his own from the time when he was mayor of the northern city of Bucaramanga.
As can be expected, the campaign is getting heated. Recently, Fico rhetorically addressed Petro, saying: “What you are proposing is the same thing that Chávez said, and look how Venezuela ended.” Fico claims he wants to prevent “castrochavismo,” a term the Latin American right frequently uses to link left-wing policy proposals to authoritarian regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. Fico argues that Petro’s proposed wealth redistribution would be the starting point for authoritarianism and economic decline, pointing to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as examples. Given the presence of almost two million Venezuelan refugees in the country, such statements trigger alarm bells among many Colombians.
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If there were to be a second round of voting, winning the endorsement of the third-placed candidate in the first round for both of the top two candidates would be key. If Fico comes third, he will undoubtedly support Hernández. If Fico comes second, then the scenario is less clear. Hernández and other Colombian centrists might end up supporting none of the leading two candidates. In 2018, after finishing a close third in the first round, Sergio Fajardo refused to endorse any of the two candidates in the second round and announced to spend election day watching whales on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. Fajardo won the primaries for the coalition of centrists this year. He is still in the running but his popularity has fallen over the last few months. Regarding his 2018 decision, Fajardo now says, “It took me a while to figure it out, but I admit that was a mistake.” He may support someone this year but it is unclear who Fajardo would support in this year’s second round.
A Ruthless and Dirty Election Campaign
In the highly polarized country, the last few weeks of campaigning have been intense. Mistrust between the left and the right runs high. Right-wing elites have tried everything to prevent Petro’s rise, including frequent transgressions of campaign laws.
Petro and his vice-presidential candidate Francia Márquez, an environmental and human rights activist, have received multiple death threats. This made Petro call off events in his campaign for several days. He is being rightly cautious. Presidential and political candidates have been assassinated frequently in Colombia. Every year, more human rights activists are killed in this country than any other in the world.
The fierce opposition to Petro’s victory is compounded by the underhand methods of the Fico campaign. It has exceeded the number of advertisements allowed to presidential candidates in multiple cities. Right-wing businessmen and entrepreneurs have openly threatened to dismiss employees who vote for Petro.
Duque, the right-wing president who cannot run again because of a constitutional one-term limit, is campaigning vigorously against Petro. In doing so, Duque is breaking a constitutional provision that prohibits officeholders from participating in campaigns. As a result, he faces a lawsuit for speaking out against Petro but it is unlikely Duque will face any consequences for his actions. In contrast, the national attorney suspended Medellín’s mayor Daniel Quintero from office for much milder support of Petro’s campaign.
The left might be unfairly targeted but it has not been innocent either. Hidden microphones were detected in Fico’s campaign headquarters, confirming statements by the Petro campaign that they had infiltrated their rival’s campaign team. Petro’s team claimed they had done so to detect vote-buying, a common practice in Colombia.. Petro’s campaign has advised Colombians “to take the money and buy groceries with it but nevertheless vote for Petro.”
A Shift to the Center
This election campaign also reveals the waning influence of Uribismo, a right-wing populist political movement named after Alvaro Uribe. He was president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010. During Uribe’s presidency, the military regained ground against several leftist guerrilla groups forging alliances with right-wing paramilitary groups that resulted in severe human rights violations.
For decades, Uribe has been the most influential politician in Colombia. He led a strong campaign against the 2016 peace agreement and was a key mentor of Duque. Thanks to Uribe’s influence, Duque campaigned in 2018, claiming “to rip the peace deal to shreds” if he was elected. This year, Uribe did not run again for the senate. He is embroiled in judicial proceedings for bribing witnesses and procedural fraud. Centro Democrático, the political party associated with his movement, came fourth in the recent elections, while in the previous Congress, it was the most powerful party. Its presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga had to call a halt to his campaign and now supports Fico instead.
Critics describe rightist candidate Fico as “Uribe’s guy,” but they are not exactly right. Undoubtedly, Fico is the most status quoist presidential candidate in this year’s election. However, his political program reveals a relatively moderate stance on many issues, highlighting that Colombian politics has already become more centrist than before. Also, in his previous campaigns for elections to the Medellín’s city council and to be mayor, Fico ran against Centro Democrático candidates supported by Uribe.
Unlike Uribismo politicians, Fico supported the 2016 peace agreement and is open to relaunching negotiations for a peace deal with the ELN, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group. Fico has chosen Rodrigo Lara Sánchez, a centrist close to the green party, as his running mate. Even though his supporters urged him to, Fico has also declined to openly support a referendum against a recent ruling by Colombia’s highest court that legalizes abortion. The sign that Fico did not do so further underlines the shift to the center in Colombian politics.
Turbulent times ahead
This year, the Colombian elections are historic. If Petro wins, the recent trend of left-wing victories across Latin America will be bolstered in one of the most conservative countries in the region. Since 2018, leftist presidential candidates have won elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.
Petro’s proposals are bold. He has promised an end to oil extraction, which would imply an unprecedented transformation of the Colombian economy. Petro has also promised to implement the 2016 peace deal. Yet promises are easy to make but notoriously difficult to fulfill, especially within a four-year term. Petro would have difficulties finding a legislative majority across both houses of congress. Even if he was elected president with a big majority, it is inevitable that Petro’s policy proposals would be diluted.If, however, Petro loses and either Fico or Hernández win, a resurgence of last year’s mass-scale protests is likely. These protests led to severe police brutality and human rights violations, which might recur. Large parts of the population are suffering. They hope that, for the first time, elections could yield a government that addresses their needs. Yet this hope is fragile. Trust in the political process is limited and people already have doubts about the integrity of electoral results. As Víctor, the 21-old activist, states: “We all hope Petro will win but rest assured that we are prepared if the right steals the elections.” In case of a close outcome, it is quite likely that Colombians could take to the streets. It seems a few turbulent months lie ahead.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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