When a political “pink tide” swept over South America during the first decade of the millennium, one country remained resolutely untouched by it. As voters sent a series of leftist leaders into the region’s presidential palaces, often for the first time in history, Colombia stubbornly stuck with its traditional political duopoly of conservatives and liberals.
Partly this caution was a result of the country’s vicious civil war. The democratic left struggled to win support at a time when the army was battling Marxist insurgencies. But now that a new pink tide is rolling across South America, Colombia could finally be about to elect its own first ever left-wing president.
A week before a first round of polling next Sunday the Historic Pact for Colombia candidate Gustavo Petro holds a commanding position in an eight-way contest. According to polls, at about 40 per cent he has a more than 10-point lead on his nearest rival, right-wing former Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez, and is the favourite to win a run-off round next month if no candidate clears 50 per cent.
In third place is Rodolfo Hernandez, the former mayor of Bucaramanga, nicknamed the “the oldie on TikTok”. The 76-year old’s populist anti-corruption campaign, largely waged on social media, has gained impetus in the past week and he is now just eight points behind Gutierrez in the battle to face Petro in a run-off.
That Petro, a senator and former mayor of the capital Bogotá, has come this close to a left-wing breakthrough, reflects, in part, regional anger at a decade of economic stagnation and declining incomes. Colombia was among the countries most affected by a wave of often violent street protests that have shaken Latin America since 2019.
Unpopular right-wing incumbent Iván Duque beat Petro in 2018 on a promise to accelerate Colombia’s economic development. But though his approach is lauded by the business community and foreign investors, some of the world’s worst inequality rates have refused to come down and voters now appear willing to shift left in a bid to tackle them.
Another important change is the peace process that ended the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerrilla movement's half-century insurgency in 2016. Though some fighting continues against Farc dissidents and the smaller National Liberation Army group, the removal of the most significant armed Marxist threat to the state has amplified the space for the democratic left to operate in.
But the legacy of the civil war hangs over the race, exacerbated by Petro’s own past as a guerrilla. He fought in the M-19 movement, which was active in the 1970s and 1980s before demobilising and entering politics in 1990. Though more than three decades have passed since M-19 ended its armed struggle, Petro’s opponents have been busy reliving its actions, especially on social media.
He has sought to allay fears he will govern as a radical, promising "I will not expropriate anything or from anyone" and dropped his previous pledge to push for a revision of the constitution. But leaders from powerful interest groups such as ranchers have described the prospect of Petro winning as a "nightmare" and warned he could imitate the failed chavista experiment that left neighbouring Venezuela economically devastated.
Plot to kill
Petro has already had to partially curtail campaigning after his team said it learned of a plot to kill him by a criminal organisation descended from the right-wing paramilitaries that allied with ranchers to combat the guerrillas.
He also got involved in an unprecedented war of words with Gen Eduardo Zapateiro, the head of Colombia's army, which has historically refrained from public involvement in politics. The general responded furiously to Petro accusing members of the military's high command of involvement in the country's drug trade.
Gen Zapateiro’s outburst sparked an investigation into whether he breached the law banning the military from involvement in politics, and some backers of Petro accuse the army of coup-mongering. But the incident has focused attention on the possible reaction to an ex-guerrilla in charge of the armed forces. Local magazine Semana reported that in the face of demands from reserve and former officers for the military to prevent such an outcome, the current high command held a meeting with them to demand respect for the democratic process.
The race remains tense, with Gutiérrez insinuating this week his left-wing rival planted a bug in his Medellín campaign office, which the Petro team denied. Both candidates have also accused the other of courting the powerful Gulf Clan drugs cartel to win votes in areas under its influence.