Colombia elects first leftist president, rejecting traditional politicians
Colombia elects first leftist president, rejecting traditional politicians

It has been generations in the making but, on 19 June, the first ever leftist president of Colombia was elected. Gustavo Petro defeated his right-wing opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, in a second-round run-off with 50.4 percent of the vote against 47.3 percent. The traditional conservative and centre-left coalitions were both defeated in the first round, winning 24 percent and 4 percent of the vote respectively.

With only 55 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot in the first round and 58 percent in the second, the main outcome was a massive rejection of the Colombian political class. Both Petro and Hernández tried to tap into this sentiment, portraying themselves as anti-establishment figures.

Hernández was still a relatively unknown businessman and former mayor until only a matter of weeks before the first-round vote. Casting himself as a Colombian Trump, the 77-year-old received most of his little recognition from racist and sexist remarks made over the years, such as calling Venezuelan women “factories of poor children” and claiming Adolf Hitler was “a great German thinker”. He ran his campaign largely on TikTok and avoided the media. While a bombastic and confrontational approach to the campaign won him support among some looking for an outsider, on policy he largely sang to the same tune as the traditional conservatives.

Petro, on the other hand, is a former guerrilla fighter who previously praised Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He traded his guerrilla uniform for a suit decades ago when he turned to electoral politics, serving as mayor of the capital, Bogotá, and then as a federal senator. In the years since, Petro has rebranded himself as a moderate social democrat. He ran on a platform of transitioning from fossil fuels to green energy, raising taxes on the richest Colombians and reducing inequality and hunger.

Petro will take over as president from Iván Duque, of the conservative Equipo por Colombia (Team for Colombia) coalition. Team for Colombia is the political bloc of what is known as Uribismo, after former President Álvaro Uribe. Distinguished for its conservatism and violent repression of social movements, often through paramilitary forces, Uribismo turned Colombia into one of the most dangerous countries in the world for union leaders and social activists. In just the first three months of this year alone, at least 52 activists were murdered.

Beginning with Uribe in 2002, through his successor Juan Manuel Santos, and to Duque, Uribismo has held the Colombian presidency for the last 20 years. During that time, it oversaw an extreme militarisation of the country. Colombia signed several agreements with the US to receive billions of dollars in aid, much of which went to repressive state forces. In exchange, Colombia is home to seven US military bases and is Washington’s top Latin American ally. It serves as a centre of reaction in the region, from which the US conducts its interventions.

Duque will leave the presidency with a disapproval rating of more than 70 percent. The backdrop to this utter rejection of Uribismo and the traditional political class more generally has been a series of mass social mobilisations over the last five years that have called into question the very model of Colombian capitalism.

Student-led protest movements in 2019 and 2021 in response to government austerity attempts quickly became national rebellions. The violent repression of both, in which dozens were murdered by the state, severely weakened the government.

These two major rebellions marked a shift in Colombian society towards increasing numbers of protests and industrial actions, which had been very low compared to other Latin American countries in recent history. After a peace deal was signed in 2016 with Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a key block to the development of social movements was removed. It opened new political space for mass movements in urban areas with greater opportunity for the working class and students to participate.

Consequently, Petro and his Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact) coalition have had to orient to these movements. One response is seen in his vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez. With a long history as an environmental and human rights activist, having never held elected office before, and as an Afro-Colombian from a poor background, Márquez embodies an important section of the social base to which Petro hoped to appeal and helped to bring large numbers of the participants in the rebellions into the Pacto Histórico voting bloc.

Yet it is also the case that Petro was unable to channel into his electoral campaign the huge anti-establishment mood these rebellions both reflected and created. The high abstention rates and strong vote for Hernández are clear signs of this. Instead, many Colombians, particularly young ones, who overwhelmingly participated in the rebellions, saw and understood that he played a demobilising role.

During the 2021 movement, Petro called protesters “rioters” and on several occasions called for the national strike to end. Since the street movement ended, he has moved to the right, even offering an olive branch to Uribismo by saying that he would seek dialogue with the right. Despite his lack of support for the rebellion, some sections of the ruling class saw the election of Petro as the only option to put an end to the social discontent. This was summed up by former presidential candidate Alejandro Gaviria in May when he said, “It might be better to have a controlled explosion with Petro than to keep the volcano bottled up”.

Nonetheless, Petro’s victory is part of a wider shift in Latin American politics towards leftist, reformist governments, elected on the back of strong social movements, as recently happened in Chile. He will take over a country in deep crisis. Society is highly polarised at a time when living standards are being crushed under the weight of rising inflation. He will receive only hostility from the ruling class, which will oppose even the mildest attempts at wealth redistribution. And given that right-wing parties together hold a majority in both chambers of Congress, any significant progressive legislation will likely be stalled or defeated without a mass movement behind it.

There are millions of young Colombians who have tasted the fruits of rebellion. Their militancy and fighting spirit, in dealing a mortal blow to Uribismo, is the only reason Petro won the election. Yet they have shown, by choosing to abstain rather than vote for Petro, that they do not place their hope in the new president. These young Colombians are the leading force with the power to change the country. But if real change is to come, they must lead yet another, more militant, radical and organised rebellion.

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