Colombia’s Presidential Elections – The “Golden Age” vs the “Anti-Establishment”

On May 27 Colombians will vote in the first round of presidential elections, clearing the way for two candidates to face-off in a second round in June and – should we trust the polls – the two front-runners look set to be the right-wing Ivan Duque of the Democratic Center Party and the leftist Gustavo Petro of the Progressive Movement Party, the former remaining in poll position thus far.

presidential elections

presidential elections

Of course, given international events in recent years, the revelations surrounding potential Russian intervention in US elections, Cambridge analytica with regards to Brexit and a vast Odebrecht conspiracy of far-reaching briberies which has profoundly unsettled Latin America in particular, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and indeed to a lesser extent Colombia, we are witnessing a significant wave of mistrust of the political classes, the bed rock establishment so engrained into the region’s culture and a desire for change.

Who are we kidding though? Does Colombia really matter beyond the immediate region?  Are we flattering the importance of Colombia to suggest that there may be Russian interference in this election or is there an attempt by President Putin to gain a greater foothold in South America – as part of the great geopolitical game now being played out – in traditionally the United States’ backyard? Surely there’s some importance and credence to been drawn from neighboring and increasingly unstable Venezuela as massive international exporter of oil and how this affects the global economy. What about the peace deal with the FARC guerrillas, the proliferation of splinter groups controlling cocaine shipments, illegal and legal mining and Colombia as the US’s most long-term ally in the region?

Presumably, taking into account the above considerations, Colombia’s elections do matter and there will be hawks in the White House watching closely to see if Colombia follows the current regional tendency of drifting to the right.

Six months ago, there were some 30 candidates vying for a run at the presidency, not too dissimilar to one of those reality shows where personalities are voted from and ejected from an exclusive club. And, in the same vein and spirit of recent international elections, the Colombian presidential battleground is no different to a televisual extravaganza being that it is riven with bias based on emotion rather than fact.

Now we are down to five options ranging from the aforementioned leaders of the pack to the right and left and including the former mayor of Medellin Sergio Fajardo, the former Vice President German Vargas Lleras, the head of the government’s negotiating team who succeeded in getting the FARC guerrillas to sign peace and a former Vice President Humberto de la Calle.

Almost every opinion poll shows Duque and Petro leading the way with small portions of advantage tear-dropping an occasional favorable percentage point here and there to Fajardo and/ or Vargas Lleras, while the final two appear to be out of serious contention. And the backdrop is set against controlling and perhaps inaccurate pollsters persisting in their competitive hurry to best-guess the citizenry’s electoral motivations.

Given that we are now permitted to openly question the legitimacy of opinion polls, and evidence has proven that these predictions are far from scientific, it is evident that many voters are inclined to cast their vote for who they believe will win, not, the candidate who they want to win. In this way, there’s a significant loss experienced latterly by the electorate, as they then are not informed of the winning candidate’s proposals, nor can they identify with the candidate benefitting of their vote.

Which is, what we may be experiencing, at this very moment in Colombia. The Colombian voting public could well be accused of being ready to cast their vote with their eyes closed, something which is like driving with one’s eyes closed. This has left them open to emotional manipulation and fear tactics.

Voters are therefore left with an interesting conundrum.

Both candidates ostensibly represent the anti-establishment options on the right and the left.

Gustavo Petro has been an outspoken opponent on all fronts and comes from an anti-establishment and belligerent left-wing background and Ivan Duque is representing the Uribista-vote which, when it came into being and brought Alvaro Uribe to the presidency in 2002 (he served two terms from 2002-2006 and 2006-2010) represented a fatigued vote of protest against the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties and their establishment policies.

While Ivan Duque leads the pack due to careful management by the always controversial former president and current senator Alvaro Uribe. Politics is never far from Uribe’s mind, and the story of his life is largely concomitant with Colombia’s political history of the 20th and 21st centuries. Duque’s transparency as the apparent uribista chosen one, is his greatest asset. What remains so confounding is how the Uribista public accommodates an image of the heir apparent in Duque – to a former president who possesses multiple judicial processes lined up against him, so many former allies imprisoned and is so capable of sowing untiring and unimaginable reams of hatred against his opponents – as a decent person, well-meaning but voicing antiquated policies and endorsing revenge. And, as Ivan Duque is such an unknown quantity, it’s impossible to say positive or negative things about him since no one really knows who he is. How can this produce confidence amongst the voting public?

Gustavo Petro, the controversial former mayor of Bogotá, an unrepentant Chavista (as admirers of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are known) and former M19 guerrilla, has no such security blanket as he inspires both unbridled hatred and unfettered admiration both internationally and at home. His Achilles heel, which is continually exploited by the right is that he will take Colombia along the road to becoming Venezuela or Cuba and that he is a socialist. Despite his campaign promises and platform of free education and social welfare, his seething opponents cannot see beyond his guerrilla past. He may have recognized the divisions in class and social strata in Bogotá during his tenure as mayor, but, it can hardly be declared a period of overwhelming success as he was incapable of forging alliances with the opposition and left a chaos of bureaucracy in his wake.

Petro’s academic and somewhat petulant responses do not earn him further supporters: “My proposals are not socialist, Dr Duque, you must learn, this is called democracy.” Petro reveals a painful cleft in his armor through his inability to understand that to mention socialism in a country where being left-wing is an affliction and awakens a stigma resulting from 52 years of conflict with the FARC guerrillas and a continuing conflict with the ELN (National Liberation Army), which both espouse Marxist and Socialist ideologies, permits Duque to land another gifted yet effective punch in a televised debate: “It’s true, Dr Petro, this is not socialism, this is Chavismo.”

And this is where the game played out on social networks comes very much into action. There is a strategy to highlight Chavismo and socialism as the political model of fear and economic loss, and this in Colombia on Facebook and Twitter has worked a treat. And when you pander to peoples’ fears you don’t allay them, you stoke those fears and provide cover to emotions and manipulation.

So, while Petro offers Chavismo and socialism, what does Duque offer? Duque looks to the economic growth in Colombia of the eight years under President Uribe when the wealth was, in a large part, due to the increase in the price of oil. When the crisis struck, well, this was someone else’s problem. Understandably, of course – it’s easier to cleave to a certain, tough-but-fair nostalgia for yesteryear than to stare down the bleakness of uncertain present realities and an unknown future. So, Duque knows – albeit under the watchful direction of Senator Uribe – that the local population looks back fondly on some fictitious golden age which never really existed.

Voter intention here then is clearly being driven more by what can euphemistically be termed “cultural anxiety”, rather than more traditional economic dislocation. From the tone and tenor of campaigning across Colombia, one can only surmise many a correlation between the two. There is no better way to convince someone to self-immolate than to whip up the sentiments of status and respect amongst those susceptible to anaesthetic nostalgia.

Regardless of who wins the likely run-off vote for the presidency in June presumably between Duque and Petro, though, the incoming administration will face a unique period in the country’s history. The peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has granted much-needed stability, however, its implementation remains a challenge, and the country is deeply polarized, coca production and therefore cocaine production has soared, the special jurisdiction for peace to try members of the guerrillas and armed forces is still in its infancy, social and community leaders continue to be murdered across the country and Colombians are worried for their futures.

There is a not an overwhelming feeling of well-being in the land of magic realism.

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