Dance on the Volcano in Colombia: A presidential election in the midst of socio-political change
By Ralf J. Leiteritz (Universidad de Rosario) & Solveig Richter (Leipzig University) –
Elections lead to tremendous socio-political tensions, especially in conflict regions with a high potential for violence – this is currently the case in Colombia, where ReCentGlobe and Leipzig University recently established an academic partnership. Professors Ralf J. Leiteritz from the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá and Solveig Richter from Leipzig University see the results of the first round of the presidential election on May 29 as a critical juncture since the peace process with the FARC guerrilla began in 2016 – yet with an uncertain outcome and completely contradictory scenarios: It is a dance on the volcano, as one of the former presidential candidates quite aptly described it.
The first round of the election resulted in a major surprise: behind the favoured candidate of the left-wing “Historical Pact”, Gustavo Petro (40.32 %), an outsider, Rodolfo Hernández (28.15 %), made it into the second round of the election on June 19. The representative of the political right, Federico Gutiérrez (23.91%), who had been in second place in the polls for a long time, only came in third; the representative of the political centre, Sergio Fajardo (4.2%), also finished far behind expectations.
A remarkable shift to the left
On the one hand, this shows clear shifts between and within the political camps, and thus a remarkable shift to the left in a country that has traditionally been dominated by right-wing conservatives. The current government under President Iván Duque and the right-wing ideology of “Uribism” behind it were clearly punished. A broad majority of the population wants a change in politics – but it remains unclear how strong this will be and in which direction it will go. The left-wing candidate Petro stands for a revision of the established political and economic structures, for social reforms and a clear and, above all, rapid improvement in the living conditions of the many Colombians who hardly benefit from prosperity and growth in a country strongly marked by economic and social inequalities. This cry for change and profound transformation has been articulated in recent years in street protests that have lasted for days. With his running mate Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian, Petro was also able to rally many ethnic minorities behind him.
Never before have the national disparities, as well as Colombia’s diversity, been so strongly reflected in the outcome of an election as in Petro’s first-round victory. However, the high degree of unity of the “Historical Pact” is contrasted by a political centre that has collapsed into insignificance, fragmented conservative right-wingers and traditional elites who are united mainly by great scepticism towards Petro, a former guerrilla fighter. In this context, it is often referred to the chilling precedent of neighbouring Venezuela, which in recent decades has been led by left-wing dictators to economic bankruptcy and a huge exodus of migrants – also and especially to Colombia. In addition, many people distrust Petro’s administrative and economic skills, mostly associated with his time as mayor of the capital Bogotá.
Surprise in the first ballot
The second-placed candidate, Hernández, a building contractor with no political party base, undoubtedly pulled off the biggest surprise in the election’s first round. He has a strong populist bent, mobilised mainly on social media, but falls short on programmatic statements and staged himself as an ardent fighter against corruption. The fact that his direct competitor Gutiérrez could not win second place despite the support of almost all traditional political parties not only shows a new mobility of voters in the right-wing, more status-quo oriented camp, but also the widespread fear of Petro becoming president there, as the populist Hernández is more likely to win in the run-off. There is no doubt that he will be able to unite the entire anti-Petro camp behind him. However, this could prove problematic for socio-political progress in Colombia, as his programmatic emptiness corresponds with misogynistic statements, a difficult leadership style and an openly expressed sympathy for the – here quoted verbatim – “great thinker” Adolf Hitler.
Fractures in the peace process
In addition, this election has revealed fractures in the peace process of the past years at the regional and sub-national levels. A look at the electoral map shows striking similarities to the referendum in October 2016, in which a very narrow majority voted against the peace agreement with the FARC. The Duque government had slowed down the implementation of the agreement in recent years; especially in the conflict-affected regions, there had been only partial progress since then. Even worse, in many parts of Colombia the level of security has deteriorated dramatically. It is precisely in these conflict regions that Petro was able to make significant gains in some cases, including in those areas where the leftist ideological camp and guerrilla forces do not necessarily enjoy support, but rather right-wing paramilitary groups dominate. This reflects a clear perception among the population that, in contrast to Hernández and Gutiérrez, it is above all Petro who would stand up for peace and justice in the country – despite or precisely because of his past as a former rebel.
The run-off election on June 19 will bring a confrontation between the two anti-establishment candidates. The outcome is open: Hernández will probably be able to win over most of Gutiérrez’s voters. On the other hand, he will now have to prove himself in a direct challenge with Petro over the next three weeks, and some of his “unconventional” charm could well wear off in the process. Despite his background, Petro has become an experienced politician and knows how to score points in debates. Whether he will be able to convince enough sceptics in the end, however, remains to be seen.
Setting the course for Colombia’s socio-political development
For Colombia, it will also be decisive how the final election result is accepted by the population at large, the traditional elites as well as the decisive institutions, e.g., the military. Even though last Sunday’s election day was relatively peaceful, the security situation had deteriorated in many places in the months leading up to the election. Further mobilisation and radicalisation can quickly lead to renewed escalation and violence. In addition, the central electoral authority in particular has faced great suspicion since the parliamentary elections in March; claims of electoral fraud are being made. The second round of the presidential election will not only set the course for the country’s socio-political development, but also for the legitimacy of the elections and the new president.
This article was first published in German in the magazine of Leipzig University.