democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Colombia set to vote for historic change with first left-wing president

Gustavo Petro looks set to surf to victory on the ‘Pink Tide’ of left-wing wins sweeping across South America

democracia Abierta
27 May 2022, 12.00am
A supporter of Colombian left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro listens to the politician at a rally, May 2022
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Reuters/Luisa Gonzalez

For the first time in Colombia’s history, a left-wing candidate looks set to win Sunday’s presidential election.

Gustavo Petro, a 62-year-old militant-turned-politician, who’s championed by much of the country’s younger population, is expected to build on the success of the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ sweeping the continent – with recent left-wing victories in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Brazil may yet be caught up in its waves come its election in October.

Petro’s opportunity comes amid a growing economic crisis, with Colombia’s inflation rate at 9.23%, its highest for 22 years, and unemployment at 12%, the worst for a decade. According to figures from the government’s statistics agency, 39.3% of Colombia’s population of 50 million were living in poverty at the end of last year, with 6.1 million in ‘extreme poverty’.

The current president, Iván Duque, is not eligible to run for a second term. Whoever succeeds him will need to fix a pandemic-stricken economy, rampant inequality and unprecedented social unrest, which has led to numerous protests marred by the murders of demonstrators by police.

According to a survey by pollster YanHaas last month, among Colombians’ main concerns are corruption (20%), the economy (28%), unemployment (14%) and insecurity (14%). Some 85% of respondents also say security in cities has worsened in the past four years.

So who will Colombia choose as its next president? Here’s what you need to know.

Gustavo Petro

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Left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro is the current favourite

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Reuters/Luisa Gonzalez

For the first time, the Left has a real chance to win a presidential election in Colombia, with Petro leading the polls with 40%, according to YanHaas.

A former militant of the left-wing guerrilla organisation, M-19, Petro received a pardon in 1991, a year after M-19 laid down its weapons. He soon moved into politics, working his way up to becoming a senator for the Polo Democrático party in 2006. After coming fourth in the 2010 presidential election, he won the mayoralty of the capital, Bogotá, in 2012, before coming second in the 2018 presidential elections with eight million votes.

As head of Pacto Histórico, a progressive coalition, Petro is now hoping to make it third time lucky in the presidential race, although he may yet require a run-off on 19 June should he fail to take more than 50% of the first-round vote.

His main proposals include the creation of a Ministry of Equality, the implementation of an energy transition from extractivism to decarbonisation, and achieving 50% female representation in public institutions. His running mate, Francia Marquez, is poised to become the first Afro-Colombian woman to hold the country’s vice-presidency.

While Petro has enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls, he has not managed to escape controversy in the lead up to the election. In April, Petro claimed criminals were planning to infiltrate his presidential campaign with dirty money. Then, earlier this month, he announced he was cancelling a number of campaign events after alleging a plot by a drug-trafficking organisation to murder him.

A Petro victory would mark a historic shift in Colombian politics, which has been dominated by the Right for more than 50 years. He has been explicit in his support of LGBTIQ rights, and advocated for more women in politics. On environmental matters, he has pledged to move the country away from fossil fuels, halt new oil projects, and increase taxes on extractive industries such as mining. Such policies have not been welcomed by all, with former finance minister Juan Carlos Echeverry claiming halting oil exploration would be “economic suicide”.

In addition, Petro has proposed a $13.5m tax legislation overhaul, which would tax the richest to help fund social programmes as well as ensuring older people without pensions receive monthly payments of around $125.

Federico 'Fico' Gutiérrez

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Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez is Petro's closest challenger

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Reuters/Luisa Gonzalez

Petro’s nearest rival is Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez, who at 48 is the youngest challenger in the field.

Undoubtedly viewed as the most pro-government candidate and the natural successor to Duque, Gutiérrez is polling at 21%.

His political career began in the city of Medellín, where he served as a councillor before progressing to a three-year spell as mayor. When he stepped down in 2019, Fico left with an 80% approval rating, no mean feat in a country where discontent reigns.

