Colombia Shifts Right as Nation Polarizes

Colombians are going to the polls today. The leading candidates are Ivan Duque and Gustavo Petro, followed by unlikely also-rans Sergio Fajardo and German Vargas Lleras. This piece was contributed by Colombia Politics‘ Kevin Howlett.

Kevin wrote in his first paragraph of analysis before the September 2016 referendum on the FARC peace deal:

President Santos will implement the agreement regardless of the outcome of the vote. Plenty of his supporters have been making the case that a referendum is unnecessary. They argue he has a right and constitutional duty to push ahead. It is almost inconceivable that Santos would let the public get in the way of something on which he has spent the entirety of his political capital.

Follow Kevin on Twitter. The only thing I added from the bird’s eye view of having left Colombia seven years ago now, Petro’s campaign is inherently disadvantaged by the fact that he was a unanimously shitty mayor of Bogota, which is the liberal and left-wing base of the country. Many of Bogota’s educated professionals who might be open to Petro instead of uribismo are going to remember his inept administration of city government.

Alternate Title: Uribe’s Return

Ivan Duque

Predictions are a fool’s errand. But, unless the Colombian elite pull off the biggest vote-buying operation in history, ex-President Alvaro Uribe’s youthful protege Ivan Duque will win tomorrow’s election by a landslide.

Will the margin be enough to avoid a second-round run off? Probably not, but come August (when the new president is sworn in), Duque and Uribe will be ruling Colombia in a Tandemocracy, reminiscent of Russia’s Putin Medvedev years.

Gustavo Petro

Leftist Gustavo Petro will lose but claim a moral victory. He will become the highest-profile opposition leader and spend the next four years in a media war against a new Duque-led uribismo, which he will paint as corrupt and linked to right-wing paramilitaries.

Any hope of a centrist candidate coming to power from the current generation of leaders will be virtually extinguished. The denouement of the cerebral but bland Sergio Fajardo will be a painful reminder for many that Colombia’s peace process has done little to heal old wounds. Instead it has continued to polarize the nation and chase its political class down a rabbit hole of populism.

It is said that every election since the late 1980s has been fought on how to beat the FARC, by the sword or through a negotiated end to hostilities. Andres Pastrana won in 1988 promising peace talks, the failure of which led to eight years of Uribe and an uncompromising volley of bullets and a blanket of bombs.

At the end of his second term, Uribe picked hardline defense minister Juan Manuel Santos to finish off the FARC, but Santos bet on peace. After years of talks in Havana an agreement was reached, only to be voted down in a referendum. Santos ignored the vote, further polarizing a nation that is desperate to see the back of him. The failure of Santos to sell peace and the arrogance of a partially demobilized FARC is the prism through which the 2018 campaign has been fought.

This was supposed to be the first election in 20 years that wasn’t about the FARC. But it hasn’t worked out like that, with the left claiming to be the guardians of peace, while the right claim the left are exculpating the FARC, or worse in the case of Petro, operating as a political wing like Sinn Fein in Ireland.

Uribe has just lost one of all the elections since 2002, when he entered the presidential palace for the first time. He won again in 2006 and then in 2010 (with Santos) promising militarily to defeat the FARC. In 2014 with the peace talks faltering, Uribe’s candidate, after having fallen out publicly with President Juan Manuel Santos, the uncharismatic Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, lost by a whisker amid allegations of widespread vote-buying (by those linked to the winner).

Alvaro Uribe is the sort of figure expats love to hate. His folksy charm is too rustic for their tastes. But more importantly, his authoritarian style makes them squeamish, and his alleged links to far-right paramilitaries mean for some he is beyond the pale. Many millions of Colombians love him for his admonishing and bellicose ways.

Expats should worry less about Duque. He’s a young centrist who can sing and dance with vallenato acts, he looks natural and at home in the barrios and in the television studios. He is relatively calm under attack and, although his inexperience sometimes shows, his arguments are cogent enough. He’s inoffensive to look at with a polite manner. Duque’s vice-presidential ticket is the sanguine and sane Marta Lucia Ramirez, who served in Uribe’s government and ran herself in 2014, doing surprisingly well.

If the polls are right, it’s Duque or Gustavo Petro, the polemicist, made for opposition, not for government. Petro spent his years as mayor of Bogota raging against the establishment, business, the courts, the media… A populist but with little charm. An undoubtedly intelligent man, but an ideologue who spits poison.

Polls give German Vargas Lleras no chance. He’s been in single digits throughout the entire campaign. Vargas Lleras has most of the electoral barons on his side, and he has the support of the Colombian elite, a fierce and inestimably ruthless bunch. It’s highly unlikely, but we cannot rule out him sneaking through to the second round.

You see, the “opinion vote” as Colombians call it, is a relatively small percentage of the electorate. While more than 50% of Colombians abstain, a large proportion of the rest comes from those who sell their votes for money or trade it for patronage, a favor here, a job there.

It’s Duque, or Petro, or the Colombian oligarchy. It’s only four years, what’s the worst…

From the archive: Petro’s 2010 campaign headquarters.

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