On the Elections in Colombia

Colombians will go to the polls next Sunday, June 17, to elect a president in the second round of this year’s elections, since the first round on May 27 between five major candidates left none of them with more than 50 percent of the votes.

The two leaders from the first round who will face off in the second are on opposite poles of the political spectrum. On the far right, Iván Duque, the candidate of former president Álvaro Uribe (some say his puppet) won 39 percent of the first-round vote, while the leftist Gustavo Petro came in second with 25 percent.  Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellín and former governor of the surrounding Antioquia department, who ran on an anti-corruption and pro-education platform, was close behind with almost 24 percent.  Germán Vargas Lleras, former senator, former vice-president of the outgoing administration of Juan Manuel Santos and machine politician from a powerful political family, and widely expected before the campaigns began to be the likely winner, was a distant fourth with 7 percent, while Humberto de la Calle of the traditional but struggling Liberal Party and the chief negotiator of the peace accords with the FARC guerrillas, received a surprisingly low 2 percent.

The very low voting for Vargas Lleras and de la Calle can be attributed in part to strategic voting, largely based on “stop Duque/Uribe” or “stop Petro”, with Fajardo benefitting from his image as the most “centrist” candidate, however ill-defined that may be, and therefore the best alternative for many to “the extremes of left and right”. However, the labeling of candidates along the political spectrum, along with much of the rhetoric promoted by the dominant corporate media (mostly owned by the large economic conglomerates that dominate the economy as well as public discourse), while highly effective in creating a dominant narrative, is highly misleading.

The dominant wisdom promoted by the media put Duque on the far right (not much controversy over that), Vargas Lleras as the right or center-right, Petro as the far left, and Fajardo and de la Calle as the center or even center-left, though Fajardo liked to refer to himself as the “extreme center”. Fajardo´s nice-guy style and his focus on popular themes like corruption and education ,while avoiding any concrete positions on policies, even in these areas, helped to reinforce that image. Petro, as the only candidate proposing serious structural changes and the most detailed on analysis and proposals, became quickly identified as extreme, reinforced by his past with the M-19 guerrilla group that disarmed through a peace agreement in 1990.  Petro is one of only a few M-19 leaders from that period not to have been assassinated, most of them in the early years after the agreement, effectively wiping them out as a collective political force.  Petro has since then been a representative, a senator, and the mayor of Bogotá, and a key figure in the very fragmented Colombian left. 

But what exactly do right, center, and left mean in the Colombian context? Colombia is a country of extremes. It is an extremely conservative country, and though a latecomer to full, hard-core neoliberalism it is now one of the most neoliberal countries in terms of economic and social policies and structures in all of Latin America.  It is one of the most extremely unequal countries in the world on all indicators of income, wealth, and land inequality (that last one very important in understanding its ongoing conflicts).  It is a world leader in internal displacement (between five and seven million, depending on whose figures one believes), in violence (political and otherwise) including in murders of social movement leaders (unionists, campesinos, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, human rights, and environmental leaders), and most human rights indicators.  Its economy has moved toward extreme dependence on exports of extractive sectors (oil and mining, mostly of coal, gold, and nickel), which helps explain (along with other policies or lack of such) the extreme contamination of air, soil, and water in much of the country.  Chronic unemployment reigns, with the average annual unemployment rates above 8.5 percent for about the last 20 years, now so normalized that economists and politicians celebrate their success when it dips down into single digits, and the majority of workers (about 60 percent) in low-income informal activities without even what little is left of labor or social protections. Extreme social problems abound, including in the areas of health and pensions based on private providers with a financial logic.  It is also extreme in its levels of corruption, of crime (from major narcotrafficking groups to ordinary street crime), and of widespread impunity for both, especially at the higher levels.  All these extremes in a country that is not poor, even quite moderate – close to world and regional averages – in most macro-indicators of development and per capita income.

Given these extremes, who is the extremist?  It seems to me that  these extremes (with the exception of corruption, which is rampant on the right but no small problem among leftist politicians) reflect the mainstream consensus, regardless of which party or individual has been in power, on right-wing, neoliberal policies and government in favor of the elites, with disputes largely over questions of degree like social policies to help the victims within the dominant, polarizing structures.  “Centrist” proposals to make only small changes are then really proposals to maintain far-right structures and all the other extremes of Colombian society.  The so-called center, in dispute between three of the first-round candidates, would seem to be at the extreme right, in the sense that they would maintain the country on its far-right path.  They feellike centrists though, in the presence of an even more extreme right, represented by Duque and Uribe, who want to take the country to even greater extremes, like an even more regressive tax reform than the recent one by President Santos, even less social protections, and even more repression. And of course, dismantling the agreements made by Santos with the FARC and abandoning peace talks with the ELN, the remaining guerrilla force. 

