With Colombia, “polarization” will remain in fashion

The word “polarization” will remain in vogue now that Colombians have chosen the two candidates who will contest the second round of their presidential elections. On one side is Gustavo Petro, from the radical left, who faces Rodolfo Hernández, from the populist right. There are some possible “gotchas” to understand the path to this second round, in addition to a great unknown about the governability of the winners.

Interestingly, the term “polarized” has already been present here in our space, when we talk about the Colombian elections at the beginning of the year. At the time, we commented that Petro was emerging as the main name on the left, while a strong name for the right was still lacking. That was exactly what happened. Initially that name seemed to be that of Federico Gutiérrez, former mayor of Medellín. In recent weeks, however, Gutiérrez has fallen in the polls and, on the eve of the 29 May election, it was difficult to secure his ticket to the second round.


At the time, we also commented that the election was going through difficult steps for two reasons. First, Colombia’s recent history of violent internal conflict that has lasted decades, involving drug trafficking gangs, radical left-wing guerrillas and far-right paramilitary militias. The decades of conflict, which started in the 1950 decade, left hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of displaced people and refugees.

The conflict makes the political violence is “common” in the country, with practically all presidential candidates suffering credible death threats, in addition to the assassination of different leaders, especially in rural areas of the country. This bloody collective memory, plus the difficult implementation of the peace agreement signed between the Colombian State, during the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, and the former FARC, makes this a topic present in the electoral debate.

This presence is especially due to the fact that Gustavo Petro, 77 years old, was a member of M-, a left-wing guerrilla group that acted in the years 1980 and 1980, especially in urban operations. The opposition claims that Petro, once in power, will be “lenient” with the guerrillas, such as the FARC dissidents who still operate or with the ELN, or even that the election of the senator and former mayor of Bogotá would be a step towards to “communism”. Colombia has not had a left-wing presidency since 1998.

The first accusation is present in the speech of the right by Gutiérrez, Iván Duque and the former president. President Álvaro Uribe, prosecuted for bribery and abuse of power. The second accusation is more present in the speech of Rodolfo Hernández, 77-years-old businessman and owner of a more mediatic, “bombastic” rhetoric, the “king of Tiktok” , a reference to the Chinese short-video social network. The platform of the “anti-system candidate”, which his coalition is named after, is the “fight against corruption”.

Economic problems and results

The second The reason that makes the election a difficult race is the recent social unrest in Colombia, with several protests against the Iván Duque government, including the police repression that left more than a dozen dead in suspicious conditions. The country is experiencing one of the highest unemployment rates recorded in the last two decades, in addition to high inflation. Iván Duque leaves with one of the highest rates of rejection of a president at the end of his term and, probably, this harmed his candidate Gutiérrez.

In short, this is the context in which elections are held . Two very different candidates and from different backgrounds, in a country convulsed by both current economic issues and historical wounds. In the first round, with a turnout of 54, 8% of the electorate, Gustavo Petro got 52 % of the votes, while Rodolfo Hernández had 28,1%. Gutiérrez was third, with 28, 9%, needing 900 a thousand votes to have went to the second round. In fourth was the green Sergio Fajardo, with 4.2% of the votes, and smaller right-wing candidates added up to 1.5%.

Some readers may have noticed that the sum of the two right-wing candidacies, second and third, it corresponds to 52% of the voting electorate. Some polls of the second round already point to a victory for Hernández with a comfortable margin. Gutiérrez has already declared support for the candidate, against Petro, although this may not have been necessary. Petro’s rejection must be the biggest obstacle for him and, today, he wouldn’t have many chances.

Petro will have three weeks to work his candidacy in front of the public, with two hopes. First, as “only” 54, 8% of the electorate turned out, he works with the possibility of getting more people to the polls. Second, placing Hernández in the camp of the extreme right and associating his rival with Duque’s economic problems, Uribe’s abuses of power or even with international figures on the right, such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, urging voters to vote against this one. right.

Pranks and governability

Both hopes are, however, pranks, upon a closer look. First, voter turnout may sound low, but it was the highest in a Colombian first round since the end of the Cold War. It will not be an easy task to get people out of their homes to vote. Second, a campaign based on rejection is likely to be more successful against Petro, not in his favor, which directly affects the aforementioned factor.

Third, while it is easy to put Hernández alongside these figures, it is a somewhat superficial view of the Colombian elections. Yes, his career as a businessman and the “anti-corruption” and anti-communism discourse brings him closer to other figures on the right, but he, for example, has already declared himself in favor of the decriminalization of pregnancy abortion in some circumstances, supports universal income programs, flexibility of penalties against drug users and quotas for women in politics. Far from Uribe, for example.

All this without mentioning the issue of “governability”. Colombians elected their national congress in early March. Unfortunately the matter was overshadowed by the war in Ukraine here in our space. Petro’s Historic Pact achieved the best results by a leftist platform in decades, having the largest bench in the Senate and the second largest in the House.

Yet both houses are fragmented. Any elected president will have to negotiate with parties, including those with poorly defined, amorphous political banners, floating between those in power, something like the Brazilian “centrão”. Hernández’s situation is even more curious, as his coalition elected just two deputies, with just over 1% of the vote. He will need to make deals with the parties on the right, which also explains Gutiérrez’s support.

In the campaign, Petro is left to do the opposite of what he has done so far. He was the candidate of the left who presented himself as “anti-system”, as someone outside the country’s traditionally right-wing political structure. If he intends to win, he needs to dress up as a seasoned administrator, former mayor of the country’s capital and largest city, against a “talkative adventurer”. In the right-versus-left, us-versus-them vote, Hernández already has one hand in the cup.

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