Colombia’s Future Is at Stake

With the Right threatening a fragile peace, today's elections are the most important in Colombia’s recent history.

A voting booth during the 2016 peace referendum in Bogotá, Colombia. Mario Tama / Getty Images

A little over one year ago, Colombian president Manuel Santos pushed through a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP), ending a decades-long war and transitioning FARC from a guerilla army to a legal political party. He did so despite the original deal’s narrow rejection, with 50.2 percent of Colombians voting against it, in a popular referendum earlier that year. The polarization visible in the referendum has only intensified since the deal’s ratification. Human rights advocates and Colombia’s marginalized depend on peace to lessen the violent repression that shapes their political participation, while the Right and sections of the elite prefer the climate of fear and militarization fostered by civil war.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the deal is far from stable, as right-wing proposals for renewed militarization gain popularity over the commitment to continuing the peace process. It’s in this context that Colombians are asked to go to the polls for several national elections — arguably the country’s most important in recent history — first, today, for parliamentary elections of both houses and then, on May 27, for presidential elections.

After eight years in office, President Santos is constitutionally barred from running again. He is deeply unpopular, both with his traditional right-wing base due to his efforts to achieve peace with the FARC as well as with progressive sectors of society. Moreover, while his National Unity Party is currently the largest fraction in the Senate, it will likely lose the majority of its seats in today’s parliamentary election. The party has also failed to put forward a new presidential candidate despite the drastic fall in Santos’s popularity.

The other parties in Santos’s coalition government have long jumped ship. The Liberal Party, one of Santos’s early coalition partners, does everything it can to distance itself from the incumbent. This still might not be enough for their candidate, Humberto de la Calle, who faces slim chances as Santos’s chief peace negotiator. Other coalition parties, such as the right-wing Radical Change, are backing former vice president Vargas Lleras, who recently called for Colombians to “revive local security fronts and to create a body of volunteers of citizen security forces.”

Lleras’s rhetoric recalls the parapolitics of the early 2000s, when political leaders clamored to voice their support for paramilitary mobilization against the FARC. It’s aimed at far-right sections of Colombian society, especially supporters of former president Álvaro Uribe, who can’t run himself. While Uribe’s Democratic Center party is still in the process of finding a front-runner that can best serve at Uribe’s will, a variety of right-wing candidates are trying to woo for the support of the highly popular ex-president. This includes former inspector general of Colombia Alejandro Ordóñez, former senator and defense minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, and Senator Iván Duque Márquez, all of whom oppose the current peace deal with the FARC. One by one, they seek to outbid one another in their promises to turn the clock back to the state-sponsored human rights violations littering Colombia’s recent past.

This is accompanied by a classic Colombian phenomenon: invoking the specter of communism in Latin America. The far right issues constant warnings of Castro-Chavismo taking over Colombia from nearby Cuba and Venezuela. Despite the real dangers facing civil rights activists and community leaders who risk being murdered for their defense of the peace deal, mainstream commentators prefer to focus on the perils of creeping communism and “gender ideology.”

Amid this polarization, many Colombians put their hope in Sergio Fajardo, a supporter of the current peace deal with the FARC. Fajardo, a former professor of mathematics who has served as mayor in Medellín and governor in Antioquia, has a signature look: blue jeans, no tie, and rolled-up shirtsleeves. He is at pains to project himself as a man of the people; different from “los de siempre” (the usual suspects); different from Uribe; different from Santos. And with the support of the “Colombia Coalition” — featuring Senator Jorge Robledo of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) and the Green Alliance frontwoman Claudia López — he’s positioned to mobilize large parts of the progressive popular vote.

But while Fajardo defends the peace deal with the FARC, he gravitates towards neoliberal policies that undermine the structural changes needed for real and lasting peace. Case in point is his record in Medellín.

There, he built a coalition called Citizen Commitment that tied together NGOs and social movements as well as local business elites and the chamber of commerce. Many placed their hopes in the Commitment as a vehicle for bringing real political, social, and economic change to Medellín — a city mostly known for its high violence and inequality. However, following his electoral victory in 2003, Fajardo’s government was dominated by the interests of the local business elite. The NGO actors and social movements in the coalition were marginalized.

Unsurprisingly, Fajardo claimed that inequality could not be solved by income redistribution or “appealing to a discourse of anger or aggression.” Instead, he focused on municipal mega-projects, public-private initiatives for microcredit and insurance, and promoting the city as a cheap-labor destination for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). His close ties to Antioquia’s capitalist firms, such as the country’s largest insurer Sura, the leading bank Bancolombia, and the biggest cement producer Argos are documented in close detail. In interviews, CEOs repeatedly stress that Fajardo is a man of their own, one “who calls and asks for advice, asks (CEOs) to be part of his government, to form public-private partnerships.”

By mobilizing disgust against the corrupt, “usual suspect” politicians, Fajardo managed to capture popularity first at the local level and now at the national one. Yet his refusal to reform the crumbling health sector, with its privatized “health promoting entities” (Entidades Promotoras de Salud, EPS), to fight for more equal and free access to education at all levels, or to move the economy away from extractive industries and low-wage services makes him more of an alternative for Colombia’s oligarchy than for the broader society. Some of the main players in Antioquia’s capital have already positioned themselves behind Fajardo — though this support may waver once the Uribismo candidate is chosen.

The Left, meanwhile, is highly divided and caught up in sectarian fighting. The now-demobilized FARC, which is met with public outrage and protests at nearly all of their events, struggles to be accepted as a legal political party. The progressive Alternative Democratic Pole has failed to unite around a presidential candidate, with one of its internal fractions dissenting from the party leadership’s desire to join Fajardo’s coalition. Instead, a growing number of PDA members and other leftist movements have voiced their support for Bogotá’s former mayor, Gustavo Petro. In recent opinion polls, Petro has surpassed Fajardo as most likely to win the presidential elections. Still, he will face an uphill battle in a country dominated by landed capitalist interests bent on deepening Colombia’s current neoliberal accumulation strategy. In a country with a long history of assassinating popular leftist presidential candidates, there are growing fears for Petro’s safety — especially after his convoy was attacked during an election event in the northeastern town of Cúcuta.

The elections today and on May 27 are arguably the most decisive in Colombia’s recent history, but the electoral panorama gives little reason for hope. With the peace agreement on the line, with continued killing of social leaders at the hands of neo-paramilitary groups, and with the Right casting every progressive proposal as a Chavista communist conspiracy, there’s a real danger that the peace process will be reversed. The country’s progressive sectors continue to mobilize for justice, reconciliation, and in defense of the agreement. The elections will show whether their efforts have paid off. Until then, the divisive political climate will likely continue to polarize the country with far-fetched warnings of Castro-Chavismo. What’s at stake? Only a historic opportunity to achieve peace in Colombia.