Duque says he will not abandon the agreements, but modify them, most likely including the elimination of key provisions about FARC members not serving jail time for crimes committed before the accords and being tried by a “Special Peace Jurisdiction” instead of ordinary courts, participation in electoral politics and being temporarily granted ten special seats in Congress, cutting financial aid to their transition to civilian life (promised but so far with little of it delivered by Santos), and the very limited but still important rural development programs.  It is quite a stretch to claim that this is not throwing out the agreements, or to call it a modified “agreement”, since he plans to make these major changes unilaterally, without the agreement of the FARC (even though it is now a legal obligation of the Colombian state to enforce the agreed-upon terms of the accord).

What about Petro on the “extreme left”?  Image aside, his proposals are very progressive but far from radical.  In fact, given the very extreme starting point, they seem designed to try to turn Colombia into a moderate capitalist country.  They include honoring and deepening the peace agreements, progressive tax reform, transformation to a less rentist and more productive economic structure, increasing job opportunities and social protections, decentralizing and democratizing reforms, and environmentally sound rules and policies.  Petro may still be a radical in heart and mind, but his moderate-progressive proposals reflect both electoral exigencies and certain realism about how much can actually be done.  Even within these limits, there are doubts about what he would be able to accomplish given that both houses of congress are dominated by right and “center” parties, as are the high courts, and he would also face the hostility of the powerful, multisectoral economic conglomerates as well as foreign capital and the United States government. 

Petro would also face continual hostility from the mainstream media, which throughout his term as mayor endlessly repeated that he has Bogotá in a state of chaos (it was no more so than it was before or has been since), he has accomplished nothing (ignoring his major programs in the vast poorer areas of the city, where he is immensely popular), and that he is arrogant and authoritarian (though he was no more so than other politicians in executive positions). Constant repetition, without evidence or with very selective examples, have reinforced this image among a large number of Colombians.  Especially effective has been the “argument” that he would turn Colombia into another Venezuela (in reference to the real economic crisis there as well as manufactured political horrors and an invented close friendship between Petro and Chávez), and obviously not in reference to any social gains).  Petro himself has been very critical of Maduro and takes pains to distinguish his program from the Venezuelan model, particularly in terms of transformation from an extractive (oil and mining) economy to a productive and ecologically-friendly one.  But putting anyone on the left in one basket and equating them with the crisis in Venezuela has proven more effective with much of the population than any real arguments.

Duque is widely expected to win the second round handily, but recent polls putting Petro behind by as little as five percentage points offer a slim ray of hope (a separate poll puts him behind by 20 points), aided by his recent endorsement by former Bogotá mayor Antanus Mockus and Fajardo’s vice-presidential candidate Claudia López, both from the so-called “center” but both also symbols of anti-corruption.  Fajardo, whose key issue was fighting corruption, will not endorse either candidate even though Petro is recognized as uncorrupt and anti-corruption even by his enemies, while Uribe´s party has been tainted by multiple and very serious scandals by members of his administration and members of congress. The liberal-centrist de la Calle also will not endorse either candidate, like Fajardo saying he will vote blank (an option in Colombian elections, but one that makes less sense on the second ballot when one of the two will necessarily become president).  De la Calle´s key position was honoring the peace accords with the FARC and continuing to negotiate peace with the ELN, both of which Petro has pledged to do and neither of which are expected from Duque.  Endorsements from Fajardo and de la Calle would have greatly enhanced Petro´s chances to be elected.  The so-called center candidates seem more concerned with not being associated with the so-called extreme candidates than with achieving their stated most important goals, promting cries of hypocrisy and cowardice from Petro´s supporters, though perhaps maintaining the status quo and class interests is really a higher motive.  Such is electoral politics.

More to come next week on the election results, on the continuing appeal of Uribismo and on ideological manipulation. 

Stan Malinowitz teaches political economy at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia.