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Petro vs. Duque: Colombian elections, war and peace

The presidential election on June 17 is exceptional. For the first time in many years there is an option on the left that oposes the decades-long right-wing hegemony in Colombia. Español

A women holds a Colombian flag facing the sun. Image: via Nueva Sociedad, All rights reserved

On 17 June, the second round of presidential elections for the 2018-2022 period will be held in Colombia. After the first round, the candidates still in the race are Gustavo Petro, representing Colombia Humana, a coalition of democratic and progressive forces, and Iván Duque for the Centro Democrático, a far right party led by former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez. 

This election is exceptional for many reasons: it is the first to be held after the 2016 agreement to end the armed conflict with the former insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, which is now known as the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force). It is also the first time in Colombia’s history that a “progressive” candidate has made it to the second round of the elections alive, with a chance of winning the second round. In this election, there is more at stake than just the choice of the president: for the first time, both the urban and rural elites are having difficulty controlling and determining the outcome.

In 1948, the liberal candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, whose programme for a popular government had the support of the majority of the population, was assassinated by the elite. His assassination initiated the period known as La Violencia or “The Violence” and later, the Frente Nacional or National Front (the bipartisan agreement between the liberals and the conservatives to take turns occupying the government). The FARC also emerged in this period. Further, it is important to remember that other politicians have been assassinated since Gaitán’s death for their attempts to democratically challenge the Colombian right wing through elections including Luis Carlos Galán, Carlos Pizarro and Bernardo Jaramillo.

In 2018, the authoritarian spell under which Álvaro Uribe governed the country between 2002 and 2012  is trying to re-impose itself. This authoritarian tendency imposed by Uribe continued under the Santos administration clothed in a different discourse, and retains considerable support among the population today. However, for the first time, there appears to be broad support for rejecting this political group’s ways of doing politics, and its proposals.

 In the first round of the election held on May 27, 50% of the votes cast went to parties other than the traditional ruling parties.

In the first round of the election held on May 27, two changes were notable. First, the number of abstentions declined, falling from 59.93% 4 years ago to 46.62%. The second major shift was in the amount of voter support for candidates who represented an alternative to Centro Democrático, the Partido de la U and Cambio Radical: 50% of the votes cast went to parties other than the traditional ruling parties. A long list of the members of the dominant parties have been arrested and convicted for corruption and links to paramilitarism. The turn towards other parties suggests a change in perspective in a country where the electoral process has long been characterised by clientelism and a lack of historical analysis.

Three elements of the remaining candidates’ platform proposals are key to understanding the political moment in Colombia today, as they reveal two conflicting visions for the future of the country.

 The agrarian question

Access to land constitutes one of the historic key drivers of social and armed conflict in Colombia. Therefore, it is a fundamental element of any vision for the country, and revealing of the way the parties promote and represent public interest or private group interests. The candidates’ proposals are presented as opposites of one another: on one hand, Centro Democrático is proposing the intensification of extractivism (mining, energy and agroindustrial farming) as the basis for boosting national revenues. This expansion will be based on two pillars: 1) concentrated land ownership in the hands of historically large landowners and land grabbers, who obtained land via forced displacements in the early 21st century; and 2) leadership by transnational capital, acting as an investor in, as well as the primary purchaser and exporter of the extracted natural patrimony. This proposal would give continuity to the so-called investment security policy developed by Álvaro Uribe during his two terms in power, and maintained by Juan Manuel Santos in the 8 years that followed.

On the other hand, Colombia Humana is proposing to tax fertile land that is unproductive, based on criteria to be defined for a modernised rural cadastre, in order to stimulate greater land productivity and, at the same time, generate decent working conditions for Colombian peasants. This proposal defends giving a central role to the state in guaranteeing small landowners’ access to land and promoting a process of gradual industrialisation. Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro states that agribusiness will have a key role in this chain, with peasant farmers in the lead.

In view of these divergent proposals on an issue central to the social and armed conflict, it is interesting to analyse voters’ responses from the first round. Consolidated data that allow us to compare trends in rural and urban areas is not yet available and generalisations tend to overlook important elements. Nevertheless, when one looks at the 9 departments where Gustavo Petro won, it is noticeable they are in regions where the conflict had a strong impact in recent years and, at the same time, where a social network emerged through popular organising to respond to the situation. In the remaining 23 departments, the victory in the first round went to Iván Duque. These departments include regions in which the FARC was highly active, where there is still a strong presence of paramilitary groups and social resistance has not been so consistent.

Environmental question

The growing importance given to environmental issues in the debate reflects a shift to from treating environmental issues as side-issues to understanding them as central to Colombia’s political economy. The socio-environmental conflicts generated by the development model that is dependent on agribusiness, mineral, oil and coal mining, and the generation of the energy to fuel this model are increasingly visible in the country. For instance, the degradation of soil and water sources and the pollution of territories linked to mining have been denounced repeatedly. People are scandalised by the impacts on peoples’ health, particularly children who are dying from malnutrition in areas near coal mines. The number of assassinations of people fighting to defend the territory continues to rise.

The transition from this model that preys on life and territories towards an essentially agricultural-based productive economy is what Colombia Humana is proposing. The deadly path of deepening the extractivism-based economic model, including new proposals to promote fracking, is the vision that Centro Democrático defends. The traditional political parties, and their support from major economic players, shows that it is precisely these interests that are at stake in this dispute.

In the current context, however, leaving one’s vote blank could end up serving as silent support for the Centro Democrático’s authoritarian proposals.

The environmental question can be defined in different ways in Colombia. Internal ideological differences aside, radical environmentalist movements- including most peoples fighting for the dignity of their lives and against the model of plundering - have lent their support to Colombia Humana’s political platform. Environmentalists who defend market solutions by using a rhetoric of conservation- an abstract and individualist concept disconnected from the territories and popular movements - have chosen to encourage people to leave their ballots blank. They claim that they are critical of the polarisation in the country and do not want to get involved. In the current context, however, leaving one’s vote blank could end up serving as silent support for the Centro Democrático’s authoritarian proposals.

Other self-proclaimed leftist political groups who do not identify themselves as environmentalists but who claim to represent popular interests have also chosen to promote leaving the ballot blank. This strengthens their sectarian and self-aggrandizing visions while taking advantage of being a permanent opposition.

Continuing the war or concepts of peace in dispute

After the negotiation process was over and the agreement with the FARC was signed, different concepts of peace are in dispute, namely “pax neoliberal” versus peace with social justice. The interests of certain sectors in perpetuating the military and paramilitary model also came to light. The NO campaign during the referendum on the peace agreement used a strategy of disseminating  fake news and manipulation to strengthen conservatism using fallacious instruments such as accusing pro-peace activists of promoting ‘gender ideology’.

 After agreement with the FARC was signed, different concepts of peace are in dispute, namely “pax neoliberal” versus peace with social justice.

This dispute over the concept of peace has taken centre stage in the public debate posing the central question for Colombian society: whether to give continuity to the history of war eliminating proposals that diverge from the dominant social and economic model, or whether to embrace the possibility of building something different through popular participation and the recognition of the diversity of social actors and their interests.

During this electoral debate, and since the demobilisation of the FARC, the polarisation of Colombian society has taken on a new configuration in comparison to the existing one on the wake to 2016 plebiscite. The ones who defended a pax neoliberal are now supporting the candidates on the far right, despite their former denunciation of the agreement.

The potential victory of the far right is very disturbing because it could once again plunge Colombia into violence, such as the one experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, when the left-wing political party Unión Patriótica was physically eliminated through the assassination of over 5,000 of its members. There is fear that this will happen again, but this time against former members of the FARC. There is also concern that Uribism will once again become – as it did during the years of 'democratic security' when there was no limits on the criminalisation of social movements – the 'dark hand' that protects the oligarchy, so that they do not dirty their names while exterminating all options for change and different ways of thinking in the country.

On the other hand, the proposal of Gustavo Petro and Ángela María Robledo provides some hope, as it understands peace as something that must be built by the society. As well as committing to comply with the implementation of agreements reached with the FARC and the guarantee of the application of the Special Peace Jurisdiction, it acknowledges that reforming the Colombian state in the areas of health, education and the pension system, among others, is fundamental. It understands a need for social justice in order to build peace.

In a regional context where right-wing governments are coming to power, replacing 'progressive' governments in some cases by staging virtual coup d’états, and an international scene marked by growing support for authoritarian right-wing initiatives, this election is important not only for the Colombian people. It has gained geopolitical significance since it has the potential to strengthen or alter the role that this South American country has historically played in the region. 

In the opposing views on peace in Colombia, what is ultimately at play is whether the country continues the devastation and militarisation of its territories to fuel transnational corporate accumulation or whether it focuses instead on providing dignity to its peoples and helping to build the common good.

About the authors

Lyda Fernanda Forero is a Colombian economist who carries out analysis and campaigning on trade and investment policies, the architecture of impunity created for transnational corporations, and new trends in financialisation and commodification of nature and life. She is a researcher for TNI's Economic Justice, Corporate Power and Alternatives program.

Danilo Urrea is a philosopher at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia - ATALC, and currently works as regional facilitator of Friends of the Earth Latin America and the Caribbean.

 


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