Presidential election in Colombia: a shaken country seems on the left, but will voters make a historic pivot?

On Sunday, a strong electorate of 39 million people will be able to vote in the first round of voting. If none of the candidates wins by an absolute majority, there will be a second round, scheduled for June 19.

Here’s what you need to know about the elections in Colombia.

The last election was 4 years ago. Why is there another so soon?

Colombian presidents are only elected for a single four-year term. And Colombians are ready for change: Right-wing President Iván Duque’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, his tenure tainted by his administration’s handling of police conduct, inequality and clashes between organized crime groups .

This discontent put the left in sight of the presidency for the first time in the country’s history. Meanwhile, more conservative candidates are rallying voters to trust a series of more progressive reforms to correct Colombia’s course.

Running ?

While there are 6 candidates in the running, only three candidates should break through to voters, according to the latest polls.

Frontrunner Gustavo Petro is a former guerrilla fighter and mayor of Bogota, whose 2022 candidacy marks his third presidential campaign. The 62-year-old left-wing candidate is running on a platform that proposes a radical overhaul of the country’s economy to tackle one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. The former guerrilla fighter, who now preaches reconciliation and an end to violence, framed his campaign around whether Colombia is ready to elect a revolutionary. He campaigned to attract foreign investment in clean energy, new technologies, transport and telecommunications.

Petro is expected to face right-wing candidate Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, 47, a former mayor of Medellin. Gutierrez sends a message of continuity, saying Colombia must follow the same path of economic growth and business-friendly policies that it has for the past two decades.

Meanwhile, 77-year-old entrepreneur Rodolfo Hernandez, the former mayor of Bucaramanga – Colombia’s 7th largest city, has grown in popularity in recent weeks, attracting centrist voters who reject revolutionary calls from Petro and Gutierrez traditionalism. Hernandez’s unique social media campaign has drawn comparisons to that of former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The self-proclaimed ‘King of TikTok’ has taken a confrontational stance with mainstream media: He hasn’t appeared on several of the TV debates hosted by major Colombian broadcasters and has rarely given interviews to foreign media – although he appeared on CNN, dressed in his pajamas, saying he was a “man of the people”.

Rodolfo Hernandez greets supporters at Palonegro International Airport in Bucaramanga, Colombia on May 21.

The first black vice-president?

Petro’s running mate, vice-presidential candidate Francia Marquez, has sent shock waves through the Colombian political scene. The 40-year-old black feminist and single mother garnered the third-highest number of votes in March’s primary election, with her charismatic rallies drawing supporters across the country. If elected, she would become the first Afro-Colombian woman to hold executive powers.

Colombians of African descent, the second largest such community in South America, have long been marginalized in politics and society. Marquez’s candidacy gave millions of Afro-Colombians a chance to identify with a national politician – and hope for societal change in their country.

Francia Marquez is seen at a vice-presidential campaign event in Bogota on March 22.

During a recent speech in Bogotá, she quoted Martin Luther King saying that she also had “a dream to see my country in peace.”

Compared to Petro, who has been in politics for 20 years, Marquez is part of a new wave of progressive leftists in Latin America who prioritize issues like the environment. In 2018, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for successfully organizing a women’s group to end illegal gold mining on their ancestral lands. She also advocates for LGBTQ rights, gender issues and economic equality.

The economy, security and drugs

Colombia has been one of the fastest growing countries in Latin America in recent years, but this growth is not trickling down to working families and the poorest populations.

Petro is relying on voters disappointed by the country’s economic outlook and who have suffered the most over the past four years as wages have stagnated under Duque’s leadership.

Overall, the country is wealthier than it has been since Duque came to power in 2018, but the value of the worker’s average annual salary has fallen significantly, with the Colombian peso falling 40% from against the dollar since. This situation is only exacerbated by rising inflation and the war in Ukraine.

Colombia made a peace deal with guerrilla groups years ago.  So why is violence on the rise?

Gutierrez instead points to past growth, saying that rather than an overhaul, the Colombian economy needs targeted reforms to follow the same path of development. While Hernandez also tries to tap into some voters’ discontent with the traditional political system, his approach to the economy – with a focus on corruption – is more moderate than Petro’s.

A shopper buys produce at Silvia Market in Cauca, Colombia this month.  Colombian inflation hit its fastest pace since July 2000 in April.

On neighboring Venezuela, Petro said he plans to restore diplomatic relations, even with strongman Nicolás Maduro in power. Meanwhile, Gutierrez told CNN last week that he was ready to reopen commercial relations on the Venezuelan border, but was reluctant to acknowledge what he calls “a dictatorship that has caused so much harm to the people “.

The election is also being held as the country’s security situation deteriorates.

Earlier this month, the notorious ‘Clan del Golfo’ drug cartel imposed an ‘armed curfew’ in retaliation for the US extradition of Diaro Usuga ‘Otoniel’, one of its bosses, with six people killed and more than 180 vehicles attacked across the country. Caribbean coast.

And in the first three months of this year alone, nearly 50,000 Colombians have been forcibly confined following continued clashes between armed groups, according to the United Nations.

A Colombian soldier stands guard near the port city of Buenaventura, Colombia this month.
The violence is linked to the production and trafficking of narcotics in the country, with the production of cocaine in Colombia having increased considerably in recent years. The pandemic has coincided with an upsurge in criminal activity, with several groups exercising de facto control over large swathes of Colombian territory, including the regions of Arauca, Cauca and Catatumbo.

How to restore state control over these areas – and fight the cartels – is a key conversation in this election and will pose a formidable challenge for the next president.

Petro has proposed tackling the problem by legalizing cannabis and partially decriminalizing the use of cocaine and other drugs. He said he was in favor of engaging with criminal groups through peace agreements similar to the 2016 peace deal with the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), which ended more than half a century of guerrilla warfare between the state and communist rebels. Petro has come under fire for his promises of “democratization of the land” and “social forgiveness” to convicted felons, including those charged with corruption.

In contrast, Gutierrez supports a more traditional approach in tackling crime. As mayor of Medellin, he was nicknamed ‘the sheriff’ for his involvement in police raids on gangsters and took that ethos with him today, promising to create new special police units targeting robberies and nationwide killings, and building more prisons.

As all the candidates lay out their plans for the future, how Colombia is mending the wounds of its past will be equally present on the ballot.


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