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Progressivism, the establishment and ultraconservatism in Colombia

Presidential elections will be held in Colombia in May 2018. But how will candidates fare in front of one of the most conservative electorates in Latin America?. Español

A women holds a Colombian flag facing the sun. Image: via Nueva Sociedad, All rights reservedThis article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here

 

The game of alliances and political formulas in the run up to the upcoming presidential elections in May this year show several points of interest. On paper, the campaign will incorporate two new elements in comparison to the last three or four presidential elections.

The first is the fact that several candidates have real possibilities of getting through to the second round. Unlike the certainty of the Uribe-Santos binomial of the past, on this occasion the names of Gustavo Petro, Sergio Fajardo and Germán Vargas Lleras have all become relevant, and will join Iván Duque, the candidate who will presumably lead the conservatives to victory at the parliamentary elections on March 11 and who has been endorsed by former President Álvaro Uribe.

As things stand today, all of them stand a chance of making it to the second round. The other noteworthy aspect of the campaign is that, for the first time in quite a while, opinion polls currently show a substantial support for two progressive candidates: former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and former Medellín mayor and former governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo.

It would perhaps be better for the FARC to target some segments of the population and territories and to focus on the municipal and departmental elections due in 2019, at which it is bound to have better results.

To this should be added the participation of the Left which, obviously, has the effect of subtracting votes from the progressive candidates. On the one hand, the Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Commons, the former FARC, which keeps to both its past acronym and leadership. Its prospects, so far, are not very good.

In recent weeks, Rodrigo Londoño, formerly known as "Timochenko", has had a hard time attending planned meetings in Armenia and Cali, as his presence there generated altercations. It would perhaps be better for the FARC to target some segments of the population and territories and to focus on the municipal and departmental elections due in 2019, at which it is bound to have better results.

The other candidacy which takes away votes from progressivism is that of Piedad Córdoba, an independent candidate whom a substantial part of the electorate associates with both the old FARC and also Cuba and Venezuela. Prejudice burdens her discourse, which nevertheless deserves to be listened to carefully.

Within the orthodox Left, the political figure to consider is Gustavo Petro. He is currently leading most opinion polls as far as direct voting intention is concerned.

Within the orthodox Left, the political figure to consider is Gustavo Petro. He is currently leading most opinion polls as far as direct voting intention is concerned. This is due to the support he enjoys from the most disadvantaged sectors of the unequal Colombian society, whose living conditions he tried to alleviate during his not uncontroversial mandate as mayor of Bogotá between 2012 and 2015.

To this support from the capital city’s popular sectors should be added his image as a corruption-fighting politician and his well received proposals on education and public healthcare and on the strengthening of the independence of the judiciary. However, greater media exposure at this time makes him a target to criticism aimed at undermining his popularity. In any case, the polarity he generates makes it very difficult for him to reach the presidency of Colombia.

A more moderate brand of progressivism is that of Colombia Coalition, led by mathematician, former Medellín maire and Antioquia governor, Sergio Fajardo

A more moderate brand of progressivism is that of Colombia Coalition, led by mathematician Sergio Fajardo, who has been joined by Claudia López and Jorge Enrique Robledo.

This alliance, which includes figures from both the Green Alliance and the Democratic Pole, takes up some of Gustavo Petro’s proposals in that it gives priority to fiscal progressiveness, better redistribution of wealth, growing investment in public education and healthcare, higher accountability and the strengthening of the fight against corruption. In its favour, the good image of the municipal and departmental governments of Fajardo, and the high approval ratings of Claudia López and Jorge Enrique Robledo, who was the second most voted senator at the last elections (after Álvaro Uribe).

Very close to Fajardo, the Liberal Party ticket: Humberto de la Calle and Clara López. De la Calle is a political figure committed to the peace agreement signed with the FARC, but whom many associate with Juan Manuel Santos, whose disapproval ratings exceed 70%.

Very close to Fajardo, the Liberal Party ticket: Humberto de la Calle and Clara López. Humberto de la Calle has, a priori, far fewer possibilities than the previous two candidates. He is a political figure committed to the peace agreement signed with the FARC, but whom many associate with Juan Manuel Santos, whose disapproval ratings exceed 70%.

