Colombia’s Elections: With New Comes Old

By Julián Silva*

Two men sit in white chairs during an interview

Iván Duque (left), appears to be the frontrunner in Colombia’s May 27 presidential election. / Casa de América / Flickr / Creative Commons

The first round of Colombia’s presidential election on May 27 has raised the profile of independent voices but does not appear likely to bring significant changes.  Most of the nine candidates represent new political forces, but the strongest are allied with the traditional elites that ruled under Liberal and Conservative banners during most of the 20th century.

  • Since the 1991 Constitution opened space for new competition to the Liberal and Conservative Parties, “independent” groups have shown increasing willingness to take the presidency for themselves. The old clientelistic machines, associated with the land-owning elites and those parties, have lost popularity in the urban-dominated country, and the rejection of the more traditional families seems to have prompted a certain “rebranding” by their heirs.  This year, only the Liberal Party presented a candidate – former minister, vice president, and peace negotiator Humberto De la Calle – but current polls indicate that he is unlikely to reach one of the two spots heading into the second round.  The youngest of the candidates seem to hold the lead: Iván Duque (42 years old) is pulling 38 percent; Gustavo Petro (58) has 29 percent support; Sergio Fajardo (61) has 12.8 percent; German Vargas Lleras (56) has 8.2 percent; and De la Calle (71) has 3.2 percent.

Several ostensibly independent candidates actually have close ties to well-established local and national elites.  Iván Duque, a fairly new figure in the Colombian political landscape, is aggressively supported by former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who had deep roots in the Liberal Party and Antioquia Department elite before founding Centro Democrático in 2013.  The party is closely tied to land-owning oligarchs, big corporations, and the military, which gives Duque prospects for victory no truly independent candidate could have.  German Vargas Lleras, grandson of former President Alberto Lleras, is running on a new ticket called “Coalición Mejor Vargas Lleras,” which receives support from his old party, Cambio Radical, as well as stalwarts of the Conservative party and his family’s Liberal allies.

  • Several independents deserve the label. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, occupies a more leftist space on the political spectrum that was usually excluded by the traditional parties during most of the 20th century.  Former Mayor of Medellín and Governor of Antioquia Sergio Fajardo promises to bring an “academic” perspective to the presidency if elected.
  • In addition to airing complaints about the candidates, social media users have been extremely critical of links that most candidates have to the traditional Colombian political class. Provocateurs mix truthful information with fake news to mislead the electorate and, protected by anonymity and authorities’ loose control over the virtual space, even issue threats of violence.  An unidentified projectile shattered a window of the car in which Gustavo Petro was heading to a rally in the city of Cúcuta.  The Matador, a political cartoonist working for El Tiempo, received death threats after he depicted Ivan Duque as a pig in one of his drawings.

With a little more than three weeks until the first round, the table seems to be set for Colombians to choose between leaders with significantly different political bases.  Current polls suggest they will stick with the neoconservative elite that has improved security and driven economic growth during the last few decades but has been tolerant of corruption, inequity, and even violence in some parts of the country.  But support for a different formula that promises to address some of these chronic problems is not inconsequential, even if the new leaders’ effectiveness is still unproven on a national level.  Colombians will also have a chance to decide if social media will be a vehicle for amplifying the old politics of threats and violence – or perhaps channel legitimate popular voices to demand accountability that exposes “fake news” and hate-mongering for what they are.  On that, too, the old practices and characters seem to have the advantage as they pursue a strategy that creates an image of change to ensure that everything remains the same.  The appearance of change in Colombia probably portends more of the same.

May 2, 2018

* Julián Silva is a CLALS Research Fellow, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Universidad de los Andes, and Professor of International Relations at several Colombian universities.

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