Colombia’s historic left turn
The victory of Gustavo Petro in Colombia’s June 2022 presidential election represents the arrival of the left in power for the first time in the country’s modern history. Petro’s running mate, Afro-Colombian environmental activist Francia Márquez – a Black woman of modest social origins – will be the first Black woman to occupy the vice presidency. Their victory speaks to the demands of the protest movement that has mobilised since November 2019, which now have a chance of being heard. Petro however faces the challenge of uniting the two different visions of Colombia that clashed during the campaign and responding to accumulated discontents if he is to avoid a resurgence of street protest.
Sunday 19 June saw a long-awaited change in Colombian politics: for the first time in the country’s modern history, a left-wing candidate won the presidential election. In the runoff vote, senator Gustavo Petro of the Historical Pact alliance defeated former business leader and political outsider Rodolfo Hernández of the Anti-Corruption League, on a record turnout of over 58 per cent.
Neither contender represented a traditional party. Both sought to respond to the widespread discontent with traditional politics that has repeatedly expressed itself on the streets. They both represented change – but very different versions.
Third time’s the charm
Petro first ran for the presidency in 2010, when he came fourth, and again in 2018, when he finished second, losing to Iván Duque. But in those races, the former member of the M-19 guerrilla group didn’t stand a chance. In a country deeply scarred by decades of armed conflict, the stigma of violent extremism continued to follow Petro, despite the fact he had given up arms and entered institutional politics decades earlier.
The 2018 campaign largely focused on the 2016 peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), crowned by a failed referendum in which opposition to the signing of the peace agreements prevailed. The 2022 campaign, by contrast, was the first in a long time that didn’t focus on security. This opened up an opportunity for a candidate with a progressive social agenda, speaking to the demands for economic justice that have repeatedly mobilised through protests since November 2019.
First-round voting on 29 May produced a surprise: Hernández, a 77-year-old millionaire and TikTok sensation with a vague and simplistic anti-corruption message, came second, ahead of the candidate expected to fight in the runoffs, Federico Gutiérrez.
Hernández and Petro led highly diverging campaigns. Hernández – a politically incorrect, gaffe-prone and sensationalist personality – shared short and simple messaging about ‘ending theft’, while Petro went with more complex ideas, setting out an economic and social programme that included reforms of the health and pension systems. For different reasons, both were portrayed as populists, with the runoff depicted as a battle between left-wing and right-wing populism led by two former mayors – Petro of Bogotá and Hernández of Bucaramanga – who had in common a rejection of traditional politics, and particularly of the legacy of former president and kingmaker Álvaro Uribe.
On the night of 29 May, Gutiérrez and other eliminated contenders announced their support for Hernández. The speculation was that many voters, having opted for these candidates out of fear of Petro’s leftist leanings, would follow them, and that support for Petro might have reached a ceiling. But Petro responded by moving to broaden his support.
A backdrop of violence
In some of Colombia’s regions there were serious doubts that the election could proceed normally. Even though FARC guerrillas for the most part demobilised following the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016, armed conflict remains very much a reality in some areas, under dispute by a smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissident FARC elements, paramilitary groups and drug cartels.
According to the Observatory of Human Rights and Conflict of the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), 44 massacres took place in Colombia in the first five months of 2022 alone, resulting in the killing of 158 people – many of them community leaders and human rights defenders.
Armed groups became more active during the election campaign. In May, the Ombudsman’s Office published a report detailing the activities of several illegal armed groups, including the ELN and the Clan del Golfo, which over several days maintained an armed strike – a shutdown enforced through the threat of violence – in multiple municipalities. In this context, journalists were threatened and several online media shut down in direct reaction to threats.
Colombia continues to be the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists. According to Global Witness’s 2021 report, 65 land, environmental and Indigenous human rights defenders were murdered in Colombia in 2020. There is no reason to believe the next report will offer a better picture.
Change, but what kind?
Both Hernández and Petro promised change to people fed up with armed violence, economic injustice and social exclusion, demands made more urgent by the devastating impacts of the pandemic. But all Hernández had to offer was a vague anti-corruption message, undermined by the fact that he faces multiple accusations of corruption. Petro pledged to tackle socioeconomic exclusion, promising to expand revenue to fund social security by taxing corporations and the rich.
Petro rode a fine line, trying not to scare away the centrist votes he needed to win the race while promising change radical enough to appeal to voters disenchanted with the performance of the previous right-wing and centre-right administrations. He weaved pragmatic alliances with politicians from traditional parties, committed to respecting private property and promised not to try to stay in power beyond his single constitutional term. In his victory speech, he highlighted the need to develop capitalism in Colombia, ‘not because we worship it, but because we first have to overcome pre-modernity and feudalism’.
He increasingly relied on his running partner, Francia Márquez – an Afro-Colombian environmental activist of modest social origins who embodied the promise of a better future for the majority of Colombians – to keep up the enthusiasm.
