CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Colombia with Gina Romero, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad).
Founded in 2008, RedLad promotes the full exercise of democracy as a way of life for the common good in the Americas. It undertakes advocacy in the inter-American human rights system; research through the Citizen Observatory on Corruption, Observatory on Freedom of Religion and Belief, reporting on 11 countries for the CIVICUS Monitor; work to open democratic dialogue within civil society and among civil society and international bodies, governments, the private sector and others; action to strengthen the capacities of Latin American civil society through leadership training; and advocacy in defence of the rights of vulnerable populations.
How would you assess the choice available between the two candidates in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election?
It was very revealing that both candidates called themselves ‘anti-system’, positioned themselves against traditional politics and ran outside traditional political parties. Colombian citizens are tired of the long hegemony of traditional parties and of political elites who are also economic elites.
The defeated candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, represents a right-wing political sector, although his campaign sought to emphasise his closeness to the people by championing the fight against corruption, despite the fact that he is under investigation for corruption. The winning candidate, Gustavo Petro, represents a left-wing position. The fact that a leftist option was elected for the first time in history says a lot about citizens’ social demands, the same ones that have been expressed publicly on the streets since 2019.
I believe that the second round was not a polarised confrontation between an extreme right and an extreme left, but rather a confrontation between innovative – one could say populist – proposals outside traditional politics, and particularly against the legacy of former president Álvaro Uribe, which is also embodied by the outgoing incumbent, Iván Duque.
A citizenry fed up with politics and social inequality, which has intensified as a result of the pandemic, made for a ticking bomb that manifested itself in the elections. It is great that this found expression through democratic channels, rather than through political violence, as used to be the case in the past.
How do you interpret the fact that Hernández made it into the second round?
Hernández’s presence in the runoff was quite surprising, since the candidates that were thought to have a chance were Federico Gutiérrez and Gustavo Petro. His discourse was one of closeness to citizens. He campaigned hard on social media, especially TikTok, and focused on the problems people systematically prioritise in the polls, such as corruption.
Hernández was seen as a simple person, who speaks very simply to ordinary citizens, while other candidates’ discourse sounded too lofty. He convinced many people with the argument that, as a millionaire, he would not steal like the others, and would even refuse the president’s salary. He also mobilised many people who do not understand what it means for Colombia to be going through a peace process, who voted ‘no’ in the 2016 referendum on the peace deal, and who had previously elected right-wing presidents such as Duque and Uribe.
Added to Hernández’s attractiveness were the big mistakes of centre parties and the fear elicited by Petro, both for being from the left and for being accompanied by a Black vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, who had been a domestic worker and graduated from college at the age of 39. All this contributed to Hernández’s success in the first round, despite the fact that he is completely unfamiliar with politics and is neither fit to govern nor to do a good job as an opposition leader.
What was the campaign for the runoffs like?
It was a campaign of strong emotions, more than any other in the past. Political emotions are what ultimately determine the course of an election.
Fear played a big role. Many people in Colombia are afraid of any left-wing project. Moreover, Colombia is a racist, classist and misogynist country, so a candidate like Márquez also caused fear. I met few people who would vote for Hernández because they liked him rather than because they were afraid of Petro. These people described Hernández as ‘the cute old man who fights corruption and has a lot of money’. This is how right-wing populism gets close to the people.
The anti-Petro campaign circulated disinformation with the sole objective of generating fear, much as had happened in the campaign for the peace referendum. Among these unfounded fears was that Colombia would become a new Venezuela, as Petro would want to stay in power forever, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez once did. People repeated this uncritically without realising that, in Colombia, the one who wanted to do this was Uribe, through a constitutional change in 2004 that allowed him to renew his mandate and stay in office for eight years, after which he tried to do it again.
Another idea associated with Venezuela’s fate was that of impoverishment, currency devaluation and hyperinflation. There was also much talk of the possible business reaction sector to a left-wing government and the supposed large outflow of companies from the Colombian market that would follow. It is true that the dollar rose the week after the election – as it did in Chile when Gabriel Boric won – but the dollar has been rising in recent years and the initial increase has not been catastrophic.
Fear was also instilled among the public with the irresponsible use of the term ‘guerrilla’ in reference to Petro, who had in the past been a militant in the M19, a now-deactivated guerrilla group. Petro has had a long civilian political career since, and for decades has had nothing to do with any group outside the law. But the stigma remains, which shows how far Colombia still has to go in its reconciliation process.
