The oldest continuously functioning democracy in South America will hold this Sunday, May 29, the first round of the presidential elections. The country has always been ruled by presidents from the right-wing, center-right, or center. But never before has a leftist candidate had a real chance of coming to power and being the new tenant of Casa de Nariño, the Colombian presidential palace.
The political tension is high, as these elections take place three years after the beginning of a new period of social upheaval in the country, aggravated by the pandemic and the economic crisis, with large demonstrations and intense police repression condemned by the UN and the European Union. All of this ‘seasoned’ with an air of persistent violence in the countryside, where the departure of the now ex-guerrilla, the FARC, left room for other violent groups from the extreme left and the extreme right.
Thirty-nine million Colombians are eligible to vote this Sunday, but voting is not mandatory in Colombia. Since the turn of the century, only half of the electorate, on average, has turned out to vote, and that turnout is gradually falling even further.
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In the last two months, candidate Gustavo Petro, from the left, has passed through four parties. He is currently at Colombia Humana, which is part of the center-left “Pacto Histórico” coalition, launched last year and has been in pole position in polls.
In second place is Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, from the traditional right and Creemos Colombia party. Created in 2015, the party is part of the “Equipo por Colombia” coalition, launched last year.
Over the past few months, Petro has boasted, on average, more than ten percentage points over “Fico,” and, until the beginning of the week before last, everything indicated that Petro’s rival in an eventual runoff in June would be the candidate of Creemos.
In the past two weeks, however, the campaign has taken a turn with the persistent growth of the third-placed businessman Rodolfo Hernández, 76, a right-wing populist who declares himself a political “outsider” and is often called “Colombian Trump.” Hernández would be in a technical tie with “Fico.”
A survey by the Latin American Strategic Center for Geopolitics (Celag, in the acronym in Spanish) indicates that Petro would have 45.1% of voting intentions. In second place would be Hernández, with 20.4%, followed by Fico Gutiérrez, with 20.1%.
However, in the hypothetical scenario of a second round between Petro and Hernández, the situation gets complicated for the left-wing candidate. Polls by Centro Nacional de Consultas indicate that there would be a technical tie between the two, of 40.5% each.
Two weeks ago, Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate for Colombia‘s Green Party, withdrew her candidacy and declared her support for Hernández. Betancourt became internationally famous after being kidnapped and held hostage by the FARC for six years. Betancourt had captured low voting intentions. But thanks to her, Hernández is left with an ally who has a good reputation.
For this reason, last weekend, Petro appealed to his supporters to “get busy” with the campaign in order to still win in the first round since the projections of the Celag poll indicate that he could have 48% of the votes. . That is, the plan is to make a final effort in this “sprint,” to “sprint,” to achieve the necessary proportion to win in the first round.
A campaign marked by fake news and accusations
The campaign was marked by the candidates’ most varied types of complaints.
Petro was accused of being an agent of “Castro-Chavismo” (a term created in Colombia many years ago to designate the alliance between the Chavista regime in Venezuela and the Castro regime in Cuba) and drug traffickers. Petro and his allies have debunked the conspiracy theories.
But Petro also made some accusations of his own, saying that the government of right-wing President Iván Duque has a hypothetical plan to suspend the first round on Sunday. However, Petro did not give additional details about his accusations.
The Colombian government replied that there is no suspension planned for the first round, as this could only occur in the event of a national catastrophe, such as an earthquake or something similar.
Weakened center parties and politicians in trouble
Center parties have always presented themselves in Colombia as a “viable change.” That is the feasibility of winning and then governing without major complications in Parliament. However, these centrist parties have been losing electoral power since the 2018 election, when Petro reached the second round and obtained 42% of the votes, narrowly losing to President Iván Duque, who will step down on August 7.
Duque, a right-wing candidate with a record low approval rating (around 80%), could not place a candidate for this year’s elections. He and his former political godfather, former president Alvaro Uribe, had a candidate, Oscar Zuluaga. But the latter ended up withdrawing his candidacy months ago.
Surveys indicate that 60% of citizens say that the economic situation of their homes is “regular, bad or terrible,” and 90% of respondents say that the country’s situation, in general, is also “regular, bad or very bad.”
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Colombia’s leading candidates for the presidential elections
At the age of 62, he was a militant of the M-19, a group that was, at the same time, a political party and a left-wing guerrilla in the 1980s. The group became famous for the bloody invasion of the country’s Justice Palace in 1985. It was one of the few military actions of the M-19, more marked by student activity in large cities.
