What is at stake in Colombia’s runoff vote?

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The outcome of the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections was not surprising. It followed the general trend across Latin America of increasing polarisation on the political scene.

In the June 17 runoff, right-wing candidate, Ivan Duque, who came out first with 39.1 percent of the vote, will face the left-wing Gustavo Petro, who finished second with 25.1 percent.

Duque and Petro represent the two contradicting currents of political sentiment in Colombia. On the one hand, there are people who want the return of “law and order” through heavier policing to secure private property and guarantee economic stability. Those are the Duque voters. On the other hand, there are also many Colombians who want the growing social, economic and environmental inequalities in the country tackled and at the same time fear the return of a heavy-handed and abusive government. These are Petro’s voters.

The centrist candidates who did not make it have called on their supporters to reject the runoff and cast a blank ballot. This decision is likely to hurt Petro much more than Duque and usher in another right-wing presidency that could endanger Colombia’s fragile peace. Nevertheless, Petro recently secured endorsements from several centrist politiciansand started to gain the support of some centrist voters. This could tip the scale in his favour and generate a surprising result on Sunday.

The FARC peace factor

The 2016 peace accords between the FARC rebel group and the Colombian government, which ended decades of conflict, are at the heart of the division in Colombia. The conservative forces in the country – now represented by Duque and his mentor former President Alvaro Uribe –  argue that the peace deal will allow those responsible for serious war crimes escape meaningful punishment. They also say the deal puts the protection of private property at risk.

They have been relatively successful in their efforts to undermine the peace accords so far. In October 2016, conservative forces managed to mobilise the Colombian electorate to reject the peace accord in a referendum. But a couple of months later, the government managed to push through a revised agreement.

The progressive forces represented by Gustavo Petro, on the other hand, want the peace accord to stay as is, and for former FARC fighters to have a say in the future direction of the country. Petro, a former M-19 Marxist rebel, is promoting a leftist agenda and appealing to the most progressive sectors of Colombian society.


This is the first time that a leftist candidate even gets to the second round of a presidential election, but Petro is in no position to celebrate this success – he is facing significant challenges. During his time as mayor of Bogota, his administration was perceived as problematic and disorganised, and this has not been forgotten by the voters.

Moreover, Petro is currently struggling to prove to the Colombian public that he can introduce an alternative model of governance to the traditional neoliberal one and at the same time maintain economic stability. More importantly, he carries the burden of constantly being compared with the leaders of neighbouring Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro.


“Castro-chavismo”, a neologism that describes a supposed leftist ideology that could allow communism to be installed in Colombia, is commonly being used in conservative circles to describe Petro’s agenda. His detractors claim that if he wins the elections, Colombia’s economy will sink, just like Venezuela’s.

This “fear of the left” is not exclusive to Colombia. For example, in Mexico, the leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is running on a promise to facilitate change, is also facing accusations of following this made-up ideology of “Castro-chavismo”.

Across Latin America, following the decline of the so-called “pink tide” of late 1990s and early 2000s – with Hugo Chavez, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, Rafael Correa, Evo Morales and the Kirchners as main exponents of socialist ideology in the region – there is currently a turn towards the extreme right and Trump-style candidates in the region.

Right-wing politicians such as Fabricio Alvarado, the Christian evangelical who almost won the presidency of Costa Rica, and Jair Bolsonaro, a pro-gun and anti-establishment candidate supporting the return of military rule in Brazil, are good examples of this shift in regional politics.

These far-right candidates, just like Duque in Colombia, represent the most conservative positions – they are proposing to sacrifice individual liberties in favour of a return to “law and order”.

Addressing the root causes of violence

What is at stake in this election is Colombia’s future. The new president will be responsible for not only implementing the peace deal but also making sure its conditions are observed to avoid a resurgence of violence.

The decades-long Colombian conflict had its roots in deep socioeconomic inequalities and the lack of social interventions by the state mainly in the rural areas. As long as these root causes are not addressed, the risk of a conflict relapse will remain high.


There are very real concerns over Duque’s ability to overcome these challenges. To succeed, he will need to form an independent government and resist the fierce rejection of the peace process by his electoral base.

Even with historically low levels of approval (14 percent), President Juan Manuel Santos managed to make significant advances in violence reduction and economic indicators in Colombia. The country also recently joined the OECD and NATO.

This created a relative sense of optimism, but people living in the most isolated regions of Colombia are still doubtful about the political elite’s ability to improve their living conditions. Inequality is still rampant across the country.

Colombia’s next president must be able to secure the currently uncertain future of the peace process while simultaneously creating the necessary economic conditions for a sustained and redistributive growth.

The ability to unify a divided country will be fundamental to healing the wounds inflicted on Colombian society by decades of armed conflict, violence and confrontation.

Political discussions in Colombia have long been focused on the fight against the rebels, but in the new post-peace-deal era, the focus must be on the fight against rampant corruption, organised crime and extreme inequality.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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