Colombians Hold Tense Presidential Election on May 29th

Gustavo Petro during a campaign event for the May 29th presidential elections in Colombia. He is the current leader in the polls although it is doubtful he will have the votes to win on the first round. Foto: Crisis Group

By Elizabeth Dikinson* (Crisis Group / IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Colombians head to the polls on 29 May for the first round of a presidential contest that will starkly pose left against right. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Elizabeth Dickinson lays out the stakes for the country’s future stability.

Who is on the ballot for the 29 May Colombian presidential election, and what are the main differences between the candidates?

Colombia’s presidential election is primarily a contest between two ideological rivals, mirroring a deep political cleavage in society. Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá who has built a broad coalition uniting much of the political left, holds a lead in pre-election polls over Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellín who has the support of right-leaning voters and much of the traditional political establishment. Currently ahead by a healthy margin in tracking polls, Petro promises to focus on social justice and to transform what he argues is an economic model that breeds inequality; he is arguably the first leftist candidate since the 1940s with a credible chance of winning power. Gutiérrez pitches himself as representing the more technocratic centre-right and campaigns on a promise of “order and security”. He has gathered the support of political parties such as the Democratic Centre, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, as well as the Liberal and Conservative parties, which monopolised power for most of Colombia’s post-independence history.

Crucially, Gutiérrez is also likely to attract the votes of those who may not favour him as their first-choice candidate but who oppose or fear a Petro presidency. This constituency regards Petro’s fiery rhetoric, together with his past as a member of the M-19 urban guerrilla movement, now demobilised, as evidence that he intends to pursue socialist policies similar to those espoused by Venezuela’s government, which are associated in the minds of many citizens with the influx of over two million Venezuelan migrants and refugees into Colombia. Policies that Petro has publicly said he would introduce include promotion of rural land reform, support for small businesses, increased quality of and access to public health and education, and peace negotiations with or demobilisation of armed groups. Other candidates include the former mayor of Bucaramanga, Rodolfo Hernández, a populist campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, who could challenge Gutiérrez for second place. Íngrid Betancourt, a veteran politician renowned for enduring six years as a captive of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which until a 2016 peace agreement was the country’s largest insurgency, recently withdrew from the race and offered her support to Hernández. Polling far lower is centrist ex-Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo, who nearly made it through to the second round in 2018.

Colombia will hold a first round of voting on 29 May, followed by a second on 19 June if no candidate clears the 50 per cent threshold. As of early May, Petro was polling between 35 and 38 per cent, with Gutiérrez coming in between 20 and 24 per cent, pointing to a likely second round. According to one poll, Hernández is also rising in popularity, polling at 19 per cent in the first round and roughly even with Petro in a hypothetical second. A runoff would spark intense horse trading between the two remaining candidates and the eliminated campaigns, none of which have indicated whom they might endorse should they lose.

What is at stake for Colombia in these polls?

The elections come at a time of enormous agitation and tension in Colombia, following four years featuring long pandemic lockdowns, economic shocks, mass urban protests and accelerating violent conflict in rural areas. A national strike in 2021 exposed a deep well of frustration with inequality and the lack of social mobility that has yet to be addressed. Protests starting in April of that year quickly spread across the country, blocking numerous major highways as well as many intra-city roads, above all in the city of Cali. The unrest eventually petered out due largely to exhaustion rather than any response on the government’s part. But popular indignation over the inequities of Colombia’s social and political status quo still simmers; if anything, its temperature has risen in 2022. Meanwhile, both of the front runners’ campaigns are making frequent use of the 2021 strike in their political narratives: the left seeking the support of those aggrieved at the lack of opportunity, and the right painting Petro (who enjoys the backing of many protesters) as the harbinger of chaos.

Armed and criminal groups have at the same time been hollowing out the security gains that followed the signing of the 2016 peace accord between Colombia and the FARC guerrillas. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2021 was the most violent year in the country since that agreement, with rising numbers of killings, as well as forced displacement, confinement and recruitment. Colombian military deployments to the most affected areas have failed to turn back this tide of insecurity. On 5 May, a four-day “armed strike” imposed by the post-paramilitary group Gulf Clan in response to the extradition to the U.S. of its leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, or “Otoniel”, paralysed parts of twelve of Colombia’s 32 departments, including the mid-sized cities Sincelejo and Montería, exposing the state’s shaky control in these regions. 

Legislative elections took place on 13 March. What do those results say about the outlook for the presidential contest?

The March vote offers several hints as to what to expect in the presidential contest. First, the results revealed the depth of Colombia’s political divisions. For the first time ever, Petro’s coalition, known as the Historical Pact, gained a plurality of seats in the Senate and came in second in the House of Representatives. Together with the votes for other progressives, such as the Green Party, these results suggest that a substantial number of voters are inclined to turn to the left. Still, the Senate and House are both essentially split, with traditional parties continuing to perform strongly. While any new president will struggle to form a clear majority coalition, this task would be particularly difficult for Petro, as the parties supporting Gutiérrez could easily gather enough votes to block his agenda.

Of equal significance for the presidential poll, the legislative vote count was marred by procedural errors. The country’s Registrar failed to include more than one million votes – many of them for the Historical Pact – in its initial tally. Authorities have blamed the miscount on mistakes by voting poll jurors and faulty compilation of results from individual voting tables. Thanks to a push by the Historical Pact, which had witnesses supervising the process, electoral authorities corrected the mistake. The gaffe has nonetheless fuelled public distrust in those authorities’ ability to run clean, transparent polls. It has also given both the main campaigns reason to contest the presidential vote if the outcome does not favour them, particularly if the margin of victory is thin – as is likely.

