Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, received 40.34 percent of the vote in the first round of Colombian elections on May 29.
He will get 28.17 percent of the vote in the final round on June 19 against Rodolfo Hernández, a businessman who became a politician, to finish in second place.
These results are striking for three reasons.
First, if Petro triumphs, it will be the first time a left-wing candidate has become president in a country traditionally ruled by right-wing, elitist parties.
Second, both candidates ran on platforms that were critical of the political establishment.
Third, Uribismo, the dominant right-wing political movement formed around former president Álvaro Uribe, will not have a candidate in the decisive round of elections for the first time in 20 years.
Rebel became politician
Petro, a former member of the M-19 leftist guerrilla group, began his political career in 1991, just after the organization was disarmed as part of a peace process.
In the last 30 years he has been a member of Congress (from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2018 to 2022), Mayor of Bogotá (from 2012 to 2015) and three times Presidential candidate (in 2010, 2018 and 2022).
He was born into a middle-class family in a small town in the Caribbean region of Colombia, and is different from the so-called Andes elite who have traditionally dominated the country. If elected, Petro promises, among other things, to stop oil exploration, to provide free public higher education to all, and to thoroughly overhaul the pension system to increase coverage.
His proposals for radical change have made him popular with younger and lower-income voters, many of whom took part in massive protests in 2021 against the right-wing government of incumbent Iván Duque, which has the lowest approval ratings of any president in the country’s recent. history.
Petro’s opponents, on the other hand, despise his previous membership of a rebel organization and what they describe as his populist proposals. Critics argue that his tenure as mayor of Bogotá has been embroiled in controversy and that he will try to continue that style of governing as president.
However, resistance to Petro’s success must be understood within the historical context of Colombia’s elitist right-wing domination and the exclusion of left-wing alternatives.
Colombia’s fears of leftists
Colombia has in the past been cited as an example of democratic stability in South America. The only military dictatorship that the country suffered in its recent history (1953–57) was short-lived and relatively benign compared to the more oppressive regimes of other South American countries.
Unlike most of the continent’s countries, populist leaders did not gain power in Colombia. Also, while the majority of the region turned left in the early 2000s, Colombians preferred Álvaro Uribe, a neo-conservative leader who put the market and the militarization of security first.
This apparent political stability did not come without a price. Elitist parties – both liberal and conservative – monopolized power throughout the 20th century, thwarting the rise of left-wing parties and dissenting movements.
The forerunner of the presidential election in the late 1940s, populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was assassinated in 1948, giving way to a dark period known as “La Violencia” which led to the massacres of thousands of people. Later, the systematic assassination of left-wing leaders, politicians and activists by right-wing paramilitaries and state agents held the power firmly in the hands of traditional elites.
During the eight years that Uribe was president, 6,402 people were the victims of extrajudicial killings committed by the military.
Uribe has been a dominant figure in the country for the past 20 years.
He was president from 2002 to 2010; his defense minister and former ally was elected president in 2010; his chosen candidate, Iván Duque, won his presidential bid in 2018; and Uribe successfully led the campaign against the peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group – FARC – in the 2016 referendum.
The agreement was eventually implemented despite the negative result, and Uribe is now increasingly unpopular among Colombians. Institutional reforms and the 2016 peace agreement also refreshed the left.
After being portrayed as the internal enemy for decades, the left is finally a serious contender for the office of president.
Petro will face important challenges. First, scattered anti-left political forces are now likely to merge around right-wing outsider Hernández, who is building a serious bid for the presidency.
Second, Petro’s party, Pacto Histórico, does not have a majority in Congress and, if elected president, he will have to forge shaky alliances with unlikely partners.
And while his promises for radical change have been very inspiring, heightened expectations can quickly turn into disappointment or setback, similar to left-wing leaders Gabriel Boric in Chile and Pedro Castillo in Peru.
Nevertheless, the consolidation of the left as a legitimate and viable election option in Colombia is important for the democracy of a country that has suffered through decades of politically motivated conflict and high levels of socio-economic inequality.
These elections can be seen as a sign that the left-right separation in Colombia is moving from armed confrontation to democratic disagreement.