Why Gustavo Petro Is The Favorite In The Colombian Presidential Elections

Why Gustavo Petro is the favorite in the Colombian presidential elections

A few weeks before the presidential elections in Colombia, the progressive duo formed by Gustavo Petro and the activist Francia Márquez starts as the favorite. Regardless of what happens at the polls on May 29, this campaign will be remembered for marking a high point in the levels of citizen discomfort with the structure that has structured the country in the last 40 years. This could be the first time in history that a leftist politician reaches power and, although Petro’s objectives no longer represent the radical turnaround of his first campaign, in 2010, he does propose proposals that touch deep circuits.

In his plan, there is a gradual interruption of oil exploitation; the restructuring of the convoluted engineering of the pension system to take power away from private funds; or put an end to the shady business of certain health insurers. Some of his proposals have also been branded as unfeasible, such as his announcement to connect the Caribbean and Pacific coasts with an elevated train in a country where the rail network is marginal.

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The populist tone of Petro, the analysts repeat, is so imprinted in his forms, that he leaves very little room for misunderstanding when it comes to political analysis. A style that has left good dividends among his supporters when he goes through the country’s public squares with harangues. In the polls he has remained the favorite, although his rivals have cut his lead in recent weeks.

The most recent boost has been given by the arrival in the campaign of environmentalist Francia Márquez, 40, after she won almost 800,000 votes in the primaries and was elected vice-presidential candidate. The presence of Márquez has shaken the debate with positions, sometimes radical, that have confronted Colombian society with some of its worst ghosts: racism, machismo or a model of violent and voracious development with the environment.

Petro knows very well that disenchantment is around the South American country and has cultivated as a campaign slogan that will make “Colombia a world power of life.”

Petro “model 2022” has collected the lessons of two failed presidential campaigns in tow. It has been shaped based on defeats: in 2010, it lost to Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos, and four years ago it was defeated in the elections by current President Iván Duque. But the former guerrilla, former parliamentarian and former mayor of Bogotá, at 61 years old, does not give up on his goal of reaching the Casa de Nariño.

“He has learned to dose the message,” says the director of the NGO Viva la Ciudadana, José Luciano Sanín, “he is the one with the most outlined strategy and that is why he has had the luxury of marking the times and themes of this campaign ”. Today some gestures are allowed, such as the fact of canceling his attendance at a television debate in protest at the vote manipulation scandal in the parliamentary elections in March.

For the Jesuit Fernán González, a master’s in Latin American History, the candidate of the Historical Pact gathers a “very large consolidated support base” from the last two elections, and now “understands that confrontation is not convenient for him” because “where should he look for the votes in the center.

He also understood that he had to leave the cloister of his ideas and agree with other political sectors, unlike in the past, when he was as insurmountable as he was coherent. For this reason, he has surprised with the adhesion of characters such as the Christian leader Alfredo Saade, or the rapprochements with the gloomy former mayor of Medellín Luis Pérez, accused of having links with the paramilitaries.

They are movements that leave their mark. As the journalist María Teresa Ronderos notes in The viewer of Bogotá: “Petro lost other elections, but not his integrity.”

But former voices of the leftist Polo Democrático, where he militated for years, like the economist Aurelio Suárez, do not believe that Petro’s is today an alternative proposal: “If one takes Petro’s program and contrasts it with the program of the right, one finds that there is not much difference in the substantive approaches”.

Suárez explains that neither of the two political forces proposes to renegotiate the “disadvantageous” conditions for sectors of the Colombian economy of the Free Trade Agreements with the European Union or the United States; Likewise, he points out that neither of the two ends of the political arc question the role of the country within the Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD), or its permanence as a preferred partner of NATO, which it labels as a “war machine”.

Fernán González, director of the Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), explains that part of the program for this year’s elections has focused on breaking the bonds of mistrust with voters who still remember their closeness to Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez or associated with the autocrat Nicolás Maduro: “Without neglecting his messianic personality, he has had to present a more moderate discourse. Something similar to what happened with Boric in Chile. He knows that it is not useful for him to polarize, and he appears, in general, much calmer, or more discreet, in the face of issues related to private enterprise or large property”.

In Colombia there was a time when it was said that in politics you had to vote for whoever “said Uribe.” A phrase made with some sarcasm and a lot of background to illustrate the weight and control of the 69-year-old former president. Not in vain, his political credit was enough to anoint two of his political dolphins president: Juan Manuel Santos in his first term (2010-2014) and Iván Duque (2018-2022).

