Ken Frankel is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas
In Colombia’s first presidential elections since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement ending its 50-year war with the FARC insurgency, candidates have competed on issues that affect people’s daily lives and future prospects, rather than who can claim the firmest hand in dealing with armed conflict and real or exaggerated threats.
Political space has been opened for a broader discussion. This is especially true on the left, which had traditionally hewn closer to the centre than elsewhere in Latin America for fear of being branded by the right as soft on the security file.
In first-round voting, candidates who backed the peace accord from the beginning received 59 per cent of the votes. Though they lamented the government’s inadequate preparation in implementing aspects of the accord, they agreed that Colombia had to turn the page.
However, the only major candidate who had originally opposed the peace agreement, Ivan Duque, received 39 per cent of the vote.
Mr. Duque was chaperoned through the right-wing primary election by former president Alvaro Uribe, one of Latin America’s most dominant, wily and polarizing political figures of his generation. Likely sensing that the right needed an image and issue makeover and couldn’t continue to rely exclusively on the war theme, Mr. Uribe chose Mr. Duque. The bright, affable 41-year-old with brief but effective senatorial experience has virtually no political baggage.
His platform reads in part like the worthy programmatic priority list of the Inter-American Development Bank, where he worked for nine years.
He’s walked back his rhetoric on the peace agreement, and now proposes changing select provisions. It’s anyone’s guess how destabilizing to the peace agreement that manoeuvre could be. His plan to restructure the court system is viewed warily by the opposition as a veiled attempt to politicize and control the courts. With an asterisk on the court system proposal, there is nothing extreme on face value about Mr. Duque’s proposals.
But Colombian politics are never about face value. Backstory always plays an important role, and for Mr. Duque’s candidacy, his political patron saint has been Mr. Uribe.
Even though many of his detractors credit Mr. Uribe with successfully battling the FARC so that they had to negotiate their surrender, they would rather sacrifice their first-born child than vote for anyone associated with him. They accuse him of engaging in the darkest shades of black political arts – the judicial accounting of which is still pending.
While Mr. Duque may be a good choice to put a modern and more moderate face on Colombia’s right, his opponent in the second round, Gustavo Petro, is not the ideal torchbearer from the left.
Experts polled by the country’s leading conservative newspaper agreed that Mr. Petro has presented the best diagnosis of Colombia’s structural ills. He is bright and an effective orator, both of which served him well as a senator leading the fight to investigate alleged human-rights abuses committed by Mr. Uribe, among others.
His detractors decry his prescriptions for some of the maladies – expropriating for a price uncultivated land to distribute to landless labourers (since rescinded), and convening a constitutional convention (since rescinded) – as looking like a page ripped from Fidel Castro’s and Hugo Chavez’s playbook. This narrative is supported by Mr. Petro’s tardy condemnation of Venezuela’s Chavista regime, and his autocratic and controversial rule as mayor of Bogota.
Though their politics are polarized, most Colombians are united in their disgust for corruption, cronyism and political vitriol. These were central campaign themes of third-place finisher, centrist Sergio Fajardo, whose mayoral and gubernatorial administrations posted clean records. Heeding the first-round signals, Colombia’s Senate last week unanimously passed an anti-corruption bill that enjoyed only moderate support a couple of months ago.
But for questionable alliances Mr. Fajardo made and didn’t make, he may have secured a few hundred thousand more votes, advanced to the second round and become the best bet to win the presidency. Then analysts would have been talking about the beginning of a new era in Colombian politics.
The winning candidate will be held accountable for running a transparent government and for closing the social and economic gaps. Colombia is tied with Brazil as the eighth most unequal country in the world, and the 96th least corrupt, facts which Mr. Petro constantly reminds voters.
Mr. Duque will most likely be the victor and he will be judged in part by his performance in the complex implementation of a successful FARC peace agreement, regardless of his feelings about it.
His greatest challenge will be his greatest opportunity: bridging the political chasm and civilizing political discourse. If successful, he would stake a claim to the emerging but still uncongealed political centre. Were he to fail, then Colombians may be primed next time to elect a more disruptive candidate.