Nor does the company of Clara López as candidate to the Vice Presidency seem to help, being as she is a traditional figure of the Colombian center-left whose support for Juan Manuel Santos and the fact that she was  a cabinet member have earned her much criticism as opportunistic and ideologically ambiguous. In any case, their political approach is much more liberal, in terms of the State/Market/Society relationship, than Fajardo’s and, especially, Petro’s.

A third strong candidate is, inescapably, Germán Vargas Lleras. A Conservative and former Vice President with Santos, he is now running as an independent candidate due to the endemic corruption of his party, Radical Change.

Vargas Lleras, who expresses the thinking of the Colombian establishment, has raised the need to review some "specific aspects" of the Peace Agreement signed related to transitional justice and the participation in politics of the old FARC leaders.

Despite his authoritarian and not very empathic image, which have deteriorated markedly his popularity, Vargas Lleras also served as Minister of Infrastructure, Housing and Water while being Vice President, a post which has earned him substantial territorial weight, especially in the Caribbean region, as shown at the last municipal and departmental elections.

Unlike all the aforementioned candidates, who mostly share a strong commitment to guaranteeing the implementation of the Peace Agreement in the established terms, Vargas Lleras, who expresses the thinking of the Colombian establishment, has raised the need to review some "specific aspects" of the agreement signed related to transitional justice and the participation in politics of the old FARC leaders.

This is a belligerent position as regards the Peace Agreement which, it is worth remembering, has been shielded by the Constitutional Court for the next twelve years.

Strong criticism of this process is, of course, the main tenet of Colombian ultraconservatism. This space is currently being disputed by three candidates, among whom a winner will be decided on March 11.

On the one hand, former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who embodies the most destructive position towards the Agreement and is supported by the influential religious community which voted massively against it at the October 2016 referendum.

On the other hand, Marta Lucía Ramírez, Álvaro Uribe’s former Minister of Defense, who also represents a reactionary position towards the Agreement, although more nuanced than Ordóñez's, and enjoys a larger support from and voting intention by the conservative electorate.

The candidate who is best positioned to lead Colombian ultraconservatism is Iván Duque, who has the support of former President Álvaro Uribe, and whose capacity for electoral mobilization cannot be ignored.

A priori, however, the candidate who is best positioned to lead Colombian ultraconservatism is Iván Duque, who has the support of former President Álvaro Uribe, and whose capacity for electoral mobilization cannot be ignored. He is the idol of a mass of voters who, at the last presidential elections, managed to have a drab candidate such as Óscar Iván Zuluaga win Santos in the first round. Duque championed the victory of the NO at the plebiscite, which meant millions of votes. In addition, he is currently the most voted senator in recent Colombian history, and his approval ratings, despite all the antidemocratic excesses in the fight against the FARC and the ELN, are close to 80%.

The presidential race seems to be a matter of four: Gustavo Petro, Sergio Fajardo, Germán Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque. 

On the basis of the above, the presidential race seems to be a matter of four: Gustavo Petro, Sergio Fajardo, Germán Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque (or, surprisingly perhaps, Marta Lucía Ramírez). It will all depend on the progress of likely coalitions, electoral volatility and the ability to mobilize voters in a society where only 50% of the population actually goes to the polls.

The possibility of a "Left Front" (Petro/Fajardo/Humberto de la Calle) being out of the question, and taking into account that the majority conservative vote will coalesce around Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque, progressivism, of whatever shade, will have serious difficulties getting through to the second round with any hope of finally winning the presidency.

This is so, even though the social and educational precariousness, and the profound inequalities of Colombian society, objectively, could be quite a perfect substrate for a formula of political change.

In any case, it all remains to be seen. Although the indications are that the most likely outcome is a second round with Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque, or with Vargas Lleras and Fajardo, or Petro, we must not forget a fundamental fact: the electorate in Colombia is one of the most conservative in Latin America. And this can show, as it has so many other times, at the next elections.

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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