Is Colombia's presidential election a harbinger for Latin American politics?
Gustavo Petro could be the first left-wing President in Colombian history
The playing field heading into yesterday’s Presidential election:
A leftist with wide support among the youth is running again for President to address widening inequality by advocating for sweeping social and economic changes.
A center-right technocrat, who is supported by the prior President, wants to restore law and order to a nation witnessing increased crime rates and social unrest.
A self-proclaimed ‘king of TikTok’ arriving late to the party vows to end the privileges of the rich and tackle corruption head-on, while he himself faces graft charges.
And 3 other candidates.
To citizens of the United States and to all those who witness American politics knowing its global ramifications, those primary candidates seem very familiar.
In 2020, the most inflammatory Twitter presence lost narrowly in key states for the US presidency. Though Trump’s second impeachment and aftermath has grabbed significant media attention, his corruption allegations were real and followed him throughout his Presidential tenure. His claims to reform the DC swamp culture never came to fruition, as he never sincerely attempted to make any reforms.
The American leftist would not consider a 3rd party bid and almost without deliberation gave his undying support to the septuagenarian technocrat currently in the White House. In Sanders’ second Presidential run, the entire Democratic field vanished overnight prior to a Super Tuesday primary and the best polled candidate (and easily most popular based on campaign rallies) had the rug pulled out from under him, again. After losing the nomination and the nation entered a pandemic shutdown, the sitting President, to put it mildly, was way out of his depth. The technocrat took all interviews from his home bunker with very limited media exposure. And as members of the mainstream media started to question if the US should embrace ‘Medicare-for-all’ and the nation was starting to be more open to radical solutions to structural issues, the American leftist decided his best course of action was to steer his supporters to the technocrat, whose ear he would whisper into to affect change.
And the technocrat, whose voting record cannot be fairly characterized as left or center-left, advocated for more police funding during the apex of George Floyd protests spreading across the nation in contrast to many of his would-be supporters pushing for the police to be defunded and those funds being reattributed to other social services. The technocrat openly campaigned on continuing his predecessor’s legacy to carry America back to prosperity, sprinkled in with a hint of Franklin Roosevelt’s societal sea changes. Currently President Biden’s approval rating has dipped to 36%, the lowest level of his Presidency, and his party is poised to lose the Senate in 2022 and possibly the House of Representatives as well.
Gustavo Petro, leftist - 40.3%
Federico Gutiérrez, center-right technocrat - 23.8%
Rodolfo Hernández, ‘king of TikTok’ - 28.2%
Remaining candidates - 5.7%
In Colombia, a clear majority is needed to avoid a runoff election. Now Petro will face Hernández on June 19th and it has been reported Gutiérrez has already given his support to the businessman Hernández.
Just another election?
Colombia’s current President Ivan Duque cannot legally run for another term. While in office from 2018-2022, not only has Duque been criticized for how he has implemented the 2016 peace agreement with FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), but his administration has witnessed rising economic inequality which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. As of 2022, “nearly 40% of the country's population is now estimated to be living below the poverty line.”
A sample from Gallup polling in the leadup to this election display Colombia’s critical political moment:
“In this country, do you have confidence in [the] national government?” - 70% responded No. (To be fair, responses peaked at 76% No in 2017 and last polled favorably in 2010.)
“Which one of these phrases comes closest to your own feelings about your household income these days?” - 60% responded Finding it difficult/very difficult. Prior to Duque’s term, 55-60% regularly responded Living comfortably/ Getting by from 2007 - 2017.
“Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” - for the first time since polling began in 2006, more than half (52%) said Yes. According to the Financial Times, inflation is particularly problematic in Colombia and potatoes, a food staple, has doubled in price in the past year.
From February 2022 - May 2022, Gustavo Petro has led all polling, though never leading the pack with a clear majority. Before the votes were cast and tallied, the National Consulting Center polled respondents about potential runoff scenarios. Petro’s top competitor prior to the election, Gutiérrez, would have fallen short of Petro by almost 10 points. Hernández, who surged in the polls late and will move onto the second round, was in a dead heat with Petro at 40.5%. And as mentioned above, Gutiérrez has thrown his support behind Hernández.
When asked about how respondents view themselves ideologically on a scale of 1-6 (1 being very Left and 6 being very Right), 25% responded Very Left to Left and 22% responded Right to Very Right. The majority are in the middle veering slightly to the Left. And it is clear from polling that many Colombians want change and cannot abide by the status quo.
More than half of respondents lack confidence in Colombian democracy, and more than 40% do not have a favorable image of Colombia's electoral registry.
Nearly half of all respondents believe there was fraud in their March elections.
