Amid High Stakes, Colombians Chose Their New President

Amid controversy and polarization, Colombians took to the voting booths earlier this week to elect the next president. “Change” has been the public’s verdict on the day, as analysts believe this election result marks the end of an era of establishment politics in the country. The two winners were a left-wing ex-guerrilla fighter, Gustavo Petro, and Rodolfo Hernandez, a 77-year-old populist and civil engineer who has embraced every drop of ‘the outsider’ persona this election cycle. Long-standing and serious issues such as poverty, social inequality, soaring inflation, and hunger are all at play in these elections, as both candidates square off in a final round of elections on the 19th of this month.

Colombia is at a critical social, economic, and political juncture. According to Routers, 39.3% of Colombians live in poverty and another 12% in extreme poverty. It is also estimated some 16.4% of Colombians experience hunger and malnutrition – a phenomenon compounded by soaring inflation rates and a lack of economic opportunities. Decades of massive rural displacement have led to high levels of inner-city poverty and have weakened the country’s agricultural productive capacity.

In addition, decades of kidnappings, murders, extortion, drug violence, forced displacements, and disappearances are painfully ingrained in the Colombian psyche. In a country scarred by such demons, it stands to reason heavy-handed internal security, along with other conservative mantras, have been protagonists in one presidential election cycle after the next. Not this one.

Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernandez, both outsiders in their own way, have outflanked the political status quo in Colombia. Petro, who spent a significant amount of his life fighting the Colombian state as an active M-19 guerrilla fighter, has proposed a government-based model empowering the agricultural sector, restricting certain food imports, tackling social injustice and inequality, and widening the scope of state-sponsored education.

His model of government seeks to fund the battle against these issues through a reform of the tax system, taxing the dividends of the wealthiest fraction of Colombian society. Generally speaking, a Petro government would walk back the neo-liberal economic model employed by successive governments in Colombia. However, both the ends and the means of his political proposals have earned him a distrust from industrial sectors and a mostly conservative political establishment, which have further fuelled an “anti-Petro” sentiment that may prove impossible to overcome in the final round of votes.

Last year’s massive social protests, and the ensuing police response, have further revealed a divide in public opinion as to the long-term direction of the country and, by extension, the type of political leadership needed. The final round of elections will be on the 19th of June 2022.

Juan Quintero