Divisive Elections in Colombia: The Legacy of a War-Torn Country


(EFE/Mauricio Duenas Castaneda)

The first round of presidential elections in Colombia revealed widespread political division when voters took to the polls last week. With neither candidate winning a majority of the votes, a runoff election has been scheduled for June 17. Votes will be cast between the top two candidates: Iván Duque of the Democratic Center Party, and Gustavo Petro of the Progressive Movement. Duque and Petro have radically opposite views on issues at the forefront of Colombian politics: the peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group, the need for economic reform, the widespread government corruption, and the relations between Colombia and Venezuela.

Duque, who won 39 percent of the votes, is a right wing politician that maintains close ties to Álvaro Uribe, the former president and current congressional leader of Duque’s Democratic Center Party. As a former advisor to both Colombia’s Ministry of Finance and the Inter-American Development Bank, Duque stands as the traditional establishment candidate, with a strong base of support in the business community.

His opponent, Gustavo Petro, the leftist ex-mayor of Bogotá, won 25 percent of the votes. In his youth, Petro was a member of left-wing guerrilla group M-19, which became a political party after disarming itself in 1991. Positioned as the anti-establishment candidate, he presents a radically different future for Colombia. If Petro were to be elected, he would be the first left-wing president, setting a precedent for a country that has historically elected conservative candidates. The fact that Petro has qualified for the runoff elections shows that many Colombians want a change from what his supporters consider the corrupt political ruling class.

Many Colombians see this year’s presidential election as a referendum on the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This agreement marked the end of the longest running conflict in the Western hemisphere, resulting in the death of 260,000 people and the displacement of 7 million.

Conservative figures like Duque and Uribe oppose the peace agreement because they believe it is too lenient on FARC leaders. Duque has criticized the FARC leaders’ ability to run for public office without serving sentences for their crimes or compensating their victims. In addition, under this agreement, drug trafficking is considered a political crime, making it eligible for amnesty. Duque has promised to reform such policies if elected.

Moreover, the current government has agreed to offer FARC members monthly payments to voluntarily destroy their coca crops. However, since coca crop production is on the rise in Colombia, Duque has vouched to make illicit crop eradication mandatory. Thus, Duque stated that while he will not shatter the agreement, he emphasized that “a Colombia of peace is a Colombia where peace meets justice.”

In contrast, instead of solely focusing on the conflict with the FARC, Petro blames former President Álvaro Uribe for aiding right-wing paramilitary groups that violently fought leftist insurgency groups like the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The paramilitary coalition that Uribe supported was responsible for the largest number of human rights abuses in the conflict.

While Petro supports the peace deal, he also agrees that the government needs to make reforms “that would allow for a long-term coexistence” between Colombian society and the guerrilla group. These reforms include changes to public education, health care, pensions, and — most notably — access to credit. Currently, private banks only lend to the wealthy. Duque plans to lower barriers to obtaining loans and strengthen public banking to help small and medium-sized farmers gain access to credit. By granting new economic opportunities to the working class, this policy would curb the influence of rebel groups such as the FARC and the ELN.

This election cycle is also noteworthy because it is the first time in recent history that voters place substantial importance on economic policy rather than solely on policies to defeat leftist insurgents.

Duque advocates for an economic policy that encourages international investment in the country. He claims that Colombia’s regulations and taxes on private enterprises stunt its economic growth. He calls for a decrease in government spending to reduce public debt, and tax cuts for businesses to increase investment and create jobs. Moreover, Duque wants to expand the “orange economy,” which consists of cultural and artistic sectors.

In contrast, Petro’s portrayal as a populist candidate is evident in his socialist economic policies. Petro promises to redistribute wealth by taxing affluent landowners and stock investors. He also advocates for an economic shift, replacing oil and coal production with clean energy production. Many conservative politicians and business leaders argue that Petro’s policies could spark inflation and devalue the peso currency.

Another important issue Colombia faces is government corruption that deters international investment. If elected, Duque promises to encourage individuals to report corruption through hotlines and social networks, return assets that were stolen from the Colombian people, remove prison benefits for corruption convicts, and bar companies that bribe government workers from future federal contracts.

Similarly, Petro is revered by many of his supporters for his zero tolerance policy for corruption as the mayor of Bogotá. As a presidential candidate, he argues that his economic policies will result in a decrease in corruption across the country. Petro plans to transform Colombia from a rentier state with corruption-ridden cocaine, oil, and coal sectors, to an labor-intensive and corruption-free agricultural economy that employs the rural poor.

Lastly, with the influx of over one million Venezuelan refugees into Colombia, the presidential elections put a spotlight on relations between the two countries. Duque has publicly denounced Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the International Criminal Tribunal for committing crimes against humanity and for worsening Venezuela’s massive economic crisis.

However, many of Duque’s supporters falsely characterize Petro’s policies as Castrochavist, using politics of fear to convince voters that Petro would enact reforms similar to those of former Presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. While it is unlikely that Colombia would follow either country’s path, Petro’s ties with Venezuelan leaders are of serious concern for voters. Petro had a close relationship with Chávez, whose policies sparked Venezuela’s economic crisis, and he has also endorsed Maduro’s controversial Constituent Assembly.

In addition to having radically different political goals, both politicians have controversies surrounding their candidacy, making the runoff election ever more complex.

Duque appeals to his Catholic base by opposing abortion and gay marriage, the latter of which was legalized in 2016. This would prevent progressive voters from supporting him in the runoff election. Petro, on the other hand, is severely criticized for his tyrannical nature as the mayor of Bogotá, often silencing the opposition. Many of his longtime allies called him “stubbornly autocratic and unreceptive to criticism.” In fact, over two dozen administration members resigned during Petro’s tenure as mayor.

Despite the polarization of internal politics, Colombia’s position on the international stage has recently improved. Last year, Colombia reported a 13 percent increase in tourism because of a higher degree of safety and a decline in the value of the Colombian peso. Last month, Colombia became the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s first Latin American “global partner.”

However, in the runoff elections, voters will face a tough decision between a right-wing pro-business candidate whose policies could worsen the already-high income gap, and a left-wing anti-establishment populist whose autocratic tendencies could harm the country’s democratic institutions. The decision that voters will make on June 17 will have a substantial impact on Colombia’s path towards reducing violence and growing its economy.

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