Publish in Perspectives - Wednesday, November 17, 2021
Left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro is currently leading the polls, but there’s significant space for movement in the political realm between now and the elections that may throw the race off-balance. (Photo: Twitter/Petrogustavo)
Colombia’s electoral outlook will remain obscure until March next year.
BY JUAN DIEGO ÁVILA
AND SERGIO GUZMÁN
Don’t pay attention to the voter intention polls at this moment - six months before the first round of the 2022 presidential election in Colombia. The only certain thing that anyone can tell you about the race is that it remains too early to call. Although left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro is currently leading the polls there’s significant space for movement in the political realm between now and the elections that may throw the race off-balance. That, unfortunately, is not an answer that appeals to investors or clients who want more clarity on an election that could likely turn the tide of Colombian politics for decades to come.
More nuances can be obtained when analyzing how the three different political sectors, the left, the center, and the right, and how each of them faces its own conundrums.
The left has figured out a while ago that its frontrunner Petro needs to improve his political capital ahead of the elections, considering the fears he stokes inside the business community and Colombia’s traditional political establishment, not to mention the military. Petro and his supporters have to give skeptical voters reasons to believe that real change is possible if they win the vote - all the more reason to overpromise a radically different vision for the country. They also are acutely aware that the political machine is against them, which has driven them to enroll traditional party hacks of their own, such as Roy Barreras and Armando Benedetti. Moreover, they have made a point of including a diverse group of afro-Colombians, indigenous leaders, and rural residents among their candidates - not only showing other parties that they skew white, male, and urban when selecting candidates. Finally, Petro has made a point to bring into the fold fresh faces including social media influencers to give his electoral effort a veneer of youthful idealism.
For their part, the right-wing has traditionally used fear of an external agent as a successful electoral strategy. Their economic policy bona-fides have also been useful to promote the idea of economic stability and predictability that presents a soothing picture both for the business elite, as well as for the rising middle class. However, it will be hard for them to campaign on a continuity agenda, considering that President Ivan Duque’s approval rating is in the low 30s, all polls suggest voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction - despite record economic growth numbers after the pandemic. It will be hard to sell a candidate in a prospective runoff against Petro as a preferable option to prevent calamity, as that was exactly the argument eschewed by Duque in 2018, and things did not turn out so well for voters then. The low favorability of former President Alvaro Uribe, who has yet to endorse any presidential candidate, will also play a central role in framing the electoral narrative.
The center seems to agree on only one thing. They are neither petristas nor uribistas. On paper, this is their race to lose, as experienced and well-regarded public figures such as Sergio Fajardo, Alejandro Gaviria, and Juan Manuel Galán appeal to the vast majority of voters who don’t identify with the left - out of the fears it provokes - or the right -due to its track record during the Duque administration. Presently, however, centrist candidates seem intent on self-destruction. The margins between the candidates are so slim six months ahead of the elections, and four months ahead of the primaries, that no candidate sees an advantage of conceding the race to a competitor. Instead, many will hold off until the primaries for a moment when their stock as candidates becomes more valuable and gives them leverage to negotiate with a would-be centrist candidate. While this happens, they run the risk of fatiguing both voters and other politicians who will be tired of the gimmicks and choose sides before it's too late.
There is a race that is arguably more important than the presidential race, the battle for Congress. Getting majorities in Congress will be a challenge for all parties, and lead to growing friction between the executive and the legislative in the next government - whoever may lead it. All political parties grow weaker by the day. Corruption scandals, high salaries, and disconnect showed by members of Congress during the pandemic have meant a loss of legitimacy for this institution. Among youth voters, the trend is to vote for “independent” candidates to the traditional parties, but it runs a risk of attracting people with no legislative experience (such as social media influencers and sports figures) and populists to the elections.
There are no public polls to determine the composition of Colombia’s next congress. However, we believe that the current right-wing majority is likely to decline and centrists and left-wing parties are likely to see their delegations grow. Nevertheless, in aggregate nobody will have a majority and there is likely to be a balance between the center, left, and right. In this scenario forming majorities would be a complex task given stark divisions in terms of political proposals and ideologies - more so for a president on the left of the political spectrum than one on the right or center, considering their willingness to negotiate.
IF PETRO WINS
An antagonistic Congress is likely to be Petro’s worst nightmare should he become president. Coupled with his divisive rhetoric, Petro also has a hard time managing teams and building lasting alliances. His term is likely to be characterized by in-fighting and disarray within the cabinet. Furthermore, his lack of control in Congress and the checks and balances mandated by the Constitution including the Constitutional Court, the Attorney General, the Ombudsman, the Public Prosecutor, and the Comptroller General’s office are likely to constrain his most extreme impulses. Not to mention an uncooperative private sector and the military, many of whom have expressed reservations about serving under a president who took arms against the state - even though it was over 30 years ago.
Petro may become more frustrated as time goes on and use the Constitutional Assembly playbook, followed by other populist Latin American presidents. However, proposing constitutional reform could face some setbacks such as the lack of majorities in Congress and a staunchly independent Constitutional Court. Since 2002, two referenda initiatives in Colombia have failed to pass the threshold, the first includes Alvaro Uribe’s first attempt (while he had record approval levels) and the vote to implement anti-corruption reforms in 2018 which was 400 thousand votes shy of reaching the 50%+1 of voters. There’s nothing to suggest that Petro, either early in his term, or later once his policies and governance style kicks in, will manage to the majority of Colombians to get behind him. Instead, he may try to find loopholes and farfetched chances provided by the current constitution to enact his policies.
In terms of the economy, Petro has proposed far-fetched ideas such as printing money to fund social spending in education and infrastructure, weaning the economy from oil, gas, and mining, lowering rent costs, strengthening the public sector involvement in the economy, and raising taxes on the rich. It is extremely unlikely that Petro will manage to accomplish any of these things, considering the government’s dependence on Ecopetrol for revenue, the composition of the Central Bank, and growing pains in terms of capital flight and investor confidence.
Although polls suggest that Petro is the frontrunner, is still too early to call the race in his favor. He is likely to benefit from political brinksmanship and indecisiveness on the right-wing as well as the center, and so far he has been successful in making it clear to voters that he is the most ardent opponent of the status quo. Although that may be enough to catapult him to a second round, it does not guarantee a win. It also does not suggest that in the event of a victory in the second round, he will have a cooperating political environment in Congress or other branches of government.
All in all, Petro’s ascent in the electoral contest may be a signal that the country is finally turning around towards more progressive and diverse candidates with real chances of winning. It is yet to be determined if a left-wing contender will ever be able to govern unscathed in Colombia.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk
Juan Diego Ávila is an Analyst at Colombia Risk Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @juandiavil
They wrote this column for Latinvex.
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