Right-wing candidate wins Colombian presidency but left forces see gains
Gustavo Petro speaks to his supporters after Iván Duque won the election, Bogata, Colombia, June 17. Martin Mejia | AP

Senator Iván Duque was victorious in second round voting June 17 in Colombia, running as the presidential candidate of the rightist Democratic Centre party. The party was founded by former President Álvaro Uribe whose administration was riddled with secret wiretapping, corruption, blatant support of right-wing paramilitaries, and severe human rights abuses. Duque, a 42-year-old lawyer, polled 10.4 million voters, or 53.98 percent of the 19.5 million Colombians going to the polls.

Gustavo Petro, candidate of a center-left coalition known as the Humane Colombia Movement, won 8.03 million votes, or 41.8 percent of the total. Petro formerly was mayor of Bogota and was a combatant in the left-wing insurgent group Movimiento 19 de April-M19 (the Nineteenth of April Movement).

Duque’s majority included followers of Uribe joined by the Liberal, Conservative, and Radical Change parties. He takes office on August 7 and will govern until 2022. Duque promised to lower taxes and roll back implementation of the government’s peace accord with the FARC guerrillas, a treaty that has promised to end more than fifty years of violence. Petro partisans portrayed Duque as a tool of Uribe, who is regularly accused of associating with drug traffickers and paramilitaries. Uribe, now a senator, is looking to become president of Colombia’s Congress.

Petro charged the outgoing government of President Juan Manuel Santos with corruption. Petro expressed support for the peace agreement and called for universal health care, free higher education, transition from fossil fuels, land redistribution, and labor rights. His coalition of social movement activists had the support of the Communist Party, the leftist Patriotic Union, and elements of the Green Party and the social democratic Alternative Democratic Pole.

Some associated with the latter two groups returned blank ballots as a token of their rejection of both candidates. Other leftists and centrists who had backed centrist Sergio Fajardo’s failed run for the presidency joined them in accounting for 806,311 blank votes, or 4.2 percent of the total, a record high. It should be noted that almost 47 percent of those eligible did not vote.

Petro faced strenuous opposition from both the establishment media and conservatives in the Catholic clergy. Uribe’s smooth-running political machine presented obstacles, as did a half century’s worth of anti-left fear mongering. “This result shows that Colombia is barren ground for communism,” proclaimed former Bogota mayor Jaime Castro on learning the outcome.

Pre-election campaigning unfolded amidst mounting violence in rural areas. Thus far in 2018, assailants have killed more than 90 progressive social and community leaders. Petro’s team accused officials of fraudulent management of the election. Petro lamented that, “There may be poor people who want money on election day rather than getting rid of injustices in the country.”

Challenges facing the new government include the wave of killings and increasing production of illicit drugs. There are worries that Duque will call off peace negotiations with National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, currently in progress in Havana.

With Duque’s victory, analyst Javier Tolcachier sees a resurgence of “landowner feudalism,” new encouragement of big extractive projects, and “continued subordination…to the interests of the United States.” That “Colombia continues to be the principal illicit drug provider to the United States” maintains the pretext for U.S. military intervention in Colombia, he writes. Another commentator claims that, with the recent election, Uribe’s section of the “dominant class” now reigns supreme over the faction led by outgoing President Santos.

Duque’s new government may undertake to diminish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a judicial entity created by the peace negotiators for deciding on the fate of former combatants. More than 600 FARC prisoners linger in prisons. And without intercession by that court, FARC leader Jesús Santrich, accused of crimes, may be extradited to the United States. Almost blind, Santrich plays musical instruments and authored a book on indigenous peoples. His defenders reject accusations that Santrich trafficked in illegal drugs, pointing out that he’s been living in Bogota surrounded, for his protection, by soldiers and United Nations personnel. Other FARC leaders might also be in danger of extradition.

But all is not lost, says Nelson Lombana Silva, writing for the Communist Party’s website. Western Colombia and Caribbean Colombia, home to millions of the country’s dispossessed, favored Petro. Majorities in Bogota and Cali did likewise. A confluence of progressive forces produced a total of votes far in excess of leftist candidates in the last three presidential elections

In fact, as noted by Argentinean sociologist and commentator Atilio Borón, “for the first time in Colombia’s history the traditional bipartite configuration of the Colombian right…representing the interests of the dominant establishment, was broken.”

Gustavo Petro told followers that, “I don’t feel defeated…. Eight million Colombians knew they had every right to participate in their own decision making. They are not going to let their own country take paths that could destroy their children, their family, their society, their youth…. This is a battle of ideas where so many people have sacrificed. From now on we stop thinking about how to be an opposition but rather how to be a government.”


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.