Between Hope and Fear

The stakes couldn’t be higher in today’s Colombian elections. Here’s a quick guide of what to expect.

Gustavo Petro in Bogota, Colombia. Gabriel Aponte / Getty Images

Colombians are back at the polls for their presidential elections. Despite implementing a historical peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army (FARC-EP), lasting peace may depend on today’s outcome. With some popular opposition to the peace agreement and powerful factions of the political class benefitting from continued violence on one hand and social movements mobilizing for a continued effort for peace, justice, and reconciliation on the other, the country is highly divided. There are five main presidential candidates proposing very different visions for Colombia’s future. While neither of them is likely to get the absolute majority necessary to win in the first round, this Sunday’s vote is a crucial test of forces before the decisive second round vote on June 17.

The Contenders

Leading the polls since the parliamentary elections is the Democratic Center’s far-right candidate Ivan Duque. Throughout his political career, Duque was a close ally of former president Álvaro Uribe. While Duque’s is more measured in his rhetoric than Uribe, his proposals of revising the peace agreement, increasing military spending, and reinstalling paramilitary forces sounds like a return to Colombia’s dark past.

A recent investigation published by the Guardian has found that in the so-called “false positive” scandal of the Uribe years, the number of peasant farmers murdered was over ten thousand, three times higher than previously assumed.

Duque is merely a puppet for the term-limited Uribe in his desire to rule after eight years of being sidelined by the Santos administration. Besides his business interest of keeping the war and illicit drug economy alive, Uribe seeks personal vengeance on several accounts: the betrayal by Santos after getting him into power in 2010, the kidnapping and killing of his father by the FARC-EP, the “lying” and “terrorist” media spying on him, and the current soft foreign policy approach towards Venezuela, just to name a few.

In the parliamentary elections in March, Uribe flexed his muscles showing that he remains not only the most popular politician but also the most powerful man in Colombia. He controls the biggest faction in both houses, has a large army of paramilitaries at his disposal, and has built an economic empire through large land holdings, diversified conglomerates, cattle farming, and other more dubious businesses. And he is willing to use his power to influence the elections by any means necessary. A few weeks ago, a key witness in a Supreme Court case against Uribe was assassinated in broad daylight in Medellín.

Despite these scandals, Duque’s chances of winning the largest vote share in the first round on Sunday are high. Uribe’s popularity in much of rural Colombia, in his home town of Medellín, and among elderly voters is likely to lift Duque into the second round.

According to recent polling numbers the leftist Gustavo Petro will be Duque’s counterpart in the second round. As an ex- M-19 Movement guerrilla, Petro’s chances of securing a significant vote share seemed small at the beginning of the campaign. But the former Bogotá mayor has increased in popularity throughout the country making him the likely runner-up. And despite that the scaremongering of the communist threat still influences around 68 percent of the population, Petro’s “Humane Colombia” program of establishing an extensive welfare state has been well-received, particularly among the poor in Colombia Caribbean and Pacific coasts. In all parts of the country, Petro has managed to spark hope among progressive voters, drawing large crowds to his campaign speeches.

His program directly challenges dominant business interests to keep the society unequal, to maintain low-wage comparative advantages, and to continue with the country’s neoliberal extractivist economic model. This, combined with accusations of being “Castro-Chavista” due to his admiration for Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez, could be enough for him not to make it to the second round.

A potential Petro victory would further polarize an already fragmented nation. Many see him as a divider, as someone who acts out of spite, out of anger, always blaming the “evil elite.” He recently suggested that there will be electoral fraud to keep him out. This may push voters towards centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo. The former Antioquia governor and ex-mayor of Medellin does everything possible to project himself as a man of the people, the real alternative, acting neither out of vengeance nor spite. His constant changes of opinion, however, makes it difficult to place him anywhere on the political spectrum. Yet Fajardo’s reluctance to challenge Colombia’s current economic model makes him the alternative of upper class. Fajardo’s recent polling numbers surged significantly, which could help him surpass Petro to secure a spot in the second round.

Another candidate who should not be underestimated is the center-right German Vargas Lleras. Despite polling at just 6.6 percent, he controls much of what Colombians call “maquinaria” — local and regional political networks that mobilize voters — often through providing small monetary compensation or free lunches in exchange for votes. Many of these voters are not captured by the national polls making it hard to predict Vargas Lleras’s actual “support.”

When Vargas Lleras ran in the 2010 elections, he always polled last throughout the entire campaign. His close ties to this particular political machinery, however, lifted him to third place, right behind President Santos and Antanas Mockus. He used his years as vice-president between 2014 and 2017 to expand this clientelist political network making a surprise victory on Sunday not unlikely.

The almost forgotten fifth candidate is Santos’ chief peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle of the Liberal Party. De la Calle’s campaign never really took off. Instead of hoping for an actual victory on Sunday he seems to be looking forward to the election night so that this “candidacy he never wanted” can be over.

A Fragile Peace

The fragile peace is already threatened, as paramilitary groups and drug cartels have used the power vacuum left behind by the demobilized FARC-EP to expand their operations. Since the signing of the peace agreement 282 social leaders have been assassinated. The numbers of total homicides have increased by 7.2 percent, with so far this year.

If Ivan Duque is elected paramilitary violence could yet again be legitimized, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) substantially shortened, the process of reconciliation and land restitution reversed, the budget for reparations of victims slashed. Relations to Venezuela and Ecuador would also deteriorate.

However, the fears of another disappointing election night similar to the October 2016 referendum vote are countervailed by the hopes that the country can finally turn the page on its violent history. While today’s election will most likely result in a close victory for Duque, the combined share of the progressive and moderate vote is likely to be higher, giving hope that the far-right can be defeated in a second round.