Duque won the election, but Petro is also a winner

Gustavo Petro has reasons to be optimistic after his defeat. The left has a new presence in Colombian politics and could emerge stronger for the next elections.


This article original appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. Read it here.

The result of Sunday’s presidential election in Colombia was unsurprising. Uribista candidate Iván Duque comfortably defeated the progressive ex-mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, with 54% of the vote. Duque’s victory, which was aided by traditional political parties and a large part of the establishment, demonstrates both the mobilization capacity of ex-president Álvaro Uribe and the country’s conservative political culture.

However, it would be a mistake to consider Petro’s second place finish as a complete failure. Receiving more than eight million votes and winning more than 300 municipalities is not a trivial matter. Bogotá, parts of the Caribbean coast, and almost the entire Pacific coast voted for a leftist candidate for the first time in Colombian democratic history. Despite an expected defeat in a traditionally conservative country, Petro’s new leftist movement is still ascendant.

So, if uribismo and the left have both been strengthened, with now-Senator Petro the main opposition, who are the election’s losers? The most obvious loser is the Partido Liberal (PL), who supported the disappointing candidacy of Humberto de la Calle in the election’s first round; one of Colombia’s traditional parties finds itself in a severe identity crisis.

Another loser is the former members of the disbanded FARC. Although a few months ago the ex-guerrillas were celebrating their entry into Colombian political life, the transition has been plagued by errors of judgement. The specter of former guerrillas co-opting progressive politics in Colombia turned out to be more myth than reality. Former FARC members never figured out how to build a space for themselves in the resurgent left; to the contrary, they now find themselves (self-)relegated to the margins of Colombian politics.

But by far the biggest loser of the election is Sergio Fajardo. After all the hope and fresh air of his first-round candidacy, which received more than four million votes, his questionable decision to encourage his supporters to abstain from voting is disappointing to say the least, especially when Fajardo’s most prominent supporters, including former Bogotá Mayor Antanas Mockus and former Senator Claudio López, endorsed Petro in the second round. Fajardo now finds himself increasingly on the margins, forced to play second fiddle to Petro as the battle to assume the role of chief opposition figure begins.

Finally, it is worth noting that the eight million votes Petro earned should be taken as a warning to the political establishment in one of the most unequal countries in the world—with more than eight million displaced citizens and highly concentrated levels of wealth and land ownership. In other words, if the Duque is unable to improve Colombia’s social infrastructure in terms of public investment, reduction of inequality and poverty, and strengthening state institutions to deliver public services, the Colombian left will pose a serious threat in four years’ time.

In any case, newly elected President Iván Duque, who will take office on August 7th, can avoid the potential turn to the left through pragmatic leadership. His government will enjoy favorable numbers in the legislature with a conservative majority dominated by uribistas. To begin to seriously challenge Duque, the opposition will have to take advantage of municipal and departmental elections at the end of next year; that will start with significant social mobilization.

As a result of the expectedly rosy relationship between Duque and the legislature, we can expect reforms of Colombia’s judiciary and tax system. From extensive privatizations and deregulation of the market, uribismo has always favored reducing the size of the state in Colombia. These reforms, possibly accompanied by tax cuts, is unlikely to help Duque’s standing with marginalized Colombians. In the worst case scenario, Duque will make good on his electoral promises and politicize the appointment of the attorney general and attempt to combine Colombia’s two high courts.

On the other hand, there are potential positive steps that Duque may take; strengthening the tourism industry and Colombia’s rapidly growing “orange economy”, modernizing Public Administration by implementing new technology, and investing in infrastructure—especially roads—would be steps in the right direction for the country and President Duque’s attempts to unify a very divided country.

Of course the most important issue in Colombia, as it has been now for decades, is the issue of peace and political violence. Although Duque has categorically stated that he “would not rip up the peace agreement,” there’s no reason to believe him. Uribe and his main allies have positioned themselves as enemies of the deal, and Duque’s campaign made countless references to redefining the agreement to alter language on political participation, amnesty, and drug trafficking—the three most contentious aspects of the agreement.

Duque’s election will also undoubtedly affect negotiations with the other guerrilla group, the Ejército Liberación Nacional (ELN). During campaigning, Duque insisted that no negotiation would take place until the ELN handed over all arms. In other words: “first surrender, then we can talk.” This places the ELN in a complex situation, with little incentive to come to the negotiating table.

Finally comes foreign policy, including the issues of further liberalization of trade and increased integration with the members of the Pacific Alliance. In foreign policy especially, it would be a mistake for the Duque administration to dismantle the legacy of the soon-outgoing-president Juan Manuel Santos, not only in Latin America but also with Europe.

The greatest foreign policy challenge facing President Duque, however, will be Venezuela. Everything points to version 2.0 of the Uribe-Chávez (now Maduro) hostilities, although with a deeply weakened Venezuela. The Andean region again faces a potential hot spot between two irreconcilable neighbors.

Colombia has four years of conservatism ahead, during which President Duque will likely govern in the style of his mentor, Uribe. It seems counter-intuitive, but the greatest potential beneficiary of the next four years is progressivism, which despite its defeat is enjoying its highest levels of support in Colombian history. In any case, this all depends on how Duque choses to govern over the next four years. If, as many fear, he becomes a mini-Uribe, progressivism will benefit. For the sake of all Colombians, let’s hope he charts his own course.

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