Colombia and the 2018 presidential elections

An overview to identify the candidates with most possibilities of running and the most feasible alliances vis-a-vis the electoral event in Colombia.


The traditional bipartisan system that characterized Colombia’s democracy, around the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party—and that formed the country’s deepest identities in its citizenship beyond national identity itself—is a thing of the past. Since Alvaro Uribe came to the presidency in 2002, the country has, like many other examples offered by the region, embodied politics to the point of breaking the party system and reduced the electoral dispute to a fate of personalities. To this day, either as candidates or pre-candidates to the Colombian presidency of 2018, nominees reach almost fifty.

However, it’s noteworthy mentioning that the vast majority use the current pre-election campaign stage to assert interests and support and offer political favors to the highest bidder, given that neither ideology nor party are elements that the voters have very much in consideration when it comes to exercising their vote.

Basically at this time, and lacking some names that will surely jump, it is possible to identify several candidates and/or alliances that stand out from the rest. At this point, only three or four candidates have a real option to dispute the presidency that Juan Manuel Santos will leave after eight years as head of the country.

From left to right, the first candidate is Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko”, who will head the party of the revolutionary FARC—now registered as an oficial political party. Perhaps using the same acronym associated to the “guerrilla” movement is not the best strategy, and responds to prioritizing the position of guerrilla bases rather than to take into account perceptions and assumptions of Colombians prior to the Peace Agreement. The truth is that its image is the most unfavorable according to all the surveys and, perhaps, the wisest strategy would be to focus on certain population segments and territories with the municipal and departmental elections of 2019 in mind, where surely FARC will be able to obtain better results. In any case, FARC candicacy is now a real possibility.

In the Colombian left, other names we can identify are those of Piedad Córdoba, Jorge Enrique Robledo and Gustavo Petro. Piedad Córdoba is equally associated to the FARC, Venezuela and Cuba, despite having a well structured speech that is definitely worth listening to. Jorge Enrique Robledo is the second most voted senator of Colombia (although with 10 times less votes than Alvaro Uribe, who is the most voted). Robledo is the representation of the Democratic Pole, perhaps the only party articulated party of the Colombian left. However, despite being deeply anti-neoliberal and focused on a profound re-strengthening of the State, Robledo has always remained very distant from both the FARC and Piedad Córdoba, and as expected he is candidate of support to other political figures. Gustavo Petro, at least now, is the candidate with more options within this Colombian left. His support for some of the most disadvantaged sectors of the country’s unequal society, especially during his time at the mayor’s office in Bogotá (2012-2015), and his status as a combative anti-corruption senator (2006-2010), have built in him an image of a strong candidate. He is currently one of those with the highest voting intentions, but he is also one of the candidates who receives the most criticism eroding his image.

In the Colombian ideological center three possibilities emerge strongly. On the one hand, the pair formed by the former mayor of Medellín and ex-governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo, and by the current senator and leader of the Green Alliance party, Claudia López. Along with Jorge Enrique Robledo, Fajardo and Lopez formed an alliance to present a unique list defining Fajardo as the cndidate of the Colombia Coallition.

Another name is that of Humberto de la Calle, who recently became the candidate of the Liberal Party. Like almost all of the above, de la Calle is a political figure committed to the Peace Agreement signed with the FARC and to overcoming the structural, socio-economic and territorial conditions that, to a large extent, have explained the dynamics of violence of the last fifty years. The biggest difference between De la Calle and Fajardo would be the much more liberal vision that De la Calle maintains and also a proximity to the devalued figure of President Juan Manuel Santos.

Then comes Clara López, a traditional center-left figure in Colombia who, given her support toward Juan Manuel Santos in the 2014 elections (she also served as Labor Minister) forces her to stand for the presidency as an independent candidacy outside of any party. However, she is equally viewed as supporting figure of other “real” candidates.

Finally, on the right we have those that will campaign against the Peace Agreement. In the first place, we will have a candidate of the Democratic Center, or in other words, the candidate that Alvarez Uribe bets on. Recall that Uribe was a determinant factor in the defeat experienced by the plebiscite on the Peace Accord. Uribe was also the most voted senator in recent Colombian history. He left his presidency, despite undemocratic excesses in the fight against the FARC and ELN, at levels close to 80%. So it is expected that, no matter what name he chooses, he dominates the party.

Likewise, we must not lose sight of Germán Vargas Lleras. Former Vicepresident serving under Santos and who is presenting himself as an independent candidate as a result of the endemic corruption of his party, “Cambio Radical. “ Together with Petro and Fajardo, Vargas is among the best positioned for the presidential race, although his image is weighed down by his authoritarian personality and lacking empathy toward citizens. To his favor though, is the fact that he has acted as Minister of Infrastructure, Housing and Water and as Vicepresident he has had access to the most regions of Colombia, as shown by his electoral success in the municipal and departmental elections of 2015.

At the outset, and in the absence of a strong candidate in the Conservative Party, two figures are relevant. On the one hand, Marta Lucía Ramírez, former Defense Minister under Uribe, and Alejandro Ordonez, former Attorney General. Both are part of a narrow, conservative ideology, with a near-right captive vote, and it is quite possible that they serve as candidates to support figures with greater options.

The names that will eventually be in the presidential race is a thing of the future, although, to a large extent, they will be marked by the degree of electoral volatility, the feasibility of coalitions and, as a result of such a fractured senario, some alliances will add up and other will siply not. Risking a prediction, I would dare to say the following four candidates will emerge: 1) the candidate supported by Álvaro Uribe (with the support of the more conservative right, Alejandro Ordóñez and Marta Lucía Ramírez); 2) Germán Vargas Lleras with the support of whatever remains of the Party of the U, regional leaders such as the Char brothers on the Caribbean coast and even Clara López; 3) Sergio Fajardo with the backing of Claudia López, Jorge Enrique Robledo and possibly even Humberto de la Calle; and finally 4) Gustavo Petro, who has so far been reluctant to join any other candidacy. We still have to observe how FARC or other leaders, such as Piedad Córdoba, perform. At this point and considering such a complicated scenario, a Fajardo versus Lleras dispute may be more than a possible final match, but we’ll have to see.

Jerónimo Ríos Sierra is an International Relations Professor at the EAN University of Colombia and author of “Breve historia del conflicto armado en Colombia” (La Catarata, 2017). He holds a PhD in Political Science from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
This article was originally published in on December 12, 2017. 

More Commentary

Scroll to Top