Colombia’s New Dawn?

Colombians head to the polls this Sunday for a presidential election that will determine the country’s political trajectory for the next four years – and far beyond. With the two candidates offering vastly contrasting visions of the country, the tightly-poised contest carries ramifications likely to be felt long after the 2022-2026 electoral term ends.

At the head of the progressive Historic Pact coalition, Gustavo Petro has campaigned on a platform of strengthening human rights and environmental protections, increased social investment and implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the then-government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Petro and the Pact’s vice-presidential candidate, the African-Colombian social activist and feminist organiser Francia Márquez, have drawn strong support from social groups long marginalised under Colombia’s exclusionary political system: young people, women, ethnic minorities and the working class. A victory for the Historic Pact would bring about the first leftist government in Colombia’s history.

Facing the Historic Pact is the rightwing businessman Rodolfo Hernández, a former mayor in the city of Bucaramanga. In a surprise result, Hernández was runner-up in the election’s first round on 29 May, ahead of another rightwing candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, who had been widely predicted to emerge as Petro’s main challenger. Gutiérrez received establishment backing, including from the Democratic Centre (CD) party of current president Iván Duque. So abysmal has Duque’s period in office been, it seems the CD endorsement cost Gutiérrez rather than aid him.

A former M19 guerrilla and later a mayor of Bogota, Petro exceeded expectations in 2018 when he became the first leftwing candidate to reach a presidential election second round. Although he garnered an unprecedented eight million votes, he lost out to current president Iván Duque, who won two million votes more. While Duque’s presidency has been characterised by extreme human rights abuses, attacks on the peace process and soaring inequality, Petro has used these four years to consolidate his support across progressive sectors. The Historic Pact was formed in 2021 by a broad front of progressive parties, from social democrats such as the Democratic Pole to the Communist Party, and backed by trade unions and social organisations.

The contrast with the brash 77-year-old Hernández is stark. Branded ‘the Colombian Trump’ by opponents, Hernández has a record of racist, misogynistic and inflammatory discourse, stating that women belong in the home rather than in politics, insulting black people and making vulgar insinuations about Venezuelans. Hernández benefitted in the first round from a lack of media scrutiny due to the widely-held assumption that Gutiérrez would outperform him.

Increased attention has raised question marks over Gutiérrez’s temperament. Since his unexpected success, Hernández has reacted aggressively to press questioning, blasting journalists as ‘Petro supporters’ simply for asking where he intends to live if elected. He also announced he would conduct his campaign from Miami – unheard of for a presidential candidate – before quickly retracting the claim. He then refused to take part in election debates, leading a court to rule his participation as obligatory in order to ‘protect the right to an informed vote.’ 

While the Historic Pact’s 40.34 per cent of the first-round vote was significantly higher than Hernández’s second-placed 28.17 per cent, Hernández can expect to draw support from Gutiérrez voters. Combined, first round votes for the two rightwing candidates accounted for over 50 per cent of the total. Were those tallies concentrated on a single candidate, it would propel them into government. As only two candidates participate in the second, decisive round, another split vote is impossible.

With Hernández likely to attract conservative voters who previously backed Gutiérrez, the Historic Pact needs its core constituencies to get out the vote if it is to overcome the serious challenge from the right. Given Colombia’s traditionally high rates of voter abstention – a legacy of the political disenfranchisement of large sectors of the population – turnout was high in the first round, at close to 55 percent. A Petro victory may hinge on an even higher mobilisation of young people, rural communities and the urban working class this Sunday.

Colombia’s election campaign season has unfolded against the looming backdrop of threats of violence and concerns over transparency in the electoral system. Since their candidacies were confirmed, both Petro and Márquez have received death threats. Indeed, Márquez received three within a month of her strong performance in the March primary elections. In early May, Petro cancelled campaigning in the central Eje Cafetero region after his team uncovered paramilitary plans to attack him – allegedly with a police officer involved in the plot.

Then, in one of her final campaign rallies in Bogota, bodyguards shielded Márquez onstage after she was targeted with a laser pen, immediately sparking fears of a sniper. Several other politicians and activists associated with the Historic Pact have also faced threats and smears. With Colombia gripped by a long-running human rights crisis that, according to domestic human rights organisations, has killed over 1,300 social activists and 320 former FARC guerrillas in the peace process, such threats are necessarily treated as credible.

Violence around the elections has also impacted grassroots society, most notably in the five-day ‘Armed Strike’ conducted by the Gulf Clan paramilitary organisation in May. The strike was an effective shutdown of all economic and daily activities, under the threat of violent reprisal, affecting over 170 municipalities in a third of Colombia’s regional departments. While Colombian press attributed the strike to the extradition of paramilitary leader ‘Otoniel’ to the United States, its timing so close to the election was interpreted in many quarters as a warning to local communities to avoid voting for progressive candidates. Human rights organisations said that during the strike paramilitaries killed 14 people and committed abuses such as torture, forced confinement and threats. Activists have also been targeted. On 31 May, indigenous teacher Edison Gómez Ortiz was killed in Caquetá after reportedly defying orders by an armed group to avoid participating in electoral activities.

Concerns have also grown over the integrity of the electoral process. Following the March congressional elections, hundreds of thousands of votes were not given to the Historic Pact in the initial precount. When these were subsequently returned, the coalition was found to have won an extra three senate seats, making it the largest grouping in congress, albeit without a majority. Since then, concerns over the potential for erroneous counts have risen after Colombian authorities rejected international auditing of the vote-counting system.

Whatever the result of Sunday’s election, Colombia’s litany of problems will not be overcome in a single four-year presidential term. Yet the election carries greater significance than any other in recent memory, as the prospect to establish a foundation for the long and arduous process of genuine social transformation is a tantalising possibility. Not only is Colombia the world’s deadliest country for human right defenders, environmental activists and trade unionists, it is also one of its most unequal, with around 42 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. Grassroots civil society has long fought to overcome the country’s dire record in these areas but has faced intense opposition from above, often via the most brutal methods conceivable. Now, however, Colombians may finally be on the verge of electing a government with the political will to reciprocate those efforts. By Sunday night, we shall know.