Petro, if elected, would be the first Leftist President in Colombian history. And US foreign political coverage are concerned it could lead to a domino effect in Latin American politics.
Gustavo Petro (and the United States)
Petro has served as Senator and as Mayor of Bogotá. Earlier in his life, he was a member of the M-19 urban guerrilla movement, a fact he does not deny. In 2018 Petro finished second in the presidential election, and his now third attempt at the presidency does not seem from the outside to be tempered by the first two losses. On the campaign trail, Petro has decried economic inequality and wants Colombia to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, to implement rural land reforms, to improve and to provide more access to healthcare and education, to restore relations with Venezuela and to have peace negotiations with and/or demobilize rebel groups.
Each one of those initiatives, with the possible exception of healthcare and education depending on how their improvements were financed, would spook the United States, and specifically Wall Street. As Bloomberg wrote a few days ago:
Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla-turned-leftist politician, is unnerving traders who worry that the economic model that the nation has practiced for decades -- a combination of fiscal discipline and a heavy dose of free markets -- could be dismantled.
The economy is booming as is international demand for the country’s commodity exports.
Petro has already spooked markets with his plans to halt oil exploration -- the nation’s biggest export -- and tax large landholdings.
As reported in Reuters earlier this month, oil and gas are a major source of foreign investment in Latin America’s fourth largest economy. To maintain self-sufficiency, private oil producers have been pushing the government to expand exploration and production.
In addition to fossil fuels, coca cultivation is a major source of (illicit) revenue as Colombia is the #1 global exporter of cocaine according to the United Nations. And the largest consumer of Colombian cocaine is the United States. As the Financial Times reported:
Petro argues that the trade pact [with the United States] has crippled Colombia’s agricultural sector and forced farmers to turn to coca production to make ends meet. “The free trade agreement signed with the United States handed rural Colombia to the drug traffickers,” he says. “Agricultural production cannot be increased if we do not renegotiate the FTA.”
Petro together with his running mate, Francia Márquez, want to directly attack these two key sources of revenue. A quick note on Márquez - she is a single mother, environmental lawyer and activist who polled significantly higher than any other VP candidate and would become the first Afro-Colombian to ever have executive powers in Colombian history. Petro wants to implement a green economy, and Márquez would be a valuable running mate to address coca production since half of all coca crops are located in Afro-Colombian, Indigenous reserves and natural parks.
On the surface, a presidential ticket wanting to implement a green economy, to tackle corruption, to increase domestic security, to directly address the drug trade and to improve healthcare and education with the first Afro-Colombian female Vice-President should be very appealing to the United States. Particularly those who tout social values and progress in every public appearance.
However, the cynic in me can’t help but be aware that curbing fossil fuel production could impact the bond market. The United States has a sordid history with land reforms in Latin America (e.g. Cuba and Guatemala). Venezuela may have only been spared (at the moment) from a special US military operation due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and Colombia restoring relations with Venezuela does not necessarily aid US interests. And rebel groups who ensure cocaine production continues have ‘friends’ in the nation which consumes more Colombian cocaine than any other.
And yet, Petro and Márquez aim to do just that in a nation which has seen four presidential candidates assassinated since the 1980s. Both he and his running mate have received death threats, and as reported by the International Crisis Group:
Post-paramilitary groups have already explicitly threatened or assassinated a number of social, community and political leaders backing the Historical Pact [Petro’s coalition], most recently during the Gulf Clan’s armed strike. In the province of Cauca, where the indigenous Nasa community has unequivocally thrown its support behind Petro’s candidacy, half a dozen pamphlets have circulated in recent months threatening indigenous leaders, at least three of whom have been assassinated since the beginning of 2022.
Though not explicitly stated in the American press, Hernández will be the favored candidate in Washington. The candidate who has been dubbed '“Colombia’s Trump” and compared to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi once accidentally “described himself as ‘a follower of a great German thinker, Adolf Hitler,’ only to correct himself later and say he confused Hitler with Albert Einstein.” Currently being investigated for graft in a nation rife with corruption, Hernández was suspended in 2018 from his Mayorship for punching a city councilor and in 2019 was suspended again when he broke campaign rules by supporting a candidate while in public office.
A legitimate criticism of Petro is how can he possibly bring together a divided nation to pass sweeping social and economic legislation, which could impact Colombia’s relationship with the most powerful nation in the world? For what it’s worth - the United States witnessed its homegrown businessman utterly fail to pass any meaningful social and economic reforms and is currently experiencing how a lifelong technocrat cannot bring together a legislative coalition to pass much of his legislative agenda. If Petro and Márquez survive future assassination attempts and manage to enact even parts of their agenda, it is no surprise why US foreign media coverage believe the rest of Latin America will take notice.
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