Colombia’s Elections: A New Era

On May 27th, Colombia voted in its first-round of presidential elections. None of the candidates secured the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a run-off election scheduled for June 17. Two candidates, Ivan Duque and Gustavo Petro, secured their positions in the run-off elections with 39 percent and 25 percent, respectively.  The overall turnout was of 53 percent, the highest in two decades. The massive turnout was also the result of the first round of votes being the most peaceful in the country’s recent history, without a single incident of violence occurring. A huge feat for the once violence-stricken nation.

Mr. Duque is a former senator and right-wing lawyer and a protege of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, while Petro is a former guerrilla fighter for the now-disbanded M-19 leftist group (and also a former mayor of Bogota). The candidates are polar opposites in terms of ideology, and this election has without a doubt divided the Colombian electorate.

Moreover, the upcoming run-off election will most importantly be seen as a test for the country’s peace deal with the FARC rebel group, which received immunity and seats in parliament in exchange for renouncing violence and handing their weapons over to the Colombian army. The FARC is a polarizing topic amongst Colombians, where 220,000 people have died in the decades-long conflict between the group and the state, as well as having displaced seven million people.

The peace deal is the defining legacy of the outgoing president, Juan Manuel Santos, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for the agreement but is constitutionally barred for a third term in office. While the agreement cannot be legally torn apart with the election of a new government, a government that impedes the introduction of new legislation that is necessary for the peace agreement can effectively kill the efforts made for rapprochement by the two sides.

Petro is a supporter of the deal and advocates that it is now the time for Colombia to move on from the decades of violence. Duque, on the other hand, claims that the deal was too lenient on the FARC and would like to change certain aspects of it.

Duque has also garnered support from the Colombian electorate by railing against the peace deal and with the hopes of bringing Colombia to being on par with western nations. Petro, by contrast, has been campaigning on overhauling Colombia’s economic model, freeing it from dependence on oil exports and instead investing in renewable energy sources (in addition to boosting agricultural production through land reform).

Other issues have also capitulated these two candidates as the front-runners of the election, such as corruption, economic inequality, access to healthcare and environmental concerns. A new level of voter maturation is being seen across the country as the corruption culture is being exposed, drawing the ire of voters and presenting a slight advantage to Petro, who styles himself as anti-establishment and has a proven record of exposing corruption.

Nevertheless, significant challenges remain for Colombia. Whatever new government wins power, as Latin America’s third most populous country, it also faces an uptick in cocaine production, and an influx of Venezuelans escaping an economic and humanitarian crisis across the border. These elections thus mark a new phase in Colombia’s history and development as it closes a chapter.

The new government will find itself as Latin America’s first official NATO Global Partner,  a new member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and with a surging economy. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, Colombia has come a long way and every effort should be made to preserve its milestones.