Colombia’s May 27 presidential elections were unprecedented. They were the first elections of the “post-conflict” period following the ratification of the peace agreements between the government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). They were the most peaceful elections of the last fifty years, with higher participation than ever; turnout climbed to 53 percent up from a recent average of 45.7 percent.
They were the first elections in which a leftist candidate won broad support and made it into the second-round runoff. The elections also revitalized the far right; they now lead the race as the country heads into the runoff. Meanwhile, the traditional party structures have never done so poorly. Something significant is changing in Colombia.
Not everything is new. The right-wing candidate Iván Duque, backed by former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez and his party Centro Democrático, won with 44 percent of the vote and 7,558,382 votes. Duque, who worked for the Interamerican Development Bank for twelve years before becoming a senator, was a virtual unknown eighteen months ago. He won primarily because he was “el que dijo Uribe,” or “the one Uribe chose.”
Uribe is infamous for his proximity to paramilitarism, narcotrafficking, and his disregard for human rights — best exemplified in the “false positives” scandal, in which up to ten thousand civilians were assassinated to demonstrate “results” in the war against guerrilla forces. Duque’s victory is indicative of the entrenched power the former president still wields.
In second place, at 25 percent of the vote and 4.8 million votes, came the leftist Gustavo Petro Urrego. Petro is an outsider to the traditional political class. Born into a poor family on the coast, he later joined with the intellectuals of the urban M-19 guerrilla movement in the 1980s. He gained national fame when as a senator and anticorruption campaigner he exposed ties between politicians and right-wing paramilitaries. As Bogotá’s mayor, he led an ambitious series of social programs, championed women’s and LGBT rights, and was once barred from office after his challenges to deeply ingrained networks of corruption produced an establishment backlash. He might now be the strongest left-wing presidential candidate in Colombian history.
Petro’s political platform demands universal and free public education and health, a stronger judicial branch, and an end to corruption — all within a framework of creating a more inclusive society for women, the young, and minorities. Economically, he seeks to reduce inequality by broadening Colombia’s productive base, moving away from extractive sectors and towards agriculture and small business. And crucially, he wants to continue the implementation of the hard-won peace agreements. Petro views the agreements as a tool for bringing economic and social development to those regions neglected by the state during decades of armed conflict.
Closely trailing Petro was the centrist former mayor of Medellín, Serio Fajardo. With a platform focused on education and anticorruption, Fajardo strove to set himself against the polarization between Petro and Duque with an agenda that wouldn’t radically threaten anyone. His centrist posture gained steam in the last weeks of the election, and he lost to Petro by a mere 1.32 percent.
The main losers of the election were German Vargas Lleras, a former vice president running with the center-right Cambio Radical party (7 percent), and the Liberal Party’s Humberto de la Calle (2.5 percent), the lead negotiator in the peace agreements with the FARC. Each of these candidates lost out in an election that instead rewarded those most sharply identified with the radical left and right.
Behind the Polarization
What explains this left-right polarization? Part of the answer lies in the current political context. One of the key issues, especially in the second round, was the question of the peace agreements with the FARC. The agreements divided the nation in a 2016 referendum, when they were rejected by a slim majority. The outgoing president Santos, however, managed to push through their ratification.
A year and a half later their impact is ambiguous: while homicide rates have fallen overall, they have spiked in those regions where the vacuum left by the FARC is filled with neo-paramilitary structures, dissident guerrillas, and criminal groups. Meanwhile, the state’s implementation of the agreements has been disappointing at best. Despite this, for many the decision between Duque and Petro will boil down to their positions on the peace agreements.
With the FARC demobilized, the Right adopted the Venezuelan crisis and the specter of “castro-chavismo” as their new boogeyman. In 2017, 796,000 Venezuelan migrants entered Colombia, generating considerable tensions and the return of Cold War fears of a communist takeover. The most recent Gallup poll suggested that 42 percent of Colombians believed their country could become the “next Venezuela.”
Another key issue was corruption. The Odebrecht scandal — which originated in Brazil, saw the CEO of the vast conglomerate arrested and charged, and has subsequently spread across Latin America — landed in Colombia as well, implicating the traditional political class. The case adds to years of similar scandals.
Corruption and frustration with the traditional political class likely drove Vargas Lleras’s catastrophic electoral performance. Lleras, as a former vice president and grandson of a former president, perfectly symbolized Colombia’s dynastic “establishment”. Moreover, his Cambio Radical party was one of the most tainted by corruption allegations.
The anticorruption message was seized upon by candidates across the political spectrum, and was central to Fajardo’s hard-center platform. This shows it has the potential either to politicize — as with Petro’s challenge to the establishment’s complicity in paramilitary violence — or to depoliticize, as with Fajardo’s calls for technocratic transparency.
Finally, the country’s economic model made a welcome appearance as a topic of political debate. Colombia ranks as the second most unequal country in Latin America, and seventh in the world. Recent studies suggest that poverty has stopped falling, and extreme poverty is now on the rise. Growing inequality has hit rural areas hardest; in the countryside, poverty is three times higher than in cities. The narrow concentration of land ownership — a historic problem that helped spur the armed conflict — has only grown worse over time, and an Oxfam study found that 0.1 percent of “agrarian productive units” control 60 percent of the fertile land.
The issues of corruption, the traditional ruling class, and growing inequality have — in large part thanks to Petro’s discourse — become more explicitly connected than ever. Thus, there is a growing feeling that the choice between center-left and left candidates is less a choice between personalities, but rather between different perspectives on underlying power structures.
Colombian politics have historically been dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties. For the first half of the twentieth century, party loyalties effectively divided Colombian society, culminating in “The Violence,” a period of partisan strife between 1948 and 1954 which left 250,000 dead. After a brief stint under the military president Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who came closer than anyone else in establishing a third political force, old elites closed ranks and created the “National Front.” Under the Front, between 1958 and 1974, elites agreed to alternate power between the Liberal and Conservative parties, distributing among themselves the ministries and state bureaucracy. Much of today’s political elite — including Duque — can trace their families’ prominence to this period and beyond. As David Racero of Petro’s Colombia Humana party told the New York Times, the same forty families have ruled for the past two hundred years.
Few personify Colombia’s hereditary elite as much as Vargas Lleras, whose inability to muster even 8 percent of the vote appears to demonstrate the depletion of this model of politics. The fact that the Liberal Party did not even reach the threshold necessary for receiving a state subsidy to cover campaign costs is a remarkable development. It is too soon, though, to write off the entrenched political “machine” — the broad and deep clientelist networks that buy political support with cash or “TLC” (acronym for “roof tiles, bricks and cement”), complemented by a heavy dash of intimidation of public-sector workers who are told they will lose their jobs if they do not meet a target number of votes for a given candidate.
Vargas Lleras was the face of this politics; but Duque was its material beneficiary. It’s likely that Duque’s success can be explained in part by the “machine” covertly backing him. And even if the machine failed to deliver reliable results in this presidential election, it has historically proved more powerful in local contests.
These issues have led to mounting frustrations with the traditional ruling class and economic model, which helps to explain why the Nobel Peace Prize winner President Santos — whose government managed to sign the peace agreements and put an end to a fifty-two-year armed conflict — is leaving office with a 16 percent approval rating. Thus, “Latin America’s oldest democracy” is a country profoundly marked by decades of violence, high inequality, and a historically narrow political sphere from which many felt excluded.
While these factors historically fueled the vicious cycle of the armed conflict, in these recent elections they are finding their outlet in the most ideologically charged elections in decades, signaling perhaps a radical change in national politics.
The Specter of Populism
In this election the one thing that united the three leading candidates — representing the far right, the center, and the progressive left in the figures of Duque, Fajardo and Petro respectively — was their attempt to present themselves as figures outside the establishment, best equipped to represent the will of the nation against antiquated elites. In this way, the local context of Colombia’s elections aligns with a global trend towards populism.
In Latin America, thanks to the rise of leaders like Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, populism has been most strongly associated with the Left. Thus, in Colombia the term “populist” has been equated with “castro-chavismo” and deployed against Gustavo Petro. Coupled with these accusations is a fixation on Petro’s personality over his program. A recent New York Times article calls him “demagogic,” “incendiary,” and based on “rancor, resentment, class hatred and revanchism.” “Populism” is understood to apply only to the Left.
The truth, though, is that populism is hardly a monopoly of the political left. Colombians would do well to remember Ernesto Laclau’s insistence that “populism” describes a particular way of doing politics rather than any particular ideological content. If we take this seriously, we can recognize right-wing president Uribe as the most successful populist leader in modern Colombian history. He embodies the Latin American caudillo, the “strongman” who mixes populist tactics with an authoritarian streak.
In Laclau’s classic definition, “populists” do two things. They must identify an internal social frontier dividing the people from elites, and they must draw “chains of equivalence” connecting a broad range of frustrations. Those frustrations are united by a single symbol or leader, onto whom each section of the populist coalition can project its own hopes.
Uribe’s “internal frontier” was the FARC. Where his predecessors treated the FARC as a political actor, he recast them as a completely dehumanized “other,” a “narcoterrorist” organization that deserved no mercy or human rights, much less peace negotiations. The internal frontier cast the FARC outside society, and with them, everyone who defended human rights and a political rather than armed resolution to the armed conflict.
His ability to form “chains of equivalence” — linking frustration with insecurity to other demands from below — was best captured in his campaign against the peace agreements in the 2016 referendum. He channeled the many frustrations with the FARC and the Santos government — and the technocratic elite it represented — and presented a “No” vote as the proper expression of all that anger. In the process, he created the monster of the “castro-chavismo” specter. The government, for its part, failed to present the peace agreements as the achievement, from below, of the popular classes, and as part of a broader national project.
Uribe’s military policy of “democratic security” was anything but; it was a state of exception which violated the rule of law and human rights alike, justified only by the war against the FARC. He modified the constitution to allow for reelection and strengthened the executive branch, a trajectory Duque hopes to continue by reforming the judicial branch. Throughout all this, Uribe enjoyed broad popular support, ending his first term with an 80 percent approval rating. Thus, his right-wing populism enabled the consolidation of authoritarian rule from which the country is only just now recovering.
This lethal combination of populism with authoritarianism only makes the current confluence between Uribe and the hereditary political class all the more frightening. Nothing captures his success as clearly as the recent convergence of the Liberal Party, Santos’s “Partido de la U,” and Cambio Radical. All three publicly opposed Uribe for years and supported the peace agreements. Now, they’ve united to back Duque for the presidency. Any division that might once have separated the rural regional landed elite from the technocratic Bogotá political class is quickly disappearing, making the possibility of Duque’s victory even more dangerous than Uribe’s presidency.
In light of the Right’s unity, the center-left’s call to cast blank ballots rather than support Petro is both disappointing and dangerous. The effort is led by Fajardo and his fellow defeated candidate, Humberto de la Calle. Their followers claim they are “tired of seeing all this fighting” and of political polarization.
This phenomenon — and the relative success of the “radical center” embodied by Fajardo and De La Calle — can be understood as one of the more insidious legacies of the armed conflict: an ideal of politics as a sphere devoid of antagonism. Chantal Mouffe — who has publicly endorsed Petro — calls this “politics without adversaries.” It is precisely this staid vision that has created the vacuum of political representation which the far right seeks to fill, in Colombia as elsewhere. The Right was perfectly happy to make an adversary of the peace agreements during the 2016 referendum, and will continue to put them at risk.
Back to the Squares
Uribe and the complacency of Fajardo’s blank voters provide stark contrasts to Gustavo Petro’s left-wing populism. Petro channels a history of Latin American populism distinct from the legacy of the caudillo. Italian sociologist Gino Germani identifies this history of left-populism with those governments that broke with oligarchic and elitist forms of state power, established channels between popular sectors and state powers, and constructed a specific expression of modern democracies.
Petro also channels the economic tradition of 1960s developmentalism, a mix of Keyensianism and dependency theory based on regulation, redistribution, and strengthening the public sector. He foregrounds a vision of labor based on expanding the productive capacities of small industry and the agricultural sector in an attempt to create a middle-class society. In his telling, this will directly challenge inequality by shifting from Colombia’s extractivist model. He mirrors other “pink tide” leaders by passionately defending the environment and advocating for ethnic and other minorities (he’s had an “indigenous guard” as his security multiple times.)
Thus, the chains of equivalence forged in Petro’s Colombia Humana campaign are not merely associations of fears, frustrations, and hatreds, as in the case of Uribe, but rather a deep programmatic connection between the different pillars of his politics. And instead of weaponizing populism to bypass Colombia’s institutions, Petro calls for their transformation in the service of the popular classes.
In the first round, he advocated for a “constituyente,” a modification of the Constitution, though he’s dropped this demand in the second round in order to ally himself with more centrist elements. He’s evoked the “Agreement About the Fundamental” pioneered by the conservative leader Alvaro Gómez Hurtado in his defense of the peace agreements with the M-19 guerrilla. And he speaks of a “Sancocho Nacional,” a term used by M-19 leader Jaime Bateman, likening Colombia to the rich stew made from a multitude of ingredients. Petro consistently weaves together two Colombian narratives: one, of strong institutions and nationalist values, and another “seductive” one (a term he uses) that captures Colombians’ desires for the future.
That’s not to say his is another “politics without adversaries.” He’s exposed the rifts running through Colombian society — its economic inequality, its urban-rural divide, the gap between those who have access to health, education, and justice and those who do not — but places them in an optimistic, progressive political language. Now that an unsavory coalition of former paramilitaries, mafiosos, and the traditional parties has formed around Duque, these adversaries are no longer purely rhetorical.
Petro’s campaign has brought the appearance of a “people,” who, catalyzed by his political platform as well as his charisma, suddenly find themselves politically activated and on the same side of history. Nothing captures this better than his campaign’s ability to fill entire public squares, reviving their function as democratic spaces.
Equally telling is the social media movement that has spontaneously swelled around Petro, whose campaign has half the funding of Duque’s. Citizens across the country are making videos, posting memes, and blasting arguments out over Whatsapp, in what many feel is one of the most politically engaging elections in a generation.
In a recent campaign video, Petro’s voice is heard over a montage of peasants, students, the elderly, and then the massive crowds at his rallies. Over the images of the marginalized, oppressed, and disaffected, he says:
When you have a dream that seems impossible, and one day decide to embrace it . . . you discover that dream is not just yours, that millions share it, and that you were only a kind of initial impulse. Then that impulse becomes a hurricane of uncontainable power. It fills city squares and it is transformed into a collective dream that screams out for change.
Regardless of the outcome today, change has come to Colombian politics.