Fico bases his political plan on preserving democracy and freedoms. He offers voters an opportunity to continue on the current path of government, promoting extractivism and an ironclad security policy that has so far failed to put a stop to the multitude of militias, paramilitaries, dissidents from the former FARC guerrilla organisation, and criminal gangs that operate with impunity in the country.

Ahead of the election, Gutiérrez has warned that the Colombian economy will need to grow by more than 5% if the country is to successfully tackle deep inequality. He has also pledged to fund a basic income for the poorest households, and has mooted free higher education for the poorest students.

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Rodolfo Hernandez (left) speaks with Sergio Fajardo (right) after a debate in Bogota, Colombia, 26 April, 2022

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Cristian Bayona/Long Visual

Rodolfo Hernández

While Gutiérrez is hoping to make the presidential run-off, Rodolfo Hernández is quietly sneaking up behind him.

The 77-year-old millionaire businessman has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump for his political position as a right-wing populist outside of the Colombian establishment.

Known as ‘the engineer’ due to his work as a civil engineer, Hernández was mayor of Bucaramanga between 2016 and 2019. He is currently facing an investigation by the attorney general’s office over allegations of corruption surrounding a waste management tender during his time in office. Hernández strongly denies the allegations.

As head of the League of Anti-Corruption Governors party, he wants to promote a negotiation process with the National Liberation Army, the comprehensive promotion of the 2016 Peace Accord, and a strengthening of the armed forces.

Hernández has also pledged to donate his presidential salary to social programs.

Sergio Fajardo

Sergio Fajardo, the centre-Right candidate, finished third in the 2018 election behind Duque and Petro.

A former mayor of Medellín between 2003 and 2007, he went on to become governor of Antioquia between 2012 and 2015.

He holds a PhD in mathematics and is a university professor. His proposals include boosting free education through improved connectivity and infrastructure, and improving environmental policy. But he is increasingly losing ground in the polls and is not expected to make it past the first round.

Ingrid Betancourt

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Ingrid Betancourt speaks during an election debate at the Externado University in Bogota, 29 March, 2022

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Reuters/Luisa Gonzalez

Ingrid Betancourt is the only woman in the presidential race. She leads her own political party, Verde Oxígeno, but has little chance of winning.

One of Colombia’s best known female politicians, Betancourt has stood twice before for the presidency. Most infamously, she was kidnapped by FARC in 2002 and kept in captivity for six years before being rescued during Operation Jaque in 2008.

Her proposals include an anti-corruption plan, a fund fed by the recovery of embezzlement and criminal proceeds from corrupt politicians and officials. She has also suggested an ad hoc interdisciplinary group to identify, prosecute and recover cartel assets from corrupt officials and politicians. While these are ambitious proposals that would benefit the country, they are unlikely to materialise given her miniscule chance of electoral success.

Enrique Gómez Martínez and John Milton Rodríguez

Enrique Gómez Martínez and John Milton Rodríguez are two conservative candidates, who, according to the polls, have no chance of making it to the second round.

Gómez, the candidate of the Salvación Nacional party, proposes repealing abortion law, maintaining the spraying of illicit crops with glyphosate, and strengthening the security forces.

Milton is a candidate for Colombia Justa Libres, a party of evangelical origin, which brings together almost all religious currents in the country. He is anti-abortion, and opposes same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples. He has also criticised the reception of Venezuelan migrants into the country.

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Left-wing sweep

Victory for Petro would take Colombia in a new, unfamiliar direction, finally bringing an end to decades of rule by the Right.

If Gutiérrez triumphs, meanwhile, the Colombian Right is likely to consolidate its decades of power in the country, despite the growing economic problems and social unrest.

Either way, Colombians are torn between a conservative fear of an unknown shift to the Left and hope for positive change, which would perhaps bring an end to so much suffering for so many. This is a decisive moment, Colombia must choose which way it wants to walk.

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