Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro. Photo: The Left via flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Will Colombia Vote for its First Ever Left-Wing President?

Eyes are on Colombia ahead of its presidential vote on May 29, with progressive candidate Gustavo Petro the current frontrunner. Is Colombia set to extend the left-wing shift witnessed elsewhere in Latin America, most recently in Chile and Honduras?

In Colombia’s upcoming presidential election, progressive candidate Gustavo Petro leads the polls, suggesting he may become the country’s first ever left-wing president. But with voters polarized and the nation shaken by drug-fuelled violence and battling a Covid-19 induced economic slump, whoever emerges as the new president is set to assume a daunting to-do list.

Petro, the former mayor of Bogotá who came second in the last presidential election in 2018, is running on a platform of readdressing inequality, as well as curbing Colombia’s oil trade. As the candidate for the Historic Pact party, Petro is seeking to appeal to a broader range of potential voters. Francia Márquez, his running mate, is an Afro-Colombian human rights and environmental activist who, if elected, would also make history as the country’s first Black vice president.

The vote will be a litmus test of whether Colombia, long a right-wing stronghold, is ready to swing towards the left. Given the country’s five decades of violence between Marxist-inspired guerrillas and paramilitary and state forces, many voters remain suspicious of the left. However, patience with right-wing rule is wearing thin. Anger spiked in 2021, when people took to the streets of major cities to protest the right-wing government’s plan to raise taxes despite a steep corona-era economic downturn. These sometimes violent demonstrations were often brutally repressed by police: A UN report said at least 44 civilians and two police died.

Growing discontent with the conservative President Iván Duque Márquez means his approval ratings have more than halved during his tenure. Colombian presidents cannot run for a second term. Polls released in late April showed that Petro’s support lay at 43.6 percent, while the center-right candidate Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellín, the country’s second-largest city, had 26.7 percent.

However, Petro will need to take more than 50 percent of votes in the May 29 ballot to win outright. If no single candidate garners more than half of the votes, the two frontrunners will take part in another round in June.

Rural killings on the rise

Colombia is facing deep political fissures. Violence is climbing in rural areas, raising doubts about the chances for the historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) more than five years ago.

In the context of the nation’s long and bloody civil war, the 2022 Colombia Country Report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) has described the new wave of killings of activists, human rights campaigners, and former FARC fighters as “a new phase in the country’s trajectory of violent conflict.”

BTI’s governance index, which assesses the quality of political leadership which steers transformation processes, showed how Colombia’s performance score ticked lower between 2020 and 2022, falling from 6.42 to 5.88 out of a possible 10 points. For the last ten years, it forms an inverted U-curve, rising under former President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón from 5.98 to 6.93 points in the BTI 2018, only to fall to the lowest score in a decade under President Iván Duque.

The 2016 peace process, which was lauded internationally – even earning the then President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel prize for his efforts – has been gradually weakened by the Duque’s government. The new president will likely make or break the success of the peace deal. It could be protected if the new leader commits to holding up the Colombian government’s side of the deal, for example, by offering aid to affected municipalities and protection for community leaders in areas where armed group violence is rising. Alternatively, the new president may extend Duque’s established pattern of intentionally thwarting the process. Of those in the running, Petro, who in his youth was a member of the now defunct M-19 rebel group and is a long-term advocate for social equality, is the only candidate pledging to work to restore the foundering peace deal.

Meanwhile the incoming leader will have to deal with the fallout of neighboring Venezuela’s humanitarian disaster: Food scarcity and violence has prompted around two million Venezuelan refugees to seek refuge in Colombia.

A volatile oil-based economy

The coronavirus pandemic sent the Colombian economy diving into the sharpest recession in more than a century. Now, GDP is projected to grow again by 5.5 percent in 2022 and 3.1 percent in 2023, but the search for “a decent and better life” remains a priority for many voters, explained Mariano Aguirre, associate fellow of Chatham House and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Bogotá, given that 19.6 million people in Colombia, out of a population of 50 million, were in poverty at the end of 2021, with 6.1 million living in extreme poverty.

“Many but not all these votes will go for Gustavo Petro,” he said in an interview. “But many will vote against him for fear of a too leftist government. These votes will be both from sectors of the middle class and the powerful elite that sees its privileges threatened. On the other hand, there will be voters from regions outside of Bogotá seeking to move away from the traditional ‘vote buying machine’ and deeply rooted local corruption. They are seeking new democratic ways of doing politics – many will turn to Petro in the hope he will change the status quo.”

The rival candidates for the 2022 election take starkly different stances on how they would steer Latin America’s fourth biggest economy. Colombia’s economy is tied to commodities, in particular oil, which makes up around half of total exports. This situation leaves it exposed to price shocks which, combined with the deep cleft between rich and poor, means that the potential for social unrest remains high, according to some observers. Petro has a track record of challenging President Duque’s emphasis on energy exploration along Colombia’s coasts. Instead, he seeks to turn Colombia into an energy transition frontrunner, for example by halting oil exploration and replacing fossil fuel income with income from renewables and other sectors.

Analysts meanwhile view the Colombian ballot in a broader context. Some see it as a test of a fledgling second Latin American “pink tide”, referring to the nickname for a wave of left-wing electoral victories on the continent in the 2000s. Recent left-wing victories included Gabriel Boric’s election in Chile and Xiomara Castro’s rise to power in Honduras, both dating from late 2021. Looking ahead, eyes will be fixed not just on Colombia’s historic vote but on general elections in Brazil in November to see how the next chapter unfolds.


A version of this article was first published on Fair Observer

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