Colombia election: Voters polarised ahead of run-off

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Composite image of Gustavo Petro and Ivan Duque Image copyright AFP
Image caption Gustavo Petro (L) trailed Ivan Duque in the first round of voting

Colombia may no longer be in armed conflict but these past few months of presidential election campaigning have proven to be a political battleground.

It is true that with a 2016 peace deal signed between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the left-wing rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), these elections offered an opportunity for candidates to talk about more than the country’s security situation.

Corruption, the economy and inequality have all been big themes as front-runner Ivan Duque and his rival Gustavo Petro have tried to woo voters ahead of Sunday’s run-off vote.

But the campaign has also revealed the deep polarisation of Colombian society.

Conservative newcomer

The two men in the running for the top job after the first round of voting in late May couldn’t be more different. Ivan Duque was, until recently, a political unknown.

He spent years in Washington working with the Inter-American Development bank until former President Alvaro Uribe asked him to run for the senate in 2014.

Image caption Supporters of Gustavo Petro are rallying voters for Sunday’s run-off

With Mr Uribe still Colombia’s most popular politician, Mr Duque has benefitted from that backing.

The conservative politician wants to cut taxes and boost investment, raising money by shrinking the state. For business, he’s the top pick.

But his critics have called him Mr Uribe’s puppet. They fear that the former president will call the shots if Mr Duque wins.

The rise of the left

At the other end of the political spectrum is former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro. Once a rebel from the now-defunct M19 group, Mr Petro’s campaign promises have been about creating a more equal society and ensuring people have access to health and education.

His rise, according to experts, is partly down to the success of the peace process. A legitimising of the left, if you like.

“Never before has a left-leaning candidate managed to get close enough to have a viable shot at the presidency,” says Jorge Restrepo of the Bogota-based Conflict Analysis Resource Centre. He thinks that the success of the peace deal has also added to political polarisation in Colombia.

“In the past the discussion of politics has been stymied by the fact that we had an armed left and there was no way of having a viable left,” he says. “There were always centrist or centre-right candidates.”

A more inclusive Colombia

Andres Garzon is a 23-year-old computer student who lives in Bosa, one of Bogota’s slums on the outskirts of the city. Born with brittle bone disease, he uses an adapted tricycle to move around the city.

Image caption Andres Garzon says education is central to the future of Colombia

Andres welcomes Mr Petro’s promises of inclusion – from better wheelchair access on public transport to improved healthcare. But it’s education Andres thinks is key to improving the country.

“If you make education free, violence would drop considerably,” he says. “Education gives people an opportunity, through knowledge, to have a better future.”

Divided over peace process

The two candidates differ in their approaches to most things and none more so than the peace deal.

Mr Duque has criticised the way that the former rebels were able to form a political party before facing justice. Mr Petro, on the other hand, has said he will keep the deal intact.

For Derly Araujo, the decision is simple. Her father was killed by the Farc seven years ago and she says that so far the guerrillas have got away with murder.

Image caption Derly Araujo trusts Ivan Duque to make the peace deal with Farc fairer

“Colombia became so polarised because there’s not been true justice,” she says, blaming the peace deal for dividing the country. “It’s become black and white, left or right. That’s it. It shouldn’t be like that.”

She says Mr Duque is the only candidate who can put the peace deal straight, but many Colombians worry about derailing peace achieved in the country.


With Colombia traditionally ruled by the conservative elite, the fear of the left still remains.

The Duque campaign has taken advantage of Mr Petro’s avowed left-wing policies and past admiration for former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by putting up billboards telling people to vote for Mr Duque or else risk Colombia turning into a new Venezuela.

The term “castrochavismo” has become a buzzword in Colombia, creating this fear of a new communist state. It may be scaremongering but it’s a message that resonates with many people here.

“It is clearly a strategy of the right because there’s real fear and the effects, the consequences, are so clear and visible,” says Nicolas Diaz Cruz, director of the citizens’ platform Seamos. The Colombian government estimates that more than one million people have left Venezuela to live in Colombia in the past 15 months.

“It’s very effective in terms of electoral marketing,” says Mr Diaz Cruz.

Rise of populism

One thing this campaign has made clear is that people in Colombia want change. And Gustavo Petro, perhaps, is the biggest representation of that.

“A lot has been done to take people out of poverty but people want more and there’s expectations,” says Eduardo Pizano, the head of the school of government at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá.

“Populism has come on to the scene and it’s an alternative. They play with people’s dreams.”

After decades of conflict, dreams are understandable in Colombia. As is the need for unity in this deeply divided nation. But whoever wins is unlikely to achieve either.

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