The charm, however, seems to have aged poorly. Confidence in his political project, a personalist and neoliberal right-wing osmosis, with special emphasis on security, today looks blurred. The social costs after the pandemic have exposed the dysfunctions of a system that has privileged defense spending and tax privileges for large companies for years to the detriment of the social agenda.

His reputation has also been undermined by the hundreds of judicial investigations and various convictions of politicians from his formation, the Democratic Center, linked to the bloodthirsty paramilitary apparatus in the regions. To top it off, there is a long and swampy legal process against him for alleged manipulation and bribery of witnesses with the aim of disrupting the statements of an arrested ex-paramilitary to tarnish opposition politician Iván Cepeda.

The former president spent just under a month under house arrest in August 2020, before a judge ordered his release, becoming the first president to serve that type of sentence.

In December 2021, its acceptance level reached just 19%, according to the polling firm Invamer Poll. It was the lowest record in a quarter of a century and a crude x-ray of the short circuit with the citizenry, especially with sectors of young people who have repeatedly booed him in his public appearances.

Added to all of the above is the discredit of President Iván Duque, a follower of Uribe. After four years and with the most acute health crisis in a century, analysts underline the deterioration of security, both urban and rural, the weakness of institutions, the absence of foreign allies, the frightening figures of unemployment and the disdain towards the implementation of the peace agreements signed in Havana between the State and the extinct FARC guerrilla (2016).

The level of citizen disapproval of Duque’s management reached 73% in February, according to the polling firm Invamer. Many representatives of the most orthodox wing of his party do not hide their discontent with President Duque’s lack of command and direction. As soon as the parliamentary polls closed on March 13, former president Álvaro Uribe, director of the right-wing party, called up the senior staff of his formation for a conclave where a possible change, or update, of the political creed would be discussed. that has guided the Democratic Center to this day.

The seriousness of the drift could be summed up in the fact that this year the ‘uribismo’ will not participate with its own candidate in the presidential elections. Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the candidate chosen in principle, took a step to the side when he saw that his proposal collapsed. Today it is not even clear whether the party’s support will be effective for Federico Gutiérrez, the right-wing candidate who is trying to present himself as a centrist.

José Luciano Sanín, director of the Viva la Ciudadanía corporation, concludes: “The decline of the ‘uribista’ right was announced in various polls and is now certified in the formation of Congress, where they lost twenty seats. All this sharpens the internal divisions of a community that was once very disciplined, a determining political force in the last twenty years. I even dare to say that hegemonic”.

In recent days, Gustavo Petro’s voice sounds cracked. The marathon tour of rallies, with more than 60 speeches in public squares around the country, with all the fanfare and campaign music, have had their impact. Given the massive exhibitions that accompany him, time after time the question arises as to whether this time he will be able to capitalize on the social discontent of recent years.

A social malaise whose causes cannot be anchored only to this Government. The Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP) shows how in the last 15 years social mobilizations have increased fivefold in the country. Peasant, student, indigenous or union strikes, among others, have only increased.

Nor is it a coincidence that two of the largest social explosions have taken to the streets during the current government. The first, in November 2019, and the second in May of last year when the country was going through one of the deadliest peaks of the pandemic. Petro has understood the momentum and has been presented as the catalyst for discontent.

“There is an emergency of the social. A collective protest that also demands the expansion of political participation”, explains José Luciano Sanín, “and the Petro project rides on that idea. And it benefits him, because the social indicators, of poverty, of inequality, of unemployment, are at a very bad level. Even when we compare them with other Latin American countries.”

The geometry of discontent also goes through the discredit of the traditional parties, and their satellite groups, which have not served as channels of political expression for a society that demands changes. The Jesuit and political scientist Fernán Martínez alludes to certain similarities with the Chilean case: “Despite the fact that the Colombian political field is much more fragmented, it is clear that in both countries a social organization emerges that seeks to influence its agenda outside of the orbit of the traditional parties.

And he concludes: “I believe that the reproduction of a political system that has abused clientelism for so many years must inevitably wear out.” Laura Wills, a political scientist and professor at the Universidad de los Andes, agrees that a very significant group of people disenchanted with traditional politics have found refuge in the Historical Pact project.

And he underlines the importance of the fact that the left has managed to coordinate an alliance of progressive groups without complexes, small and medium-sized parties, which in such an atomized scenario would have been shipwrecked: “The decision to coordinate around Petro’s candidacy, and push it forward, with debated, deliberate agreements, it can result in a strategic success against a center and a right that arrive somewhat late and initially divided”.

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