Election preview: Colombia

Colombia goes to the polls tonight for the second and deciding round of its presidential election. It’s attracted rather less attention than the last one, four years ago, which was seen as a milestone in deciding between war and peace. It also looks like being a bit more one-sided, unless the polls are badly wrong.

In 2014, incumbent Juan Manuel Santos sought a second term and a mandate to complete a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla group. He won with 53.1% of the vote, and the peace was duly signed in 2016. (It was subsequently amended after being defeated in a referendum.) Santos won the Nobel peace prize as a result.

Santos had the credentials for the task: he had served as defence minister under centre-right president Álvaro Uribe and was Uribe’s chosen successor in 2010. Once in office he decided to pursue the path of peace, but although Uribe and other conservatives turned against him, they could never convincingly paint him as a left-winger.

With presidents limited to two terms – in future, as a result of a recent constitutional amendment, it will be only one – tonight’s vote will choose Santos’s successor. In the first round, held three weeks ago, the right’s Iván Duque led comfortably with 39.9% from the left’s Gustavo Petro on 25.6%. Of the other five candidates, most of the support went to two who were positioned in the centre: Sergio Fajardo with 24.2% and Germán Vargas Lleras (who had been Santos’s vice-president) with 7.4%.

If there was preferential voting, Vargas Lleras’s preferences would quite probably have put Fajardo ahead of Petro. Instead they were both eliminated, and voters have to choose between the extremes of right and left.

Neither, however, seems particularly extreme by Latin American standards. Duque is a lawyer and economist who has spent four years in the Colombian Senate; a close ally of Uribe, he represents mainstream conservatism. Although he opposed the deal with FARC, his goal as president would be to revise it rather than tear it up.

Petro is an economist and former mayor of Bogotá, but in his youth was a left-wing guerrilla himself – not in FARC, but in the M-19 movement, which was active in the 1970s and ’80s. Duque has tried to portray him as a disciple of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, but while Petro’s economic proposals are clearly on the left there is no sign that he shares their authoritarianism.

In any case, if the polls are right Petro is unlikely to get the chance to implement his policies: Duque has led consistently, sometimes by as much as 20 points. The gap, however, seems to be narrowing – a poll last week has Duque only 5.5% ahead – and while Petro looks to have an uphill task, he should not be written off entirely.

So it looks as if Latin America’s rightward shift is still on, and the militants of FARC will have to decide if Duque’s proposed changes to the agreement are sufficiently bad to justify taking up arms again. I suspect they will decide they’re not, but Colombia could be in for some interesting times.


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