What specific risks of unrest and violence could arise around election day?

The level of violence in the months leading up to the congressional vote was the highest in the last three campaign seasons according to the Mission for Electoral Observation, a local watchdog. Threats against candidates and local leaders soared, up 236 per cent compared to the 2018 election. Dozens of communities, particularly in rural areas, reported concerns to Crisis Group about voter and candidate intimidation, restrictions on mobility and illegal vote buying. In Sucre and Bolívar states, congressional candidates said the post-paramilitary criminal group Gulf Clan had required them to seek its permission in order to campaign. Two weeks before the legislative vote, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s remaining major insurgency, enforced its own four-day “armed strike” in areas under its control, preventing all campaigning and generating an atmosphere of fear.

Petro and his vice presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, have both reported credible threats against themselves and their supporters. Voters have been a target for intimidation, particularly in areas where the Gulf Clan imposed its armed strike at the beginning of May, including Antioquia, Córdoba, Sucre and Bolívar states. During that action, the Gulf Clan released several pamphlets explicitly threatening Petro supporters. “All of us who support Petro are afraid, because the Gulf Clan says we are military objectives”, a local leader in Montes de María told Crisis Group.

Violence could also flare after the results emerge. If Petro loses by a narrow margin or if his supporters sense that fraud has occurred, street protests could erupt both in urban and rural areas. The 2021 strike exposed a broadly shared sentiment among poor and middle-class voters – accentuated by the uneven effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – that Colombia’s elites are intent on perpetuating a socio-economic system that privileges a small, self-enclosed minority. Particularly after the March vote count debacle, some Petro loyalists say they would view his loss as evidence that the election was “stolen” by the establishment. “The people will be alert”, a Petro backer in Caquetá told Crisis Group. “If the election is stolen, there could be an insurrection”. As in 2021, any overreaction by the security forces could make things worse by sparking a larger, more violent confrontation between police and protesters.

Are there risks during the transition period or when the new president takes office?

Regardless of who wins, the country is entering a dangerous period, with major ramifications for its internal conflicts. Armed groups across the board, from the ELN to the Gulf Clan, to the so-called FARC dissidents, have intensified their use of violence in the first months of 2022 and are likely to take advantage of the uncertainty around the political transition to impose their coercive control over communities. Petro is viewed with suspicion in parts of the military and will struggle to win their trust, at least at first, particularly if he moves quickly to restore relations with Venezuela or picks a fight with Bogotá’s longstanding allies in Washington – the candidate has already voiced his opposition to forced coca crop eradication, for example. A Gutiérrez administration may have an easier time winning the confidence of the military and the U.S., but it may face deeper popular discontent.

There are longer-term risks for each candidate as well. Should Petro take power in August, his supporters may face a backlash from post-paramilitary groups, successors to the right-wing forces that led a brutal fight to suppress the guerrillas and their supporters two decades ago. In the past, post-paramilitary groups have offered extra-judicial protection to large landowners and other economic interests. That constituency may now have an even stronger incentive to look for powerful allies, fearful that a Petro presidency could result in state-directed land redistribution and expropriation (policies that Petro has disavowed). Post-paramilitary groups have already explicitly threatened or assassinated a number of social, community and political leaders backing the Historical Pact, 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.

Should Gutiérrez become president, on the other hand, he may well struggle to contain rising public frustration in the countryside. Continuing a variation of present tactics in dealing with security threats posed by armed groups – larger military deployments, coca eradication and high-level captures – is likely to backfire, for reasons Crisis Group has previously explored, alienating residents without significantly weakening the power and reach of criminal outfits. Similar tough approaches under the incumbent president, Iván Duque, have failed to stop the drift toward greater insecurity.

How might the election affect the progress of the 2016 peace accord? Could there be further negotiations with other armed groups?

Both leading candidates have publicly said they will respect the 2016 agreement and carry out its provisions. But the two face very different political pressures in this regard. Gutiérrez is running with the support of right-wing parties that have vocally opposed the agreement in the past, including the Democratic Centre Party led by Uribe. Gutiérrez has gone to some lengths to distance himself from Uribe, but his constituency remains sceptical of the peace process. Petro, for his part, would likely try to move faster fulfilling the accord – though he has provided few details as to how. Lack of congressional support, however, could lead to continued paralysis on key topics such as land reform.

To make things yet more challenging, financing for peacebuilding is running out, as international donors shift attention to other pressing crises. Colombia’s budget is stretched and will come under considerable strain in the next government’s term, particularly if the new president seeks to satisfy the demands of vocal and hard-up city dwellers for more and better access to health care, education and other social services.

As deep as the challenges will be, this moment could be the last opportunity for major strides forward in honouring the peace accord. Should the chance be missed, rising insecurity and a lack of public confidence in rural areas risk halting the agreement in its tracks. Rural communities already feel betrayed by the government’s failure to meet the peace accord’s promises on economic development, land ownership and protection of social leaders. The lacklustre approach to coca substitution thus far has undermined the creation of legal livelihoods in place of illicit ones, preserving one of the economies on which armed groups thrive. Whoever prevails in the polls, the incoming administration must do what the Duque government has failed to do: understand that the agreement’s deep-seated reforms are vital to improving security over the long term and prevent conflict in Colombia from getting worse.

*Elizabeth Dickinson is a Senior Analyst on Colombia

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