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Colombian legislative elections and the presidential race

The Colombian recent elections bolstered candidates in pursuit of the presidential elections. Is there a possibility to break down the hegemony of the right? Español

Source: Nueva Sociedad. All Rights Reserved.

Last Sunday’s Colombian legislative elections not only shaped the parliament of the country but they also indicated the electoral strength of different actors that will put themselves forward in the presidential elections due to take place at the end of May.

It is worth pointing out that last Sunday’s elections coincided with two processes of preliminary consultation that sought to define candidates for the presidential race. On one hand, the Colombian right was divided between three names: Marta Lucía Ramírez (ex-minister of defence for Álvaro Uribe), Alejandro Ordóñez (ex-attorney general) and Iván Duque (the official candidate for the Centre Democratic party, personified by ex-president Álvaro Uribe).

On the other hand, the progressive candidates were divided between Carlos Caicedo (ex-mayor of Santa Maria) and Gustavo Petro (ex-mayor of Bogotá). In one or two cases, the predicted results held, and Duque and Petro overcame the challenge even though their predictions differed.

Duque’s victory firstly shows the strength of the personalism of ex-president Uribe. Ultimately, it did not matter who the candidate of the Centre Democratic party would be - Millions of people vote for whoever the ex-governor from Antioquia supports.

Uribe is a PR machine. He left his second presidency, marked by various scandals, with an approval rating of more than 80%.

For many, it was Uribe who drastically improved a country that was heading for ruin, namely through his recovery of a state of public order and territorial control against the guerrillas. His antidemocratic excesses and his links to paramilitary groups whilst acting as governor of the state are irrelevant. Uribe is a PR machine.

He left his second presidency, marked by various scandals, with an approval rating of more than 80%. He backed Juan Manuel Santos in 2010, and his successful opponent in the first round of the 2014 elections, the drab candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga. He also mobilized millions of votes against the Peace Agreement in the October 2016 referendum. Once again, the Centre Democratic party becomes the most voted in the Senate elections by the Colombian electorate.

To that effect, it is worth pointing out that Iván Duque has obtained almost triple the number of votes as Marta Lucía Ramírez, the official Conservative Party candidate, who will be his vice-presidential running mate.

This fact not only implies the unification of a large part of the Colombian right, but it is also evidence of the coalition between ex-presidents Andrés Pastrana and Álvaro Uribe whenever this entails an aggregate of 6 million votes that practically guarantees the presence of the Uribista candidate in the second round.

The party with the second highest number of votes in the legislative elections was Cambio Radical, the partisan machine of the ex-vice president and candidate, Germán Vargas Lleras, obtaining over 2 million votes. Despite the positive results for the party and what this could mean for the presidential elections, the path of the conservative vote has been blocked off due to the aforementioned situation, and it is this political domain he identifies with most.  

This means that he cannot look to more orthodox conservative sectors of the population for support but instead has to find it among the Colombian centrists (also conservative in nature). From there, he must seek votes from the Unity Party, party of president Juan Manuel Santos, that obtained 2 million votes – a success considering the party did not participate in the campaign and that without leadership is essentially a party of second order political figures seeking to protect their own interests.

However, Lleras may rally support from the Unity Party whilst the other half become reluctant to support him due to the view that he is a “distant traitor” of Santos, given his scarce commitment to consolidate the Peace Agreement. Perhaps what could possibly happen is that he changes his vice-presidential formula in order to attract votes from the Liberal Party, especially sectors who supported ex-president César Gaviria.

Vargas could only obtain the 4 million plus votes that he would need to reach the second round with the support from the Unity Party and the Liberal Party alongside the vote he sustained in the legislative elections.

The centric Liberal Party, headed by the former leader of the negotiation team with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle, also obtained around 2 million votes and were victorious in the House of Representatives elections. The Green Alliance is another presence, with just over 1 million votes and headed by the ex-mayor of Medellin and ex-governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo.

The truth is that any centre-left option passes through an alliance of leaders and acronyms, at least between Humberto de la Calle, Sergio Fajardo, and Gustavo Petro. 

The left, which gained around another 1 million or so votes and is fractured between the Polo Democrático and the Coalición Lista de la Decencia have significantly improved support for the progressive sector compared to the last elections. The 50,000 votes that were obtained by the FARC are almost anecdotal although highly important symbolically speaking.

The truth is that any centre-left option passes through an alliance of leaders and acronyms, at least between Humberto de la Calle, Sergio Fajardo, and Gustavo Petro. The fact that the FARC have taken disgrace and turned it into virtue – due to their abandonment of the presidential race caused by their candidate’s health problems – would prove a positive subtraction to these elections.

The key question is this: Would an alliance of such characteristics be possible? Who would be the candidate in the case it is? Possibly, the almost 3 million votes mobilized by Gustavo Petro would hint towards the formation of an alliance based on his candidacy. However, Petro would have more of a chance of defeat against Iván Duque in the second rounds due to the inelasticity of his support base.

What appears to be clear is this; to this day, this alliance is tricky and if it does not materialise it will pave the way for Germán Vargas Lleras to get through to the second round. In such a case, this could facilitate a win for him due to his role as a depository for everything situated to the left of the Centre Democratic party.

Humberto de la Calle, Sergio Fajardo and Gustavo Petro scrape together enough votes between them that it would give one the impression that if nothing changes in this political landscape, as was the case in the legislative elections, the presidential elections may well be a dispute between the radical right and the centre right.

Any other possibility requires the integration of common goals with progressive stances such as combating social inequality, supporting the Peace Agreement or tackling the inordinate levels of corruption and weak institutions.

All of these are issues that liberalism, the Green Alliance and the more orthodox left have addressed. Only by setting the issue of personalisms to one side and by understanding that excess polarization could in fact work against them, could a progressive stance harbour some hope. Otherwise, the presidential race will as always become a game played out within only the most conservative faction of Colombia.

Article originally published in Nueva Sociedad and available here.

About the author

Jerónimo Ríos es doctor en Ciencias Políticas de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid y Profesor Asociado de la Facultad de Administración, Finanzas y Ciencias Económicas de la Universidad EAN (Colombia). Sus últimos libros publicados en La Catarata son Breve historia del conflicto armado en Colombia (2017) y Breve historia de Sendero Luminoso (2018).

Jerónimo Ríos has a PhD in Political Science from the Complutense University in Madrid and is Associate Professor of the School of Administration, Finance and Economic Sciences at EAN University (Colombia).


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