Colombia: Winners and Losers in First Round of Elections

By Julián Silva*

Iván Duque

Iván Duque addresses a crowd of supporters after winning the most votes in the first round of the presidential election on May 27, 2018. / @IvanDuque / Twitter / Creative Commons

Colombia’s first round of presidential elections on May 27 produced two contrasting candidates for the June 17 runoff – neoconservative Iván Duque and leftist Gustavo Petro – but also highlighted other winners and losers who will shape a new, but still undetermined, political landscape.

Winner:  Iván Duque, of Centro Democrático, won the most votes (39.14 percent).  A total stranger just a couple of months ago, the 42-year-old candidate focused on ensuring benefits for big companies and landowners; criminalization of drug use; restricting LGBTQ rights and blocking gay marriage; and “adjusting” the peace agreement with the FARC to include jail time for former guerrilla leaders.  Buoyed by the endorsement of popular former President Álvaro Uribe, Duque represents some of the most conservative interests on the political scene in Colombia, including those who preached against the peace process.  Considered an Uribe puppet by detractors, he will probably try to lure some moderate voters to consolidate his victory in the next two weeks.  Some of them may think that, just as President Santos was supported by Uribe but moved away from him after being elected, Duque may take an independent path as president too.  In the last few days he has been trying to reassure voters he will take care of the poorest of Colombians and will not extend retirement age.

Loser:  The Liberal and Conservative Parties.  Heads of Colombian bipartisanism throughout most of the 20th century, these parties now seem to be empty shells with no trace of their former glory days.  The Conservative Party didn’t present a candidate and couldn’t even agree on one to support in the first round.  The Liberals ran with Humberto de la Calle – former Minister, Vice President, and head negotiator of the Government with the FARC – who polled fifth (with only 2.06 percent).  They’ve entered an alliance with Duque in hopes of ensuring their relevance for the next four years.

Winner: Left-centered candidates.  Despite the 14-point spread between Duque and his runoff opponent, Gustavo Petro (25.08 percent), the left-leaning parties did very well in view of Sergio Fajardo’s 23.73 percent support – giving them combined almost half of all votes cast.  At least half of Colombian voters sent a clear message that they’re tired of traditional politics.  Fajardo has already announced he will not vote for Petro, ending speculation of an alliance, but support for both candidates’ strong anti-establishment messages and criticism of “politics as usual” will force a Duque government to listen to them.

Loser: Germán Vargas Lleras, former Vice President who has coordinated infrastructure projects for the last three years term and has been ubiquitous at inaugurations, construction projects, and charities – opening him to the accusation of paving his road to the presidency with public funds.  He won less than 1.5 million votes (7.28 percent).  He has forged an alliance with Duque, but his leverage will be considerably lower than he’d projected.

Winner: Juan Manuel Santos.  Not even his appalling poll figures will take one signature accomplishment from him:  Former FARC guerrillas participated in the election as voters –  not as saboteurs – and the image of Rodrigo Londoño (“Timochenko”) casting his vote for the first time will be one for the ages, even with the challenges the peace process has experienced in the last few months.  National and international media have called these “the most peaceful elections in the recent history of Colombia,” and not even Uribe and Duque have been able to tarnish this aspect of Santos’s legacy nor the relevance of the accords, changing their promise from “shredding” the document to “modifying” it once in the presidency.  Santos says he will leave politics when his term ends in two months, leaving his party and supporters free to ally themselves with whomever they want – even Duque, one of his most consistent critics.

If – as at this point appears likely – Duque wins the runoff, his various coalition-building efforts with the Liberal and the Conservative Parties, Cambio Radical (Germán Vargas’s party) and Partido de la U (President Santos’s party) suggest that basic governability won’t be an issue for Duque.  He will face new political challenges, however, as votes seem to be shifting from the stable traditional parties and the conservative side of the spectrum to less durable alliances and bureaucratic pacts.  Candidates focused on social issues, such as education and redistribution, are opposing these traditional structures.  Colombian elites, for their part, will face new challenges and be forced either to accept four years of progressive policies and efforts to reduce corruption and inequality, or keep sinking and pushing the voters away.

June 7, 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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