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Colombia's 2022 Presidential Elections

25 May 2022
By Dr Tatiana Gélvez Rubio
Colombian Flag, Ibagué.
Source: Edgar Jiménez/ Flikr.

The Colombian elections will feature a diverse range of candidates. As the country grapples with economic inequality and dissidence, strong leadership in Colombia will be more important than ever.

The Colombian presidential elections of 2022 will take place in an environment of deep political polarisation and social unrest. While COVID-19 has exacerbated poverty in Colombia, violence has overtaken its territories, with more than 50 social leaders killed in 2022 alone. The conflict has been seen two armed strikes, or “paros armados,” carried out by the National Liberation Army (ELN) (23-25 February) and the Gulf Clan (Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces- AGC) (5-8 May) in states such as Antioquia Arauca, Cesar, Norte de Santander, and Valle del Cauca. According to the Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia, 290 out of 521 municipalities are at high risk for the forthcoming first round of the presidential election on 29 May. These conditions create fear and distress within communities that feel that the war never left their territories.

The presidential primaries held on 13 March left Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, as the nominee for the leftist Historic Pact coalition with 80.5 percent of votes and 4.5 million ballots. Meanwhile, the centre-right coalition called “Team for Colombia” elected Federico Gutiérrez as their nominee, with 54.2 percent of the votes and 2.2 million ballots. Finally, the “Centro Esperanza” consultation, was won by the candidate Sergio Fajardo with 33.5 percent of the votes and 723,000 ballots.

The polls show that Gustavo Petro leads all candidates with a voting intention of around 40 percent, but the playing field is levelling. Gutierrez has seen increased voting intention during the first semester of 2022 and Hernandez has also increased voter interest, especially in the last month. This shift has seen other candidates withdraw, such as Ingrid Betancourt pulling her nomination to join Hernandez one week before the elections.

Social Spending

A year has passed since Colombia experienced a continuous social outbreak that began with strikes and riots across the main cities in the country as citizens reacted to a tax reform proposal of President Duque amid COVID-19 confinement. Despite the government having put effort into vaccination and economic recovery, the country’s increasing inflation and two-digit unemployment figures ‒ 14.6 percent in January 2022 ‒ are not a promising economic panorama for the Colombia’s next president.

In terms of economics, the debate has included discussion of social spending. The COVID-19 emergency has deepened inequalities and increased poverty that reached more than 40 percent of Colombians in 2020, despite emergency cash transfers to millions of households. The response to the candidates in the debates show a clear path in priorities: for Gustavo Petro, the national government must improve its fiscal base, based on financing instruments focused on equity and systems of distribution of burdens and benefits, while for Federico Gutiérrez the priority is to boost employment and support the private sector. Rodolfo Hernández supports a Basic Income proposal, and Sergio Fajardo emphasises the importance of expanding welfare programs as well as educational, sports, arts, and environmental projects.

Pension reform has also been a focus of the candidates. On the one hand, Fajardo indicated that the system’s biggest problem is its low coverage, so he proposes a subsidised pension of half a minimum wage for elderly living in poverty. Similarly, Petro aims to reform the pension system by allocating more resources to the public fund as opposed to the private Pension Fund Administrators. Gutiérrez, on the other hand, proposes the creation of a comprehensive old age protection system so that adults over 65 years of age who currently do not have a pension, have access to a minimum income. Gutierrez’ proposal would maintain Colombia’s current mixed system, in which private funds and the public funds (Colpensiones) participate. Finally, Hernandez’s broader Basic Income reform would guarantee a minimum income to all Colombians, including those over 65 years old.

Peace and Security

Despite the country signing a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, the Duque government’s lack of compliance with the accords has sparked a debate about the future of the peace process in Colombia. As the crime rate increases the security situation remains a factor of great concern.

Regarding this issue, Petro assures that “the protocols that the Santos government signed will be recognised,” and, in addition, he will initiate a “comprehensive peace process with all the actors of violence.” For his part, Gutiérrez proposes to give continuity to the implementation of the agreement signed with FARC and to increase investment in rural public goods. In the same way, candidate Hernandez proposes “another yes” by approaching the ELN and considering their requests. Finally, candidate Fajardo, as he has reiterated since his past candidacy, proposes that peace be a factor of cohesion, but not of division.

Another angle of discussion on security is the future of the riot police (ESMAD) as the protests of 2021 led to many claims of police brutality. Gustavo Petro affirms that he will redefine policing’s functions and priorities, which includes the dismantling of the ESMAD to “transition to a force oriented to the peaceful and intelligent solution of conflicts.” Fajardo on the other hand has made it clear that he does not intend to dismantle the ESMAD, but that it “must be a force with limits and with policemen prepared to handle emotions and the different conditions they must face.” The other candidates have not stated their position on the issue.

A third important security issue is the fight against drug trafficking. Gustavo Petro claims that his fight against drugs is linked to agricultural development, stating that “agrarian reform, will be seen as land substitution, as prioritisation of peasants … is a way to weaken drug trafficking.” Along the same lines, candidate Fajardo affirms that the key is rural development, voluntary substitution of drug cultivation, recognition of alternative uses of coca leaf and the prosecution of the most valuable links in the criminal drug trafficking chain are to guide his anti-drug policy. Rodolfo Hernandez indicates that he will “take away the drug consumers and the business mafias.” Meanwhile, the candidate of “Team for Colombia,” Federico Gutierrez affirms that his fight will be based on three components: crop substitution, seeing addiction as a public health problem, and strengthening operational capacity to dismantle the drug trafficking supply chain.

Governability Lockdown

The current presidential elections show that the candidates do not hold substantial support in Congress. This situation anticipates that the next Colombian president will, in all cases, have to rely on alliances to mediate the relationship with legislators. With the party alliances showed in the primaries, the only candidate with the support of almost 30 percent in the Senate is Federico Gutiérrez. Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo on the other hand show around 16 percent and 13 percent respectively. Other candidates such as Rodolfo Hernández do not show any potential or coalition support, which will create huge governability challenges were they to be elected.

Final Remarks

As described, Colombia faces huge challenges and there is a lot at stake in the coming elections. There are four main issues of concern. First, poverty alleviation and the reduction of inequality. Here the market-oriented proposals of candidates such as Federico Gutiérrez contrast to the left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro that promote an expansion of social spending. Second, the proposals regarding drug trafficking aim to create alternative economic means for peasants in rural areas. Third, despite all the candidates expressing their commitment to continue the peace agreement compromises, there is no certainty while the country faces an escalation of the war in hands of ELN, drug cartels and dissident groups of FARC. Finally, none of the major candidates appear to have substantial support in the Senate, so major alliances will be required upon election.

Dr Tatiana Gélvez Rubio is a lecturer at the Faculty of Economics in Universidad Externado de Colombia. She holds a PhD in Government from the University of Essex, and an MSc. International Comparative Studies from the University of Southampton.