Voices from the frontline
Gina Romero is executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad), a civil society organisation that promotes the full exercise of democracy as a way of life for the common good in the Americas.
It was a campaign of strong emotions. Fear played a big role. Many people in Colombia are afraid of any left-wing project. Moreover, Colombia is a racist, classist and misogynist country, so a candidate like Márquez also caused fear.
The anti-Petro campaign circulated disinformation with the sole objective of generating fear, much as had happened in the ca1mpaign for the peace referendum. Among these unfounded fears was that Colombia would become a new Venezuela, as Petro would want to stay in power forever, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez once did. Another idea associated with Venezuela’s fate was that of impoverishment, currency devaluation and hyperinflation. There was also much talk of the possible business reaction sector to a left-wing government and the supposed large outflow of companies from the Colombian market that would follow.
Fear was also instilled among the public with the irresponsible use of the term ‘guerrilla’ in reference to Petro, who had in the past been a militant in the M19, a now-deactivated guerrilla group. Petro has had a long civilian political career since, and for decades has had nothing to do with any group outside the law. But the stigma remains, which shows how far Colombia still has to go in its reconciliation process.
Disinformation and digital violence also targeted the two female candidates who ran in this election, Ingrid Betancourt – who stood in the first round of the presidential election – and Márquez. Much research on digital violence argues that when women are in politics, personal information about them is used and facts are misrepresented. But in the case of Márquez, there was real racialised hate speech. Horrible things were said about her, both because of her personal history and her past as a very poor woman, and because she is a Black woman. The worst racist and misogynist jokes were told.
For the most part, mainstream media have done much wrong by echoing hate speech. A week before the second round, for example, Semana magazine ran a sensationalist cover story wondering who would get elected, the engineer or the former guerrilla fighter. The ex-guerrilla fighter is also an economist, but this was not about the candidates’ professions, but rather about giving a frightening message. In the last months of the campaign, Petro was forced to deny many things, while Hernández hid and refused to participate in any debate.
Thus, we were sold the idea that we were ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and had to choose the ‘least worst’ candidate. A public narrative was mounted that since the political elite was not represented in this election, all that was on offer was simply bad.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Gina. Read the full interview here.
Petro and Márquez overcame an intense disinformation campaign that instrumentalised deep-rooted racism, sexism and classism, winning with nearly 11.3 million votes, the highest amount ever received by a candidate in Colombia. This made Petro the first-ever leftist president of Colombia, and Márquez the first Afro-Colombian female vice-president. As journalist Julián Martínez put it, for the first time people who resemble the majority would wield power in Colombia.
But the fact that the opposite camp received about 10 million votes highlighted a persistent division, with a considerable overlap between votes in the 2016 peace referendum and 2022 presidential election. Petro won resounding victories in places with many victims of armed violence and the highest numbers of people from excluded groups – exactly where the ‘yes’ vote was concentrated in the 2016 referendum.
The challenge of unity
Petro represents a turn to the left, but a seemingly moderate one. He is often described as placed halfway between the modern left represented by Chile’s Gabriel Boric and the traditional left embodied by Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the two Latin American presidents that congratulated him first and most enthusiastically. His focus on climate change and energy transition seems to bring him closer to Boric.
But some worry about Petro’s supposed authoritarian tendencies and fear he might bring Colombia closer to Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, a possibility that also scares the bulk of the over two million Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia. For them, the main question is whether Petro will help urge democratic elections in Venezuela or instead strengthen Maduro’s position. This could also have serious implications for Colombia’s strategic relationship with the USA.
Upon being elected, Petro requested the attorney general to free the young people prosecuted for their participation in protests, correcting an injustice, although some viewed this as a threat to judicial independence. For the time being, Petro seems on the path of moderation – not least because he will need to gather wide support to get his ambitious policies through Congress.
Although absent from the runoff, traditional political parties still have functional political machinery that secured them substantial congressional representation in the March parliamentary election. While he won a good share of congressional seats, Petro is far from having a legislative majority. As a result of the alliances he built during the campaign, several moderate figures from traditional parties will occupy top government roles, including at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Petro’s victory speech emphasised peace, dialogue, consensus and unity, and urged people to ‘leave hatred behind’. Much will depend on Petro’s ability to bring together the Colombia that voted for him and the one that did not. He will need to build consensus to get a working legislative majority to pass the reforms he promised on the campaign trail.
If congressional alliances fall apart, the danger is that Petro may be tempted to rule by decree, bypassing checks and balances and limiting the space for the expression of dissent. This is something he must resist, even as he faces great pressure to deliver on his promises in the knowledge that, if disenchanted, his voters will take to the streets once more.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new president must commit to upholding civic space and working with civil society.
The new government should focus on overcoming division and building consensus to move its legislative agenda along without overstepping its powers.
Civil society should continue playing its watchdog role while guarding against likely anti-rights reactions.
Cover photo by Daniel Muñoz/Getty Images