In Colombia, the Center Isn’t Holding

With elections weeks away, Colombian politics are polarizing and the country’s historic peace agreement is at risk.

Police keep watch after Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos cast his ballot in the referendum on a peace accord to end the fifty-two-year-old guerrilla war between the FARC and the state on October 2, 2016 in Bogota, Colombia. Mario Tama / Getty

On May 27, Colombia will hold its first presidential election since the historic peace deal with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. With the future of the peace deal at stake, it’s is one of the most pivotal elections in the nation’s history. Fittingly, it has divided the electorate more than any other election in decades, as center-ground candidates are pushed aside.

It is hardly surprising that Iván Duque, the far-right candidate of the confusingly named Democratic Center party, is topping the polls. Despite his lack of experience, he can count on support from the many opponents of the peace process, including former president Alvaro Uribe. But the identity of the other front-runner is surprising: former mayor of Bogotá and one-time M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro now stands closer to the presidency than any left-wing candidate in Colombian history.

The ongoing peace process potentially represents a massive turning point for Colombia. After more than a half century of war, FARC laid down its arms and began a process of transformation into a legitimate political party. With the establishment of a special justice system to investigate atrocities on all sides and the promise of land restitution to millions of displaced people, this is a historic opportunity for reform. Homicide rates are the lowest in decades and military casualties are minimal.

But the process is failing in many respects. The smaller National Army of Liberation (ELN) guerrilla group is still at war with the state and attempts at peace talks have faltered. Various small dissident groups have broken away from the FARC and are heavily involved in criminal activities. Many right-wing paramilitary groups remain active — the 2003–2006 demobilization having proved largely a facade — regularly murdering social leaders and attempting to block land restitution. Efforts to end coca farming have mostly proved ineffective.

The hard-core opponents of the peace process are determined to undermine or even overturn it. Many politicians and military officers, including Uribe, are facing war-crimes charges if the special justice system proceeds and are therefore desperate to rewrite the accord. Businesspeople and ranchers are also worried they will face jail time for funding and employing the right-wing paramilitaries responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in the war.

Democratic Center have won massive popularity among those skeptical of the deal and exploit every difficulty in its implementation. Even though Duque was largely unknown eighteen months ago and is very inexperienced, he is polling strongly. Many “uribistas” had always promised to vote for the candidate their idol endorsed and so are now firmly backing Duque, who has praised Uribe as Colombia’s “eternal president.”

An Opening for the Left?

But the peace process with the FARC and the general de-escalation of the conflict has also made it possible for the Left to advance in ways that were once unthinkable. The Patriotic Union party, after some initial electoral success, was virtually wiped out through a campaign of assassination by paramilitaries and state forces. Colombia still remains the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Left-wing groups have often been discredited by spurious associations with the FARC.

But Gustavo Petro is currently polling strongly and may well make the second round of voting — itself a historic achievement for a left-wing candidate, in what may well be the most right-wing nation in Latin America. Once Uribe’s staunchest opponent in Congress, he uncovered systematic collusion between politicians and paramilitaries, leading to the imprisonment of dozens of representatives. He then served as mayor of Bogotá from 2011–2015 before launching his bid for the presidency.

But Petro is a divisive figure. Many of his opponents, hoping to capitalize on the massive unpopularity of the FARC, make much of his past as an M-19 guerrilla, ignoring the many differences between the two groups as well as M-19’s successful demobilization in 1991. His term as mayor of Bogotá was fraught with difficulties, including illegitimate efforts to remove him from office. This would prove problematic were he to win: following elections in March, the largest party in Congress is Democratic Center, which would seek to undermine him at every step. (FARC, competing in electoral politics for the first time since the collapse of the Patriotic Union, polled very poorly, winning only 30,000 votes nationwide).

Despite his increased popularity, it is hard to see Petro winning. For large sectors of the Colombian electorate anyone on the Left is viewed with suspicion. An ongoing influx of Venezuelan refugees also provides fodder for his enemies who claim a socialist president would bring about an economic collapse.

Colombian polls are also notoriously unreliable, meaning it is difficult to predict which two candidates will reach the second round of voting. In addition to Duque and Petro, centrist ex-governor of Medellín Sergio Fajardo and right-wing Germán Vargas Lleras are polling well, while chief peace negotiator Humberto De La Calle trails behind them. Vargas Lleras has attempted to eat into Duque’s vote by posing as an opponent of the peace deal, despite having served as vice-president while it was negotiated.

Events in the country are also moving fast, making it even harder to predict the result. Two events have shaken the peace process. On March 26, two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver were kidnapped by FARC dissidents near the border with Colombia, a region noted for drug trafficking and political violence). They were later murdered, provoking outrage in both countries. Many Colombians are questioning the value of the peace deal more than ever, seeing that the government has failed to bring peace to many regions of the country.

Then on April 9, Jesús Santrich, a major figure in the FARC who had been one of their chief negotiators in Havana, was arrested in Bogotá on charges of drug trafficking and collusion with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. The arrest was carried out on the instructions of the DEA and Santrich may face extradition to the United States. The FARC have claimed that the move was politically motivated and called the future of the peace process into question, although they appear to have moderated their rhetoric following a meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos. It is hard to tell what impact this will have on the election — some will see it as evidence the FARC are still engaged in illegal activity; others as proof that the country has not been “surrendered to the FARC” as those on the Right often claim.

Although the peace deal is backed by the UN and legally enshrined in a way that should technically make it impossible to alter, a victory for Duque (or, depending on his real intentions, Vargas Lleras) could massively undermine its implementation. All of its provisions for land redistribution and aid to the rural areas most affected by conflict could remain unenforced and social leaders may be afforded even less protection than they are now. (Santos has often seemed willing to stand by as trade unionists and others are murdered).

A victory for Petro, Fajardo or De La Calle would help to safeguard the accord but any of them would still face the familiar problem that has so often blocked implementation: congressional gridlock. With a large Democratic Center bloc in Congress, any pro-peace president will face enormous difficulties in carrying out reform. Some of the more progressive parts of the deal might be discarded to appease the far-right. This would undermine any efforts towards a lasting peace, because the same factors that led to the creation of the FARC — massive inequality and rural poverty — would remain. (The idea that drug trafficking is the root cause of the war, common on the Colombian right and abroad, is a myth that ignores the real origins of the conflict, which long predate the war on drugs).

The peace deal is a truly historic moment for Colombia, but there is still all too great a chance that it will fail like so many previous efforts to end conflict in the country. Although this opportunity may falter, it must not be allowed to slip away. The next president of Colombia, whether Petro or another candidate, must be willing to tackle the country’s massive inequality and confront the cozy oligarchy that has long dominated its politics. A peace process that stops short of this is unlikely to hold for very long.