Ken Frankel is the president of the Canadian Council for the Americas.
The Colombian political right couldn’t help itself in the lead-up to the country’s presidential election this weekend. Blinded by the hubris of perceived invincibility, it doubled down on its winning 2018 bet that Colombia would never vote for a left-wing candidate, at least not a former guerrilla that fought for the now-defunct M-19 militia like Gustavo Petro.
Having beaten Mr. Petro comfortably in the previous election with candidate Ivan Duque, an inexperienced protégé of ex-president Alvaro Uribe, the right hopscotched from one presidential candidate to another over the course of the campaign until only recently landing on Rodolfo Hernandez, a wealthy, relatively unknown 77-year-old, and a former mayor of a midsize city with a mixed bag of troubling and intriguing pronouncements. (The irony seemed lost on the right that Mr. Hernandez apparently supports LGBTQ+ rights, same-sex adoption and the Colombian Supreme Court’s decision upholding abortion rights – anathema to many of their own supporters.) The right’s approach reflected a lack of intellectual consistency, in the name of finding anyone to beat Mr. Petro, who the right believes would turn Colombia inexorably into a “Castrochavista” state in the image of its neighbour, Venezuela.
But this time, that bogeyman wasn’t enough to carry the right to victory. Mr. Petro was elected as Colombia’s next president in a runoff election on Sunday. Colombia has entered new territory with its leftist president-elect, as well as the country’s first Black vice-president-elect, Francia Marquez.
Presenting a coherent or compelling vision to address Colombian social exigencies appeared to be a distant consideration for his opponents. One might have thought this would be the right’s first priority; if 2019′s student demonstrations and the overreaction of Colombia’s security agents weren’t enough to highlight the country’s cracking social fault lines, then surely the large-scale disturbances in 2021 should have convinced the right that political circumstances had changed.
Now, in what is perhaps the most ironic result of a campaign that was laced with ironies, the right’s weakened congressional presence may force it to engage in transitory alliances with Humberto de la Calle, the moderate-left elder statesman who was the architect of the peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla group in 2016 – the bête noire of many on the right. Mr. de la Calle seems well-positioned to be a key Senate broker in determining the fate of the president-elect’s proposals.
So while the Colombian left was able to avoid the global left’s tendency toward political fratricide, the Colombian right couldn’t avoid its own bad habits: refusing to accommodate a broader desire for progressive change.
The country that told the world it would never vote left has now elected an unapologetic leftist, propelled in part by historic turnout in the most marginalized, “forgotten” regions of Colombia. Mr. Petro’s campaign engineered that success by promising to address glaring deficits, including in access to basic services, economic opportunities and pensions, soaring inflation of food staples, growing violence in rural areas, and corruption.
Mr. Petro pledges to follow the road map for agrarian reform, an imperative for addressing a host of critical social and economic ills. That plan was set out in Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, but it languished under Mr. Duque’s presidency.
However, several of Mr. Petro’s proposals seem implausible or are fiscally and macroeconomically quixotic. His recent statements have emphasized that he would never expropriate lands or infringe on property rights, but previous comments have led his opponents to interpret his intentions otherwise.
Congress will presumably exercise a moderating role, but it will be expected to approve progressive, well-calibrated changes required by a disquieted citizenry.
The open question is whether Mr. Petro, with a history of autocratic, stubborn behaviour and with some unsavory allies in his entourage, can seize his historic opportunity to forge a progressive coalition for change. He will need it to deal successfully with Congress and a vast swath of Colombians.
His campaign rhetoric of peace, dialogue and bridge-building is betrayed by a history of more rancorous sentiments well-earned in his long fight against, among others, illegal paramilitary violence and its apologists in Congress.
Mr. Petro has compared himself with Gabriel Boric, Chile’s recently installed 36-year-old President who many see as an open and thoughtful leader of the “new left.” Mr. Boric’s rhetoric is resolute, but he is also conciliatory and self-effacing.
If Mr. Petro, who grew up in the golden age of Cold War paradigms, can mimic at least some of Mr. Boric’s demeanor, then he may have the opportunity to make history for more than just breaking the right-wing’s lock on the country. If Colombia’s right drags its feet on required changes, then Mr. Petro will need to find new avenues to advance his agenda.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.