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Petro wins in Colombia and consolidates Latin America's shift to the left

The former guerrilla defeats populist Rodolfo Hernández by three points to become the first left-wing president in the coffee-growing country's history
Gustavo Petro

PHOTO  -   President-elect Gustavo Petro celebrates victory at the polls

"My name is Gustavo Petro and I am your president". Colombia wrote a new page in its history on Sunday with the resounding electoral victory of the senator and former mayor of Bogotá. The coming to power of a new left-wing leader in a region that is turning red with the cases of Luis Arce in Bolivia, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Xiomara Castro in Honduras and Gabriel Boric in Chile reaffirms the progressive shift that began less than two years ago in Latin America. 

The candidate of Pacto Histórico, a broad platform formed a year ago by social democrats, ecologists and communists, won the second round of the presidential elections with 50.5% of the votes to 47.3 % for the candidate of the League of Anti-Corruption Rulers, Rodolfo Hernández. A difference of three points and more than 700,000 voters finally handed Petro the keys to the Casa de Nariño, the presidential residence, after having run unsuccessfully for the presidency on two previous occasions. The third time was the charm. 

The former guerrilla of the April 19 Movement (M-19), the terrorist organisation that emerged after alleged electoral fraud in 1970, won the most votes in the most crowded election since 1998. According to official figures, some 22.5 million people out of a total of 39 called to the polls exercised their right to vote as a result of the pressing political polarisation to choose the coffee-growing nation's first leftist leader. A milestone in Colombian history. 

Petro, 66, managed to channel the strong discontent generated over decades by Colombia's political class that exploded in the streets between 2019 and 2020. Mass mobilisations against the government of Uribist Iván Duque demanded the withdrawal of the "paquetazo", a series of measures harmful to the country's middle and lower classes, as well as the effective implementation of the peace process. At least 47 people lost their lives at the hands of the security forces. 

Gustavo Petro
PHOTO  -   A supporter hugs president-elect Gustavo Petro during a trip to Sierra Nevada during his last campaign rally

The proliferation of inequalities and the impoverishment of Colombian society, beyond insecurity, caused the fall of Uribism, hit by Duque's unpopularity and without direct representation for the first time in two decades. The ruling Democratic Centre backed the centre-right candidacy of Federico 'Fico' Gutiérrez, who was left out of the second round to the detriment of the populist Rodolfo Hernández, whom it decided to support in his head-to-head with Petro. 

"Petro knew how to interpret this social unrest. He also cleaned up his past. We must remember that he has been demobilised for 30 years and participated in the peace accords. Since then, he has never held a weapon," consultant and professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia, Sergio Guzmán, told Atalayar. The M-19 militant played a decisive role in the first peace process between the state and a guerrilla group, as well as in the subsequent drafting of the 1991 Constitution, which is still in force today. This participation has not renewed his image in the eyes of public opinion. 

"Colombian society is a centre-right society. The right concentrates great economic, military and media power. This is a clear obstacle for Petro", stresses Guzmán. The caricaturing and exploitation of the leftist leader's radical image has been a drag on his rise to power. Petro has had to confront the widespread perception of illegitimacy suffered by the Colombian left, which is still intentionally linked to the armed insurgency of the guerrillas. This had been the driving force behind 'petrophobia', which is why his victory is symbolic. 

Before that, he had to face the engineer Rodolfo Hernández at the polls. Like Petro, the former mayor of Bucaramanga was another prominent 'anti-establishment' candidate. But unlike Petro, Hernández focused his programme on fighting rampant corruption with populist rhetoric, with little detail on other issues. He did so despite a high-profile corruption case when he was mayor of the capital of the department of Santander, a position from which he slapped a councillor when he raised suspicions of corruption in his administration. 

The 77-year-old wealthy Santander businessman projected his campaign on social media, where he amassed a large following. Known as 'El Viejito de TikTok', Hernández avoided a dialogue with Petro despite a court order to hold a presidential debate. He ducked the face-to-face with excuses and barely appeared in the final hours before the election. Despite this, he received the support of Uribismo and the centre-right, but proved unable to mobilise this mass of voters. 

@ingrodolfohernandez Tres regalos de la vida que me llenan de felicidad♥️🥰 #RodolfoHernandez #RodolfoPresidente #elecciones2022 #colombia ♬ sonido original - Capitán Ferrer

Hernández's profile, compared to Trump for his misogynistic statements and his recurrent outbursts - he even said in an interview that he admired Adolf Hitler, although he later retracted his statement and said he was referring to Albert Einstein - led to fears that he would make accusations of electoral fraud if he did not win the presidency, but he finally accepted the results. Something Petro, who sowed the seeds of doubt about a possible vote rigging, may not have done. 

As number two on the winning presidential ticket is Francia Márquez. The lawyer and environmental activist has been an asset to Petro's candidacy and will be the first black vice-president in the country's history as of 7 August, when the inauguration will take place. Her victory, as she put it, is the victory of "the nobodies", those who like her are descendants of slaves or come from the lowest stratum of Colombian society. But Guzmán stresses that "it is one thing to win and quite another to govern". 

"Petro has the challenge of governing a divided country, a distrustful country", says the professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. The former guerrilla fighter, who spent time in prison in the 1980s, has generated great expectations among the most vulnerable sector of the electorate with his proposals for change. Petro is committed to structural reforms in energy, social and fiscal matters in Colombia, but he will have to face the opposition. "Congress will not be permissive," Guzmán anticipates. 

"Looking at the results a day later, it will be an uphill struggle for him", says the Colombian consultant. The president-elect will not only have to maintain a balance with respect to the opposition; he will also have to counteract the power of the church, the armed forces, economic lobbies and organised crime, which has managed to infiltrate the institutions. There will be strong resistance to change. In this sense, Guzmán believes that Petro has to learn from Duque's legacy, from his mistakes, and listen to the street.

Francia Márquez
PHOTO  -   Presidential ticket-mate and vice-president-elect Francia Márquez

Throughout the campaign, the former mayor of Bogotá has made it clear that, in his opinion, the Colombian production model does not work because it depends too much on oil and the illicit cocaine trade. A reality that, according to Petro, has deepened inequalities. For the incoming president, it is vital to diversify the economy and suspend oil exploitation, a measure that clashes with too many interests. "He is going to have to give ground if he wants to push through some reforms," says the Colombian consultant. 

Latin America's third largest country, with a population of 51.5 million people, has been taking the same stance as its neighbours for the past two years. Colombia follows in the footsteps of Peru with the election of Pedro Castillo, Honduras with Xiomara Castro and Chile with Gabriel Boric. Beyond the cases of AMLO in Mexico, Alberto Fernández in Argentina or Luis Arce in Bolivia. Although Petro's electoral triumph is perhaps more valuable than the rest, bearing in mind that Colombian society is a largely conservative society. 

Analysts have observed a regional trend change: Colombia and the rest of the continent have become more progressive. The professor at the Universidad Externado, however, disagrees: "I don't think it's a shift to the left, but rather that almost all the candidates who have won recently in the region have opposed the previous government. It is not so much a confrontation between left and right as an opposition role. In other words, it has more to do with dissatisfaction than ideological alignment". 

Bogotá has so far been Washington's main partner in Latin America, with whom it has collaborated on trade, migration and security issues. The arrival of Petro, linked by his adversaries to the regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela - from which he has tried to distance himself on several occasions - could alter this dynamic of alliances. For the time being, Petro has pledged to normalise relations with Caracas. After that, the ex-guerrilla fighter's intentions will focus on Chile or Brazil, where Lula is waiting until October to take over. 

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra