After Gustavo Petro’s Historic Victory, the Battle to Change Colombia Is Just Beginning

Colombians have elected a left-wing president for the very first time in the country’s history. Now Gustavo Petro and his vice president, Francia Márquez, face the challenge of carrying out their reform agenda against fierce conservative opposition.

Left-wing president-elect Gustavo Petro in Bogotá, Colombia. (Daniel Munoz / AFP via Getty Images)

On June 19, Colombian voters elected left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro as president of their country. It was a historic breakthrough in Colombia’s political history since it first gained independence from Spain in 1819. For many years, Colombian politics seemed immune to the left-wing currents elsewhere in Latin America.

Petro’s victory is even more remarkable because the vice president–elect, Francia Márquez, will be the first Afro-Colombian woman to serve in that position. Unthinkable just a few years ago, the democratic election of a left-wing presidency means that for the first time, issues like persistent inequality and poverty, human rights, and environmental protection will be priorities for the Colombian government.

What are the prospects for success of the incoming Petro-Márquez presidency’s agenda? A brief look at the short- and long-term factors that culminated in this historic victory can help provide answers for the near future.

Analyzing the Results

As polls had consistently indicated for weeks, the runoff election was close. There was just a 3 percent gap in the final vote tally between Rodolfo Hernández (47.31 percent, 10.6 million votes) and Petro (50.44 percent, 11.2 million votes). Despite having revealed his authoritarian intentions during the campaign and losing by a slim margin, Hernandez graciously conceded his defeat to Petro, along with current and former right-wing presidents Iván Duque and Álvaro Uribe, both of whom also congratulated Petro after having vehemently opposed him.

This contrasts with the behavior of Donald Trump in the United States or Keiko Fujimori in Peru, both of whom falsely claimed to have been victims of fraud after their election losses. This has made it more difficult for Joe Biden and Pedro Castillo to govern as the elected presidents of their respective countries. It also sets the Colombian right apart from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who is making false claims about the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system ahead of the October elections that he appears likely to lose to former left-of-center president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula).

Petro’s electoral support in the first round on May 29 was strongest in municipalities consisting of poorer areas and larger cities, whereas Hernández’s support came from a larger number of smaller municipalities, mainly concentrated in the eastern and central areas of the country. In the first round, Petro won in 412 municipalities out of 1,124 in total, whereas in the runoff on June 19, he only outperformed Hernández in 402 municipalities. The additional 2.7 million votes Petro gained in the runoff came predominantly from areas where he had already done well in the first round.

Urban areas were key to the Petro-Márquez victory. In Colombia’s capital and largest city, Bogotá, for example, their vote increased by almost five hundred thousand (more than 23 percent) between the two rounds. However, in other less urbanized regions where Petro already had overwhelming support, such as in Magdalena (north), Nariño (southwest), and Amazonas (south), Petro also obtained high percentage increases between the two rounds. In contrast, in eastern municipalities, mainly in Santander and Norte de Santander, where Hernández had greater support, the Petro-Márquez ticket barely increased its margins.

Compared with the 2018 runoff, when he lost to outgoing president Duque, this year Petro won in 141 extra municipalities (around 10 percent of the total). The electoral trends for Petro were very similar in both elections (see Figures 1 and 2) except that his 2022 victories were the result of dramatically expanded margins that surprised the Right.

Nowhere was this more clearly the case than in the Pacific region, Colombia’s poorest, with bigger populations of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous peoples than elsewhere. Petro and Márquez received more than 90 percent of the vote in thirty-four municipalities. As the local physician and activist Doctor Manuel Rozental told Democracy Now:

The image that we’ll never forget here was Indigenous peoples from the jungles of the Pacific coast in Colombia coming on the rivers in canoes, two days traveling, to place their vote.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Petro’s Path to Victory

In 2002, when Álvaro Uribe first won the presidential election, Petro was elected for the second time to Congress from Bogotá. During his 2002–6 term, Petro was one of the most outspoken opponents of Uribe’s far-right government. He denounced the close links between right-wing paramilitary groups, the army, and Uribe’s government at the highest levels. Those with such ties included Uribe himself and his brother when he was governor of Antioquia in the late 1990s before running for the presidency.

The media attention that Petro’s denunciations of Uribismo garnered helped raise his national profile. In 2006, he was elected to the Colombian Senate for the first time. Petro continued to denounce the illegal ties between paramilitary groups and an expanding network of congressmen, businessmen, and mayors. The evidence that Petro presented helped to convict and imprison dozens of former congressmen.

His successful pursuit of justice for the victims of the “false positives” scandal is all the more remarkable because of how risky and unpopular it was at the time to oppose Uribe’s government. The Colombian army had murdered thousands of civilians then transported their bodies to combat zones so they could be presented as battlefield casualties from the left-wing guerrillas.

Having gained national recognition in the 2000s, Petro ran for president for the first time in 2010. Having won the primary contest of his political party, Polo Democratico (Democratic Pole), he campaigned in the general election at a time when the armed conflict with the left-wing rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), still dominated public debate. Petro had been a member of another guerrilla organization, M-19, in his youth, but drew the conclusion that armed struggle was a dead end for the Colombian left and supported M-19’s demobilization in the late 1980s.

Red-Baiting Campaigns

Uribe falsely associated his detractors on the Left, including Petro, with the “narco-terrorist Marxist” FARC to justify his hard-line policies and distract from his own connections to narcotrafficking. The Uribe-allied right-wing media that long dominated Colombia’s media landscape faithfully echoed this deflective, red-baiting strategy. Petro placed fourth on that occasion, with just over 9 percent of the vote, which was higher than expected.

This strategy of delegitimization still persisted during the 2022 election. The dominant media outlets consistently described Petro as a “former guerrilla,” even though he had laid down his arms and received an amnesty more than thirty years ago. They sought to keep a false equivalence between the democratic left and armed rebels alive in the public mind.

Just a day before the runoff election, the cover of Semana, an influential right-wing magazine, posed the loaded question: “The elections: ex-guerrilla or engineer?” By referring to Hernández as an “engineer,” Semana made the far-right populist sound more reliable than his opponent, even though he had made campaign pledges to declare a state of emergency and dissolve Congress in the event of his victory.

During Colombia’s long armed conflict, those who used such rhetoric deliberately endangered the lives of left-wing politicians. In the 1990 presidential election, paramilitaries and narcotraffickers assassinated three antiestablishment candidates, including the former M-19 member Carlos Pizarro and Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, leader of the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP). Between 1984 and 2002, more than four thousand members of the UP were assassinated, including congressmen, local councilors, mayors, and countless party activists.

In 2014, prosecutors investigating these crimes revealed that the assassinations of UP members had been systematic, with the involvement of right-wing paramilitaries, politicians, and serving members of the army. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace, created after the 2016 agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, declared these assassinations to be genocidal as they consisted of a macabre policy of deliberately exterminating all members of a democratic opposition party.

Such threats and denunciations have continued to the present day. However, the 2016 peace accord and the demobilization of the FARC has weakened the force of this traditional red-baiting strategy, enabling public debate to focus on more pressing issues like social inequality and poverty.

Rising to Power

Petro built on his first presidential campaign to run successfully for mayor of Bogotá in 2011. His administration of the capital faced strident opposition. Petro was ultimately impeached by the attorney general Alejandro Ordoñez, a figure of the extreme right who is currently Duque’s ambassador to the Organization of American States.

Ordoñez removed Petro from office when he tried to replace Bogotá’s privatized waste collection system with a public company that employed previously informal collectors. The transition from private to public management was not well-organized; for several days, uncollected trash accumulated in the streets. The attorney general ruled that Petro had assigned responsibility for garbage collection to an incompetent company, violated rights to free enterprise, and endangered public health and the environment.

Whatever the merits of the criticisms Petro faced, the case was clearly politicized. The public official who sanctioned him was not a judge but simply an ideological opponent of the left-wing mayor. A Colombian court allowed Petro to resume his mayoral duties a few months later. In 2020, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the impeachment had been illegal since Petro was denied both the presumption of innocence and the right to defend himself in court.

The ordeal had a political upside for Petro. It played out in public as a struggle between the leading antiestablishment politician of the long-suppressed Colombian left and an authoritarian right-wing establishment. Having survived politically and become a well-known figure, Petro launched his second presidential campaign in 2018. Defying expectations once again, he reached the second round to face Uribe’s protégé Iván Duque. This time, Petro lost by a margin of 13 percent in the runoff.

Before the 2018 election, Congress had passed a law entitling the presidential runner-up to a Senate seat. Petro was thus able to serve a second term as Senator from 2018 to 2022. The Senate proved to be an ideal national platform for Petro’s now more prominent role in opposition to Duque’s government. He could display his charismatic speaking skills along with a deep knowledge of Colombia’s most pressing social problems.

At the same time, Petro worked to unify disparate political forces on the Left into a new political party, Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact). Pacto Histórico served as a big left-of-center tent under which different political perspectives and ideologies could forge a broad consensus on the solutions to Colombia’s problems.

Chart 1: Presidential votes for Gustavo Petro, 2010–22. (Note: The percentage for the primaries was calculated by adding together the total number of valid votes for the primary candidates of every Colombian party.)

Chart 1 shows Petro’s electoral progress toward the presidency, which closely tracks that of the Colombian Left as a whole. As with Lula in Brazil, who began his political career under a military dictatorship, a democratic victory for the Colombian left was a long time in coming. Lula ran in four presidential elections (1989, 1994, 1998, and 2002) and Petro in three (2010, 2018, and 2022).

Petro’s rise also benefitted from the refusal of right-wing governments to respond to popular social demands, especially during Duque’s term in office. In 2021, Duque violently cracked down on massive nationwide protests led by young people angry about persistent poverty and inequality rates that had been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Prospects for Petro’s Agenda

The Petro-Márquez victory follows the Pacto Histórico’s election to a plurality of Congressional seats in March this year. It constitutes the first time that Colombia’s diverse ethnic and racial minorities, including Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples, will have real representation in the presidency. It is also the first time in decades that a presidential candidate has been elected in part for his promise to raise taxes on higher incomes.

While Uribe did implement a wealth tax, he earmarked it specifically to strengthen the army and called it a “war tax.” Former presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Duque were elected after pledging not to raise taxes. In 2010, Santos even said that he would set his promise in stone. Duque’s campaign slogan was “higher wages, fewer taxes.” Petro’s inverse commitment reflects a growing popular sentiment that deep socioeconomic inequality is unacceptable and that a robust fiscal policy using higher taxes to fund social spending can reduce it.

Petro’s fiscal policy is well-designed and appears to have sufficient political support to be implemented. His other proposals will be harder to pull off. An ambitious plan to rapidly transition away from an oil-based economy depends on factors that are not fully within the government’s control, such as the large-scale deployment of new renewable energy sources. Ironically, the Colombian right claimed that Petro would import the “Venezuelan model” to Colombia, ignoring the fact that Venezuela’s economic collapse over the past decade is in no small part due to overreliance on oil production.

Petro’s proposal to base his country’s foreign relations on social and environmental justice is certainly laudable — and very unusual for a middle-income developing country like Colombia. However, it will be very difficult to put into effect. This is especially so when it comes to the key relationship with the United States, which has become heavily militarized since the advent of Plan Colombia twenty years ago.

While the Biden administration congratulated Petro for his victory and promised to cooperate with his government, it had been wary of a left-wing victory in a country that has long been a steadfast conservative ally of the United States. Moreover, the Republican Party is likely to sweep the midterm Congressional elections this November. One GOP rising star, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has branded Petro as a “former narco-terrorist” whose victory was “very, very troubling.”

Biden may be too preoccupied with domestic affairs and the war in Ukraine to actively undermine the first democratically elected left-wing president of Latin America’s third-largest country. Yet his Republican opponents will surely pressure him to make things difficult for Petro by criticizing the new president for real and perceived failures in a way that never happened when Duque was in office. This double standard reflects a long-standing structural bias against the Latin American left in US corporate media and its system of government.

“Past Mentalities”

On the home front, Petro’s administration will have to confront strident right-wing opposition in Congress and the mainstream media. One of the new president’s first challenges will be to form a solid, competent presidential cabinet that can navigate Colombia’s historically violent political waters effectively. When he served as mayor of Bogotá, there was a high turnover rate among Petro’s cabinet members, which is something that he must avoid as president.

The Pacto Histórico does not have a majority in Congress, so Petro’s government will have to deftly negotiate and compromise with independent or even hostile congressmen and senators to pass his most important reforms. Recent agreements with different political parties, even from the Right, prove that Petro is well aware of the need to gather broad political support to guarantee some political stability. In addition, he will inherit a very difficult domestic and international economic situation of high inflation and fiscal deficits.

Unfortunately, even if Petro can get some of his proposals through the legislature, they have the potential to aggravate an already high inflation rate in the short term. For example, he has proposed a 50 percent increase in tariffs on imported food, textiles, and leather, which could further raise prices for consumers. Increased spending on various social programs could also have inflationary effects if those programs are not carefully budgeted and implemented.

Petro and Márquez will have to manage the very high expectations that many Colombians now have of their government after a historic election victory. Voters who expect immediate solutions to their most pressing problems can easily get frustrated and withdraw their support, as we have already seen in countries like Chile, Peru, and Honduras.

In his victory speech, Petro acknowledged this conundrum faced by left-wing politicians elected to government office who are hoping to build democratic socialism in the long term:

We will develop capitalism in Colombia, not because we worship it, but because we first must overcome premodernity in Colombia, feudalism in Colombia and the new slavery. We must overcome the past mentalities and behaviors linked to that world of slavery.

Since Colombian presidents can only serve one four-year term, Petro will be under even greater popular pressure to lay the foundations of victory for future left-wing candidates. To do so, the Petro-Márquez administration will need to mobilize popular support for their agenda while demonstrating that their government has the will and capacity to address the country’s most pressing problems — if they can prevent the far right from placing insurmountable obstacles, including violence, in the way of their solutions.