Colombia’s Presidential Election: A Step Further Right?


The result of the recent Colombian presidential election marks a change of direction in the country’s politics, as right-wing former lawyer Iván Duque takes over from right-leaning centrist Juan Manuel Santos as his second term concludes.

Santos has arguably been one of Colombia’s most prominent presidents on the international stage in recent years. In 2012, he announced that the Colombian government had entered preliminary negotiations with the left-wing FARC rebels in a bid to seek an end to the hostilities between the guerrilla group and government forces. This eventually led to FARC agreeing to hand in their weapons and Santos winning the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, in spite of the deal reached being rejected by voters the first time that it was put to a referendum.

By contrast, President-elect Duque has long been an opponent of the FARC peace deal. During his campaign, he received support from former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who has long been one of the agreement’s harshest critics. While Uribe has in the past criticised the ‘damaging’ agreement, and said that many aspects’ of it need to be changed, Duque has taken a softer stance, saying that he doesn’t want to ‘tear the agreement to shreds’, but wishes to ‘make it clear that a Colombia at peace is a Colombia where peace meets justice’. Rodrigo Londoño, the former leader of the FARC rebels and its president since becoming a political party after signing the accord, was cautiously optimistic about the election result, tweeting that he respected the ‘majority decision’.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Duque as President-elect (he’ll begin his term on 7 August 2018) is achieving his stated ambition of turn[ing]the page on the politics of polarization, insults and venom’. He will need to reconcile two wildly divergent opposing sides after a tense and deeply polarised campaign. Gustavo Petro, the defeated left-wing candidate and former mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, seems to have energised his supporters further despite losing the vote to Duque by over ten percentage points in the second round of voting.

Petro’s popularity appeared to grow between the first and the second rounds of voting. In addition to winning in areas where he was always popular on the campaign trail, such as Bogotá (which has been governed by the left of Colombian politics for the past decade), Petro topped the vote share in areas including the Departamentos (regions) of Cali, Barranquilla, Cartagena, Santa Marta, Pasto, Riohacha, Popayán, Tunja, Quibdó, Pasto, Mocoa, Mitú and Sincelejo.

In some of these areas, the vote share of both major candidates was reduced by smaller and independent parties (the third most popular candidate in the first round of voting, Sergio Fajardo, won in the first round of voting in Bogotá, Cali and Tunja).

In his conciliation speech, Petro seemed defiant, calling on his supporters to fight to ensure that their country did not ‘take paths which could hurt your children, your family, and your society’. His only admission of defeat was that himself and his supporters would not form a government ‘for now’, echoing the words of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez after his unsuccessful coup in 1992.

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Petro also issued a challenge to Duque to break from some of the hardline political allies who had backed his presidential campaign, such as Uribe.

Arguably one of Colombia’s most divisive presidents, Uribe held office between 2002 and 2010. He has been accused of collaborating with drug traffickers during the 1990s in documents recently declassified by the US State Department and was criticised for his handling of the military campaign against FARC rebels. Uribe and Duque have been closely associated since Duque worked for the Inter-American Development Bank between 2001 and 2013, when he served as an international adviser to Uribe’s government. He was later elected a Senator representing Uribe’s party in 2014.

Duque said in his very first speech following his victory that he was going to dedicate ‘all his energy’ to uniting the country and removing ‘divisions’. His subsequent announcement that he will nominate Uribe (now a senator) as the next president of the Colombian Congress is unlikely to endear him to Petro’s supporters, even if he insists he will chart his own course.


Deputy Editor 2017-18, International Editor 2015-17. Languages graduate interested in Latin America, world news, media and politics.

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