Disinformation and digital violence also targeted the two female candidates who ran in this election, Ingrid Betancourt – who stood in the first round of the presidential election – and Márquez. Much research on digital violence argues that when women are in politics, personal information about them is used and facts are misrepresented. But in the case of Márquez, there was real racialised hate speech. Horrible things were said about her, both because of her personal history and her past as a very poor woman, and because she is a Black woman. The worst racist and misogynist jokes were told.
Colombia needs a profound reflection on how we construct the identity of the other and how we recognise ourselves as a multicultural country. Cali is the city with the second largest Afro-descendant population on the continent, and the entire Colombian Pacific is full of Afro and Indigenous people. But there is a systemic racism that was very apparent in the campaign.
For the most part, mainstream media have done much wrong by echoing hate speech. A week before the second round, for example, Semana magazine ran a sensationalist cover story wondering who would get elected, the engineer or the former guerrilla fighter. The ex-guerrilla fighter is also an economist, but this was not about the candidates’ professions, but rather about giving a frightening message. In the last months of the campaign, Petro was forced to deny many things, while Hernández hid and refused to participate in any debate.
Thus, we were sold the idea that we were ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and had to choose the ‘least worst’ candidate. A public narrative was mounted that since the political elite was not represented in this election, all that was on offer was simply bad.
What kind of voter backed the candidates?
There was a fairly close overlap between the Colombia that voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the peace accords, the Colombia that in the past elected Duque and the Colombia that now voted for Hernández. It is made up of culturally conservative citizens who fear change, have identified with traditional political elites and have not been drawn to the peace process or felt the appeal of political progressivism. Hernández’s voters in the cities and other parts of the country fear processes of inclusion of vulnerable populations and hardly include Indigenous or Afro-descendant parts of the population. In places with the largest Indigenous populations Petro won with unprecedented numbers.
The Colombia that voted ‘yes’ in the referendum coincides with the Colombia that voted for Petro. This is the Colombia of the margins, which brings together the least developed regions of the country. Big cities, with the exception of Medellín, also voted for Petro. This is an urban bloc, which Márquez defines as a citizenry made up of ‘nobodies’. The people who voted for Petro are largely a frustrated citizenry that has been affected by corruption like no other, who are not part of the political elite and who have been historically relegated by development processes. These are people who have little, who see in Petro a promise of improvement. Previous candidates have offered no real solutions to their problems – not even a chance of feeling involved.
The country is divided, but this is not a new division. Past governments have failed to reconcile these differences. We have two Colombias, with immense polarisation: in the elections with the highest participation in the past 20 years, Petro won by just 800,000 votes. That means there are 10 million people who oppose Petro and 11 million who support him. Petro will have to learn how to speak to these two facets of Colombia and ensure that the Colombia that did not vote for him does not feel left behind.
What are civil society’s expectations or fears following the result?
Whoever wins, our work as civil society will always remain the same. But personally, seeing what happened when Petro was mayor of Bogotá, I fear that revanchism could hinder the government’s progress. Polarisation, hate speech and the manipulation of institutions can have very serious effects. The potential reaction of the markets to a left-wing government is also a source of fear.
There is also the fact that Petro is a very passionate person, and often does not communicate in the best possible way; both his and Hernández’s campaigns attacked the press when media criticised them. The press has a fundamental role, and this can be very annoying for any government, but it is essential that it has sufficient guarantees to do its job. There are fears that Petro could be very hostile to the press that is critical of his government.
Organisations that, like RedLad, engage in international advocacy, are concerned about how Petro will position himself in relation to other Latin American leftists. Currently Latin America has a left that is the source of a lot of hope, that proposes change and is different from the traditional left; this is the left represented by Boric in Chile. But there is also the left of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, not to mention the lefts of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have caused serious civic space crises. I think Petro is somewhere in the middle and faces the dilemma of who to side with. I think he should go along a more proactive and development-friendly left.
Although Petro’s party, Pacto Histórico, achieved good legislative representation in the March 2022 parliamentary election, the transformations he has put on the table are quite broad and deep, and their success they will require a wide political agreement, something that is complex to achieve in Colombia. If this is not achieved, the people who voted for Petro and believed his promises will be frustrated. It will be interesting to see how this government, elected under the banner of the 2019 mobilisations, will respond to people if they happen to mobilise again.
For the great expectations it has created not to wane, Petro’s government will need to score some early victories, showing progress in advancing the peace process and decreasing the number of assassinations of social leaders. I hope that Petro makes progress on international commitments, that civic space is not further reduced but expanded, and that the freedoms of assembly and expression are guaranteed.
Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
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