Colombia: A polarized country ahead of key elections

With elections due to take place in several key Latin American countries before 2018 is out, there is certainly a lot at stake – both for the countries in question, and for overall regional and global dynamics. As election seasons are beginning to heat up in Mexico and Brazil, another country is about to enter into an election cycle which will have profound consequences for its future policy direction; Colombia.

With legislative elections having taking place earlier in March, presidential election campaigning is now in full swing. The first round of presidential elections will take place on May 27 and, most likely, a runoff will take place between the two leading candidates in June if no one candidate receives the percentage necessary to win outright in the first round (50% of votes).

Image Courtesy of Arturo de La Barrera via Flickr, © 2013, some rights reserved

And who are the contenders? A melting pot of candidates from across the political spectrum will try their luck in a few weeks’ time to win over the electorate of a country which is coming out of 50 years of conflict and features increasingly on travelers “must see” destinations, business agendas and company expansion plans. Current polls point to a second round run-off between far-left candidate Gustavo Petro and right-wing candidate Iván Duque. This scenario is not encouraging for center candidate Sergio Fajardo who has lost support in recent months and is now polling at third place according to voter intention polls. The candidates themselves are extremely divisive. Petro was the former mayor of the capital Bogotá (2011-14), senator (2006-10) and congressman (1991-94) prior to that. Petro’s rise in the polls has generated concern among foreign and local businesses alike, especially given his sympathies with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (who is deeply unpopular among the majority of Colombians), and his advocating for significant state control over the economy. Duque, on the other hand, is criticized for being the puppet of contentious former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), who would likely oversee a gradual erosion of democratic institutions if he is becomes president. He is also criticized by citizens who believe that he is ill-prepared for the presidency, and has no personal political gains to show for himself. Fajardo, who has advocated for a more conciliatory stance in most areas, has lost ground in recent months as the country becomes increasingly polarized and he is perceived to be too weak to unite the left and the right. As a result, many now see the options available to them not as a decision of the heart but one of the head, or as the lesser of two evils – a rightist with no real accomplishment to his name or an erratic, and potentially dangerous, leftist.

What is clear is that the rise of the two (particularly in the past few months) reflects a deep division in electorate and demonstrates the rejection of incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos. The electorate is tired of corruption, of inequality and of what are perceived to be self-serving politicians. This will be reflected in the urns – Petro, Duque and Fajardo have all sought to capitalize on disillusionment, albeit through different policy agendas and appeals.

What exactly is at stake? The continuation of the peace agreement with the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group is one of the most tangible items on the agenda. Whereas Petro and Fajardo would broadly promote the continuity of peace agreements, Duque proposes modifying certain aspects of the accords, for example making narco-trafficking an offense for which no amnesty is granted. Either way, the government’s approach to the FARC and to the other guerilla group who has not yet reached an agreement with the government, the National Liberation Army (ELN) will continue to divide families, regions and neighbourhoods – each with their own experience of the conflict and deep beliefs as to how they believe a peacetime Colombia should look. It is for this reason that one of the major deciders of the election is likely to be divided among points of view as to how the government should take to terrorist groups.

Other topics which have been thrust to the forefront of politics in recent history are also going to be watched closely; corruption being one of the main ones. Colombians, like many other citizens of Latin America, are growing increasingly intolerant of corrupt behavior after the exposure of a number of scandals from 2016 which saw high-level politicians implicated in numerous bribe-for-contract schemes. Each of the presidential candidates has promised to adopt an anti-corruption agenda, but it remains to be seen how far they will be able to advance this, given that each party lacks an outright majority in Congress. For example, in March congressional elections, right-leaning parties won 86 of 171 seats in the lower house but it only won 50 out of 107 seats in the Senate (upper house). Regardless of who wins, the president will have to take into account legislative alliances and promises to advance an agenda.

This is a broader issue – the lack of any one party or movement in Congress will generate certain legislative deadlock can be expected, with some legislation being passed on a case-by-case basis, according to the particular interests and beliefs of congressional benches. On the one hand, this means that legislative changes will be slow, and those hoping for a blanket improvement in conditions for business will be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, no sudden shifts in policy are likely. That is, even if Petro wins the election, he is unlikely to be able to gain congressional support for any extreme measures.

2018 promises to be a tumultuous year for Colombia. Whatever happens in the urns, some changes to the political status quo can be expected. What is clear is that the polarnisation that has marked recent years will continue, with diverse views on what the future of the country should look like. It also remains to be seen just how far candidates can advance their agendas, and then just how close an eventual presidency resembles the multitude of promises normally given during the campaign.