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Presidential Elections In Colombia: Political And Socio-Economic Perspectives Of The New Government

06 Jul 2022
By Dr Tatiana Gélvez Rubio
Photo of Gustavo Petro in City Hall 2013.
Source: AH Photos / Flikr.

In an almost unprecedented result, Colombia has elected a leftist president. The balancing act between sound economic management and attending to social needs will be in the spotlight during the administration’s first 100 days.

Gustavo Petro has been elected as the next president of Colombia. With more than 11 million votes (50.44 percent) cast in the second round of elections, the left-wing government will begin on 7 August. Petro’s triumph is an unprecedented political outcome in the recent history of the country for three reasons. First, the result ends a 28-year-long period of right-wing rule in Colombia. Second, Petro’s victory opens opportunities for new actors in power, such as Vice President-elect Francia Márquez Mina — an Afro-Colombian community leader, and member of a territory affected by the armed conflict. This will provide representation to a group of people that typically has been considered absent from state protection, and who perceive themselves as a forgotten part of the society — in the words of Márquez “los y las nadies” or the nobodies. Third, neither of the two candidates competing for the presidency represented the traditional parties: Gustavo Petro represented the “Pacto Histórico” and Rodolfo Hernández “Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción.”

Although Hernández and Petro returned very close results in polls after the primaries, other candidates such as Federico Gutiérrez expressed their support for Hernández. Petro was able to attract voters through a persuasive strategy led by Vice President-elect Márquez to bring together feminist, Afro, and indigenous communities with the promise to create a government with inclusive policies under the slogan “hasta que la dignidad se haga costumbre” – until dignity becomes usual.

Reactions of Political Actors to the Election Results

After the results were officially announced, actors of different political positions accepted the results, abiding by the constitution, and respecting the country’s democracy. Petro´s victory speech emphasised his intention to build a “national agreement to achieve unity within diversity,” seeking alliances not just for governability but also to forge a strong coalition, a “plural agreement to overcome sectarianism and hate.”

Political parties such as “Alianza Verde” and “Liberal” were the quickest to express public support for the new government. The other presidential candidate, Rodolfo Hernández also showcased his support when he met with Petro last week. A surprising dialogue also took place between Petro and former president Álvaro Uribe, the leader of the extreme right “Centro Democrático.” Uribe reportedly assured Petro that his party would be a reasonable opposition, acknowledging the democratic mandate of Petro, and respecting Colombian institutions.

Although “Pacto Histórico” enjoys support in both the Senate and House of Representatives, its opposition is broad. As a result, Petro has met with traditional party leaders and was able to secure the support of the Conservatives, as well as the Liberal Party. However, it is possible that the new government will face opposition when it attempts to implement its social spending plans.

Key Topics for the New Government

The new government will most likely focus on social spending as an important strategy for sectors such as education, equality, environment, and cultural policies. In education, Petro´s government have emphasised the principles of free and universal access and will address the quality and coverage of education through a “historical” increase in “the public budget for the entire education system.” Equality is also expected to be high priority. In a national newscast, Márquez expressed his intention to create a Ministry of Equality to guarantee rights to those from excluded and marginalised territories. Petro has indicated that government subsidies to the most vulnerable Colombian households, will be maintained and increased to match the minimum wage.

Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Many are unsure how the new government will finance its ambitious social spending plan, and have raised concerns about such expenditure’s effect on economic stability. The social spending plan will require new sources of public income, and the outgoing Duque government was unable to pass a tax reform bill required to balance the government budget because of social unrest. As such, the new government will have to make it a priority in their first few months in office to avoid uncertainty, and control expectations.

With respect to economic plans, Petro emphasised his idea to transform the economy from oil and mining to an agriculture-oriented productive sector. The topic is controversial because despite the environmental damage caused by mining exploitation and a great loss of ecosystems in the country, the economic benefits and royalties of the oil and mining sector provide the territories with money for public services, investment, and employment. Vice President-elect Márquez is an environmental leader who knows the struggle to fight for environmental rights in her community and intends to promote actions deterring exploration of Non-Conventional Oilfields, fracking and banning new licenses for hydrocarbon exploration. The new government must balance its actions to maintain the oil industry’s profits while meeting environmental demands.

Another important topic is the future of the peace process in the country. On this issue, the new government has demonstrated a willingness to compromise. In his government plan, Petro said he was willing to start a dialogue with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group. Petro acted on this promise last week when Petro and Márquez attended the public presentation of the final report of the Truth Commission, and Petro called for the construction of a new history, reconciliation, and a permanent end to the conflict.

Cabinet Nominee Announcements

Petro has started to appoint some key members of his cabinet. The first announcement was his Secretary of State, Alvaro Leyva Duran, a former member of the Senate and a public official, recognised for his active role in peace negotiations during several periods of Colombian history. This announcement has created expectations that Petro may reattempt the peace diplomacy strategy drafted under Juan Manuel Santos’ administration.

Another cabinet announcement that garnered a positive reaction was that economist José Antonio Ocampo would lead the Treasury Ministry. Ocampo’s experience as Minister of Agriculture and Director of National Planning Department, as well as one of the most representative scholars in economics and a renowned author of books on Colombian Economy, indicates the economy will be in good hands.

In sum, this election shows that the Colombian people hope for a political alternative to traditional preferences and expressed their preference for a left-wing government. The Petro government has already begun giving opportunities to other actors with greater representation of their communities, minorities, and feminist groups. However, it is important to remember that COVID-19 weakened the Colombian economy and, despite social needs that require policies, resources must be wisely spent to guarantee economic stability.

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. in International Comparative Studies from the University of Southampton.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.