Key Takeaways from Colombia’s Presidential Elections

Gustavo Petro won the presidency. However, it should be well understood that a significant portion of the country did not want him to become president. This result does not give the new president a clear mandate to execute their policy without at least trying to address concerns from the other side.


Photo: Gustavo Petro (L) and his running mate Francia Márquez (R) celebrate their victory before supporters. Source: The Economist.

With the highest turnout since the 1994 elections, at 58 percent, Gustavo Petro, 62, became the first leftist to win a presidential election in Colombia’s modern history. The key to Petro’s victory was Colombia’s periphery. In the Pacific coast, Petro won by significant margins in Chocó (81.94 percent), Valle del Cauca (63.85 percent), Cauca (79.02 percent) and Nariño (80.91 percent). In the Caribbean coast, he won Córdoba (61.08 percent), Sucre (64.07 percent), Bolivar (60.88 percent), Atlántico (81.94 percent), Magdalena (60.22 percent), and La Guajira (64.56 percent). Petro also won in the capital city of Bogotá (58.59 percent). In his victory speech yesterday, Petro suggested a conciliatory approach to policymaking and implied that he would reach out to opponents and govern “without rancor.” However, he maintained a commitment to Colombia’s have-nots and pledged to carry out a “redistributive” economic policy, made a commitment to fully implement the peace agreement, called for a new approach to the environment, and talked about “further developing capitalism” without affecting worker’s dignity. 

1. Appointing a cabinet is urgent. The incoming government must urgently name top cabinet members that provide credibility over three issues: the economy, security, and foreign relations. During the campaign, Petro talked a big game about unorthodox economic policy measures, and now they must come to terms with expiring Ingreso Solidario Subsidies, the Fuel Price Stabilization Fund, and The Board of Ecopetrol. These three issues will be important in understanding if there is any real moderation from the incoming government. The issue of mistrust between the president and the military is significant. Petro must appoint someone who commands the respect and trust of military members. Otherwise, the transition is likely to be a mess. Petro will face growing pressure from social groups and protesters, his relationship with the police will be frayed due to his support for the 2021 protests, and his calls for increased human rights training for police will be put to the test when they are defending him. Petro will have to appoint a foreign minister that reassures allies that trade and military ties won’t be immediately broken and that Colombia’s traditional foreign policy will not veer toward China and away from the U.S.

2. Gustavo Petro won the presidency. However, it should be well understood that a significant portion of the country did not want him to become president. This result does not give the new president a clear mandate to execute their policy without at least trying to address concerns from the other side. This is a lesson that should be learned from Iván Duque’s administration. If Petro does not take a hard look in the mirror and think about how to govern with the other half of the country, we can expect four years of stalemate and brinksmanship. It is notable that over 55 percent of Colombians turned out to vote for the president. The fact that it was a holiday weekend and that a VAT-Free day took place on Friday did not deter people from voting on Sunday. We suspect turnout was high because the election was very close, so every vote ended up counting. Likewise, it expresses how contested the vote was and that a large anti-vote took place, which propelled people to head out to the polls.

3. Congress is divided. As president, Petro will have a tough job negotiating with the Liberal Party and U Party in the Senate, who hold sway over decision-making in the upper house. He will also face an obstacle with Francia Márquez, who has not been very welcoming of concession alliances with traditional parties or oligarchs. Cambio Radical, the Partido Liberal, and the Partido de la U will be the “hinge” parties in Congress and have the power to stop broad reforms, thereby determining the future of tax, labor, and pension reforms. It is foreseeable that to ensure governance, the incoming president must negotiate the content of the legislative package and show a willingness to share cabinet positions with different parties. We witnessed how unproductive Ivan Duque’s first year was by not giving into “pork barrel” politics and yielding to the content of his initial package of laws. It is unlikely that the incoming president would like to repeat the same experience.

4. Petro will not be able to rule by decree. The Constitutional Court has been clear that emergency powers proceed exclusively in circumstantial, transitory, and exceptional events. Presidential decrees cannot be used “to overcome normal functional and structural problems” that can be addressed through Congress, even if they are serious and disturb the public order. This applies to economic and social emergencies. The Court has also indicated that the only opportunities in which it is legitimate to resort to decrees are when there are “supervening and extraordinary events…which are opposed to ordinary, chronic, or structural situations, of common and foreseeable occurrence in the life of society.” This suggests that neither Petro nor Márquez can legally issue an emergency powers decree or a state of emergency to fight corruption or address hunger.

5. The next four years will be a test for Colombia’s institutions. Colombia’s democracy is not at risk, at least for now. President Petro will likely face a polarized electorate, a difficult fiscal situation (a high debt-GDP ratio, inflationary pressure, high subsidies to fuel and supplementary incomes, and a growing current account deficit), and weak and politicized institutions (including the Attorney General’s Office, the Ombudsman, and the Public Prosecutor). Petro will constantly attempt to harangue his followers on social media or on the streets to put pressure on Congress, the courts, and other institutions to abide by their whims. Under President Duque, the Colombian people’s trust in institutions subsided, so the next four years will put the independence of the institutions to the test. We should hope they hold on!

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter at @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.

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