Colombia swings left – sort of

Finally turning our eyes away from Australia, you will notice that Colombia held the first round of its presidential election overnight. It’s been a very good year or two lately for the left in Latin America, so there was an expectation that Colombia, which has never really had a left-wing president (although Juan Manuel Santos shifted to the left once in office), could represent another milestone.

At the last election, in 2018 (see my report here), conservative Iván Duque was elected to replace Santos, taking 39.9% of the vote in the first round. Left-winger Gustavo Petro had 25.6% and centrist Sergio Fajardo 24.2%. Duque prevailed comfortably in the second round against Petro with 56.4%, although no doubt he would have had a much tougher task if Fajardo had made it to the runoff instead.

Presidents are now limited to a single term, so this year Duque’s right-of-centre coalition nominated Federico Gutiérrez, former mayor of Medellín, to replace him. Petro was again the candidate of the left; Fajardo also stood again, but fell well short of his 2018 levels of support. It looked like being a typical left-right contest, this time with Petro the favorite – opinion polls showed him with around 40% of the first-round vote and a clear break on Gutiérrez for the 19 June runoff.

But the picture changed about a month ago as support for another candidate, “populist” businessman Rodolfo Hernández, started to take off. By last week, he was challenging Gutiérrez in the polls for second place, and in the end he beat him decisively, 28.6% to 24.3%, a margin of about 900,000 votes (official results here; I have recalculated the percentages by factoring out the informals).

Petro was still well ahead of both of them, just as the polls had said, with 41.0%. But whereas he would have been confident of beating Gutiérrez in the second round, Hernández will be a much more difficult proposition. Gutiérrez has already endorsed him, but his support is broader than the traditional right: his rise on the polls coincided with winning support from former Green candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

So the frequent descriptions of Hernández as a sort of Colombian Donald Trump seem to be missing something important – another indication of the unhelpfulness of “populist” as a political category. While there are some obvious similarities (he loves social media, and rails against corruption while being suspected of it himself), Hernández is politically in the centre. In a Petro-Gutiérrez runoff his voters would have been unpredictable; now, however, he is well placed to seize the presidency.

There is no doubt about the region’s swing to the left: Petro’s 15-point gain in four years is testimony to that. But a similar first-round lead proved to be insufficient for the left-wing candidate last year in neighboring Ecuador. In three weeks we’ll discover whether it’s enough in Colombia.

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