Distractionary Tactics in Colombia’s Presidential Elections

What if, this “polarization” between candidates Gustavo Petro on the left and Ivan Duque on the right is nothing more than a distractionary tactic in Colombia’s presidential elections to favour former vice president German Vargas Lleras?

Gustavo Petro and Ivan Duque, is this battle between left and right nothing more than a distractionary tactic? Image: Semana.com

Of course, I love a good conspiracy and have most undoubtedly been wrong before, but, I am penning this on April 15 and the elections are 34 days away on May 27. There’s time for some seismic shifts in polling results between now and then. In my inexpert opinion and as an idle observer, I feel that there’s change afoot and that the able machinations behind the scenes are  coming into play. I cannot help but sense that we are permitting ourselves to be caught up in the mediatic battle between Left and Right and thus, our attention has veered away from the game in play.

Why May there be Distractionary Tactics in Play? 

  1. Something is awry in the supposed inability of the Liberal Party’s César Gaviria (President of Colombia from 1990-1994) to see fit to enable a coalition of his party’s presidential candidate Humberto de la Calle and the Green Party’s Sergio Fajardo (Coalición Colombia) to try to squeeze through the first round on May 27 and then have a run at the top post in June. Wouldn’t you want your party and its allies to control the presidency? Is it naive of me to think this? What I think is occurring is that Gaviria sees neither De La Calle nor Fajardo together being able to make up any distance, Gaviria is therefore already considering the partitioning of benefits in the second round. His strategy is that the Liberal Party comes out of this election partially unscathed, appears true to its base and maybe occupies some authority in Congress.
  2. Gustavo Petro (mayor of Bogotá, former Senator and former M19 guerrilla) is the popular and protest vote, he is controversial and inspires either absolute hatred or admiration depending where you stand politically. He may occupy second place in the opinion polls with 33.4% (Datexco) of voters polled intending to vote for him, but, opposition to Petro is solid and scare tactics will swing voters away from him in the long-run. A huge portion of his voting mass is from the working class – a sector of society all too often overlooked in Colombia – for whom he worked tirelessly as mayor of Bogotá. How many of these people though, are not registered to vote, or have not registered themselves able to vote in their current abode? Could we suggest that this sector of society is also more prone to selling their votes as well? Every political party even slightly right of centre is working tirelessly to ensure that Petro does not get in.
  3. Ivan Duque leads the pack, heading up the Centro Democratico party and has been handpicked by former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2006 and 2006-2010) himself. “Lo que dice Uribe” goes a remarkable distance and carries a great deal of political clout in Colombia and the former president is the master strategist who is arguably ten steps ahead of his closest political rivals. Potentially there are slip ups on the horizon if it becomes too obvious that Duque is nothing more than a puppet for Uribe (See Rios Montt and Portillo in Guatemala) and if Uribe utters such gaffs as the other day when he referred to Duque as candidate for vice president…presumably, meaning that Uribe would be the puppet master and de facto president? Duque’s Achilles heel is also his greatest asset, he is inexperienced and there is very little actually known about him to criticize.

So, that brings us to German Vargas Lleras. Write him off at your peril. Depending on which poll you wish to place your trust in, Vargas Lleras could be in third place with 10.7% (Polimétrica Cifras y Conceptos) or in fourth behind Fajardo with only 6.1% (Datexco). But, as I said previously, we still have 34 days to go.

German VL

German Vargas Lleras, in line for the Colombian presidency? Image: W Radio

Now, how to best explain the situation surrounding German Vargas Lleras.

Publicy and outwardly, Vargas Lleras appears pretty unpopular, he’s clearly not a people person, he is known for treating his staff incredibly badly and promises much of the same in that his maternal grandfather Carlos Lleras Restrepo was President of Colombia between 1966 and 1970 for the Liberal Party. So, we are looking at someone here who irrefutably believes that it’s in his birthright to become president.