The American writer F.Scott Fitzgerald used to say that “there are no second acts in American lives.” But Américo Martín, a famous extreme-leftist ex-Venezuelan guerrilla who died last February at the age of 84, paraphrased this sentence, stating ironically that “in Latin America, there are no second acts for ex-guerrillas” — in an indication that there were very few cases of success in democratic life for those who had been guerrillas.
But Petro is not a guerrilla; he has never participated in combat. He devoted himself to political speeches at student assemblies and the distribution of pamphlets. Still, he was imprisoned for a year and a half for being a member of the M-19. He later went into exile in Belgium, specializing in environmental matters. In 1990, the M-19 and the Colombian government made a peace agreement.
Upon returning to Colombia, he returned to the political life of his country, being elected federal deputy. Later he was mayor of Bogotá, the country’s capital (but with management considered “lack”), and senator. His current party is Colombia Humana.
This is the third time that Petro has run for president. As the first left-wing candidate with real chances of coming to power, he named his heterogeneous coalition of parties “Pacto Histórico”(Historical Pact), which brings together historical parties (such as Colombia‘s Communist Party), ecological parties, political groups of indigenous peoples, among others.
To avoid critique from feminists, who said they had no plans in favor of the cause, he invited Afro-Colombian Francia Márquez, runner-up at the party’s convention in March, to be vice president.
Petro currently proposes greater political participation and representation for women. One of his goals is for women to occupy 50% of civil service posts. He promises to create the “Ministry of Equality” to achieve this goal.
He also plans Police reform, aiming at avoiding the frequent human rights violations demonstrations, as well as changes in the funding of the armed forces, as they no longer need the vast amounts of money that they used to when fighting FARC guerrillas (who laid down their arms in 2016).
The leftist candidate says Colombia needs to move from a fossil energy matrix to a decarbonized economy. For this reason, he intends to ban the exploration of unconventional deposits of gas and oil. In his sights is also open-pit mining.
The candidate also wants to “democratize” land ownership in order to put an end to “unproductive large estates” (in this case, favoring the right of rural families). To move on with such plans (that worry the market), Petro would have to count on substantial support in Parliament, that is, the majority of its votes, which he doesn’t have.
The Colombian Parliament comprises 108 senators and 187 deputies (parliamentary elections were held in March, before the presidential elections). Petro has 16 seats in the Senate and 25 in the Chamber of Deputies. This number indicates a historic growth over what they had before.
The traditional right-wing Liberal Party, for example, has 15 senators and 32 deputies. For this reason, if Petro is elected president, he will need to be flexible to get support from the center-left and the center.
In fact, he has moved towards the center over the last few years, away from his old comrades in the purist left’s militancy. Petro avoids calling himself a “leftist,” classifying himself as a “progressive.”
Federico “Fico” Gutierrez
A 47-year-old civil engineer, and security consultant, who entered politics in the first decade of this century. He was the councilor of the city of Medellín before becoming its mayor in 2015 (his candidacy, at the time, was approved through a massive petition from the citizens of Medellín and not through a political party).
He made the fight against crime his main flag in the administration of that city. But the secretary of security himself was the protagonist of a scandal when he was arrested for ties to local gangs (he had exchanged favors with criminals to show results in his management).
He ended his term with an 80% approval. In 2018, evidence of how he supposedly used public funds to pay for campaigns on social media, using bots and fake accounts against other politicians, came to light.
His only credential for these elections is his tenure as mayor of Medellín. During his rule, he was nicknamed “sheriff.” Now and then, he participated in the pursuit of criminals during night police patrols. Not in a regular police car on the streets, but from the skies, in a helicopter that had the ironic nickname of “Ficopter.”
Fico avoids labeling himself as a representative of the “right,” preferring to say, in a colossally generic way, that he is part of the “common sense ideology.”
He is always smiling, with a powerful “paisa” accent (the Medellín accent); he speaks without resorting to the classic shouting of regional politicians.
Aesthetically, he belongs to the current South American right that, in the last decade, has chosen to appear in a jacket but without a tie.
Fico avoids appearing alongside President Iván Duque and former President Álvaro Uribe, who are on the stricter right than Gutiérrez. But he has the backing of traditional parties like the Centro Democrático, Partido Liberal, and Partido Conservador.
In the campaign, he insisted on an anti-Petro speech. Gutiérrez presents himself as the only alternative to defeat Petro and thus avoid “communism in Colombia.” According to him, the leftist candidate is a “friend of the FARC” and the Chavista regime in Venezuela.