How the chips could fall for German Vargas Lleras: 

  • His Cambio Radical party (despite numerous congressmen and senators from this party having been jailed for corruption and paramilitary links) took a significant haul of votes in the legislative elections for both Senate and Congress (16 and 30 seats respectively).
  • If Viviane Morales pulls out of the presidential race between now and May 27 and advises her followers or an estimated 1-1.7%, depending on which newspaper you read, to back Vargas Lleras this gives him a decent boost. Not enough, but decent. Remember, Morales is running as an independent but occupied the right end of the Colombian Liberal Party (strong Catholic and against same-sex marriage), surely her followers would prefer Vargas Lleras over other candidates?
  • Vargas Lleras has positioned himself as the “business-friendly” candidate. Look at the departments that the CR took in the legislative elections: Magdalena, Átlantico and in the Southwest for the Senate. In Congress the CR won Bogotá, Magdalena, Átlantico and Sucre. The departments which leap out at you here for their economic importance and the importance of the business families which control them are of course, Átlantico and Magdalena. For more information on this, read up on the Char family. The Char‘s influence is not to be underestimated, ever.
  • German Vargas Lleras occupied the vice presidency under the tenure of President Santos between 2014 and 2017 and through this arrangement, helped secure Santos’s victory in the 2014 elections by shifting CR support behind the incumbent. It almost feels like a Blair/ Brown best of frenemies situation right now. In fact, Vargas Lleras has been in some sort of public office since he was 21 (1981), so you can be sure he knows the workings of government inside and out. Despite Santos’ current unpopularity, his support for Vargas Lleras means that the U Party will tow the line.
  • As vice president, Vargas Lleras has been on a pseudo campaign trail since 2014 as he has been in charge of overseeing the expansion and renovation of airports, ports and the construction of and gifting of social housing to the most needy. His profile is one that is recgnised all over the country.
  • And while we might not want to read too much into the hearsay, there is some substance to the chatter indicating that backers of Vargas Lleras are embarrassed to admit publicly who they plan on voting for. I think there may something in it. And, can we believe the polls anyway, if 2016 was anything to go by, we should be very wary and suspicious of Datexco, Gallup and others.
  • Vargas Lleras is closely linked to the Liberal Party having been an active member from 1988 to 2002 and due to his family ties, so you can expect some of this party to be seduced by the possibility of positions in a Vargas Lleras government. If the Liberal Party heeds the advice of César Gaviria, and succeeds in getting Vargas Lleras into the second round, then it’s Vargas Lleras’ presidency to lose as the Liberal Party has 35 seats in Congress and 14 in the Senate. Add the 25 seats in Congress belonging to the U Party and their 14 in the Senate and you’ve secured significant numbers in your favour.
  • And finally, as if I had finished mentioning the political machinations in place in Colombia! Far from it. In case any of you were wondering where Bogotá, Colombia’s much-maligned capital city, fits into all of this, well, here you have it, there are strong links between the Mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa and Vargas Lleras.

So, this is why I feel that the so-called polarization between the leftist candidate Gustavo Petro and the right wing Ivan Duque is nothing more than a distractionary tactic to keep our attention elsewhere as allegiances are forged, votes and positions are secured across the country. And where do these meetings take place? A good first place to go and eavesdrop would be Bagatelle restaurant in Rosales (Diagonal 70 No. 4A – 98) where, since election fever has started to take hold, there are an unjustified number of escolta cars blocking the diagonal on both sides each weekday morning and bodyguards lingering around to mean anything else than heavy politicking.

Distractionary tactics aside…

If deals are made to stifle the Left’s challenge in the form of Gustavo Petro, and I maintain that Colombia is, at its heart, a conservative nation, then we can expect Ivan Duque to win this first round and Vargas Lleras to come in second. If this is the case, Duque’s lack of experience will be his undoing and Vargas Lleras’s period of campaigning as Vice President (2014-2017) will carry him comfortably over the finish line in the second round.

Stranger things have happened…if you are unhappy with this prediction and worry about the state of the peace agreement with the FARC and what may happen to Colombia, remember, Colombia has survived more testing times and more conflicted and “polarizing” elections (read: When has Colombia ever been normal?).

Brett O’Keefe from Homeland

What say you good readers? Are you in agreement or do you profoundly disagree with me? Or, have I inevitably morphed into a conspiracy theorist just like Brett O’Keefe in Homeland, only with far fewer followers?


For more debates of this type, tune in every week to the @ColombiaCalling podcast available on all streaming sites. 

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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