He often uses the mantra “o nos unimos o nos jodemos” (or we get together or we are f…). But analysts maintain that the failure of Duque’s government, together with the controversies generated by former President Uribe, led the Colombian conventional right to a lack of strength to impose itself at the polls.
For this reason, many potential voters who are fearful of the left have begun to think about redirecting their vote. Instead of betting for Fico, they would vote for the other right-wing candidate, Rodolfo Hernández.
The 77-year-old populist politician, nicknamed “the Colombian Donald Trump” and “El Viejito” (“The Old Man”), is a construction entrepreneur who made his fortune building and selling affordable housing (he was a “ bank” at the same time, as it provided credit for purchases of these homes). His parents were peasants.
Hernández, who says he has a fortune of $100 million, rose in the polls with an anti-corruption speech, catalyzing the irritation of vast sectors of the population with the country’s historic political class, with the parties of the right, center, and left.
Hernández claims that political parties are corrupt and spend taxpayers’ money. He maintains that Colombia suffers a “bleeding” carried out by “100,000 thieves” (he cites the number as specific) and promises to sell the planes and automobiles used by the authorities, in addition to turning the presidential palace into a museum.
One of his daughters was kidnapped in 2004 by FARC guerrillas and was never seen again. At the time, he stated that he would not pay the ransom.
He skyrocketed in the polls with the speech, “Colombia does not grow because politicians steal the country” he soared in the polls. Analysts indicate that Hernández tries to reduce everything to corruption. If he is asked about education in an interview, he takes the matter to corruption. And it uses the same modus operandi with mining, ecology, etc. The name of Hernández’s coalition has nothing to do with this theme: “League of anti-corruption governors.”
He also has a “spontaneous way of being,” which consists of an arsenal of profanity in his statements and appearing in his pajamas giving interviews. A video from his time as mayor slapping an alderperson in the face became famous years ago and is now going viral.
The septuagenarian candidate has achieved much success among young people from the lower class, as he appears on TikTok on top of an electric scooter.
Hernández refused to participate in presidential candidates’ debates. He claims that this is a “waste of time.”
The “Colombian Trump” also declared himself a fan of Adolf Hitler, “the great German thinker.” Days later, in the face of negative repercussions, he tried to fix it, saying he had confused Hitler with Albert Einstein. However, there is no similar sounding between “Hitler” and “Einstein ” surnames.”
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Guerrilla warfare (for context)
Since the 1960s, Colombia has been the scene of the longest and bloodiest internal war in South America. Generally, Latin American internal wars are fought by a guerrilla group against the government on duty. But in the case of Colombia, things were more complex since it was a fight of all against all.
The main protagonists were the FARC, which began in the 1960s inspired by the romanticized Marxism of Cuba. At first, they resorted to bank robberies and kidnappings to raise funds. However, in the 1980s, they realized that it was more profitable – albeit against the precepts of Karl Marx – to resort to coca cultivation and cocaine smuggling.
A smaller guerrilla, that of the National Liberation Army (ELN, the acronym in Spanish), also entered the picture. But while the FARC had a vertical command, the ELN was a micro-guerrilla federation (with an ideology that mixes Marxism-Leninism, extreme nationalism, and liberation theology Christianity) without a unified command for most of its existence.
The other actor in the internal war in Colombia is the right-wing paramilitary groups, which emerged as forces parallel to the army and gradually acquired autonomy and began to dedicate themselves to drug trafficking.
In their heyday in the 1990s, left-wing guerrilla groups and paramilitaries came to control more than a third of the country (basically jungle zones).
All these groups fought each other. And all, separately, against the Colombian state.
Until the peace agreement between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrillas, they were responsible for 60% of Colombian drug production and paramilitary groups for 40%. But the departure of the FARC from the scene, with the demobilization of its guerrillas, opened a vacuum that other groups used to expand, especially the “Bacrim,” as the criminal bands are called, which are multitasking organizations such as La Empresa, Nueva Gente, and Gente del Orden. These groups result of the “marriage” of the remnants of the great cartels of the past, such as the Cali or Medellín Cartel, and the paramilitaries and ex-guerrillas. The biggest of all is Clan Úsuga, which has come to be called Clan of the Gulf in recent years. This group is already responsible for 50% of the country’s drug production.
The ELN is currently engaged in the smuggling of ore and oil and has excellent relations with the regime in Venezuela’s neighboring country, where it also has part of its business.
Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes