Security and Foreign Policy

Colombia’s Leading Presidential Candidates Present Diverging Visions for the Country

Colombia's first round of presidential elections this weekend marks the first of three pivotal elections this year in Latin America. Claudia Gonzalez provides a primer on the candidates and the issues that are most crucial to voters in Colombia.


2018 has been a pivotal year for Latin America due to a number of factors, which include economic and social, but are mainly political as three out of the four largest economies in the region, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, are set to hold presidential elections. Colombia is the first one amongst the three as it heads for the first round of elections that will define voter intentions leading to the final runoff on June 17th.

At the beginning of the year, Sergio Fajardo and Gustavo Petro had positioned themselves as the leading contenders in this election, but with only three days left for the first round, voting trends have shifted. The conservative lawyer Ivan Duque is leading in the polls with 35% of the intended vote followed by Gustavo Petro, who has managed to maintain some semblance of his position.

According to a poll summary of the Council of the Americas, when asked “if the presidential election were tomorrow and you were presented with a list of candidates of: Ivan Duque; Gustavo Petro; Sergio Fajardo; Germán Vargas Lleras; Humberto de la Calle; White/Other/Don’t know, which one would you vote for?” respondents gave Ivan Duque a 35% preference, Petro 24%, Fajardo 14%, Vargas Lleras 6% and Humberto de la Calle 3%.

It is important to note that polls in Colombia have not always been accurate and reflective of the actual vote – the most recent failure to accurately depict voter intention occurred during the FARC plebiscite, where polls overestimated one position over the other by almost 30 points.

But even so, taking into account polling data, Ivan Duque’s main breakthrough in his campaign came shortly after he won the conservative primary election, when he received former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe´s endorsement. From that moment onwards, he ingenuously captured voters’ attention and continues to have a strong showing in the polls.

But in spite of his charisma and background, his relatively short stint in public service has raised some concerns. While some see his relative inexperience as an asset, preventing him from being viewed as someone who is corrupted by the elites or the system, others see his lack of political experience as a weakness leaving Alvaro Uribe to influence his government’s decisions.

But Duque´s progress may also be in part attributed to one of his leading opponents, Gustavo Petro. Gustavo Petro is likely to capture 24% vote of the vote according to the Poll Tracker of the Council of the Americas. Petro is an economist with a strong left leaning vision. He is a former Marxist rebel, who participated in M-19 guerrilla movement and was captured and imprisoned for two years, later breaking away from the guerrilla movement. Since then, he has had a longstanding career of public service and became a senator for the first time in 2006. Even though Petro´s message is one of social reconciliation, and need for further reforms, he has had a hard time convincing voters that his Marxist past will not affect his future presidency, making Colombia another Venezuela.

Equally important to the impending elections is the state of the current peace process in Colombia. Duque´s electoral base has grown tired with Santos’ leadership over the past eight years. However, most of all there is a critical need for the Colombian nation to move forward in the peace process. Taking into account that 50.21% of the electorate voted against the peace process, the electorate feels that Duque is more representative of their voter intentions.

As voters head to the polls this Sunday, they will bear in mind two crucial issues: the ongoing peace process with FARC and neighboring Venezuela’s deteriorating situation.

Addressing the implementation of the peace process will certainly be one of the most pressing issues for Colombia´s next President with both leading candidates holding opposing views.

For Ivan Duque, moving forward means tighter provisions and making the responsible parties pay for what they have done. He was previously a leading opponent of the peace process, and has promised that if he were to win the election, many substantial aspects of it would be reformed. Among these necessary reforms, he advocates for not allowing those responsible of the most violent crimes during the conflict to hold seats in Congress, as it should happen on July 20th.

On the other hand, Petro has long promised that the peace deal would remain as it is, as he firmly believes in it, but he has noted the need for social reforms to prevent the country from falling into conflict once again. In this regard, Petro notes that these reforms need to be in line with proposing better public education, health and improving living standards in the countryside.

With respect to Venezuela, Duque has been less shy about openly discussing Venezuela’s situation, for which he has promised a fund for humanitarian relief. The relief package will be structured, alongside six other measures, including bringing the Venezuelan case to the International Criminal Court and petitioning the opening of a case against Nicolas Maduro.

For Petro, Venezuela is just part of a new global vision on foreign policy for Colombia, which would encompass a more diversified policy oriented towards multilateralism. This vision includes a thorough respect for the principle of self-determination, and honoring solidarity and cooperation when dealing with another state. Thus, he notes that Colombia, under his mandate, would participate in all multilateral platforms that move towards nurturing peace in Colombia and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Since the signing of the peace process, elections in Colombia have become quintessential in understanding the future of the deal, but as the day nears, it is easy to see that Sunday’s first round is of extreme importance both for Colombians and for Latin Americans alike. Colombia’s internal peace process and the continued crisis in Venezuela, make this election extremely important to the region, since it could completely shift the regional cooperation standards. Colombia´s next leader will have to also deal with all the impediments to the implementation of the peace process. The vision that Duque presents is one that has the propensity to bring much needed change to the region. But at the same time, his position against the Colombian peace process could destabilize the already precarious framework and its implementation. Needless to say, the work is cut out for the next Colombian president as all of Latin America turns its eyes towards Colombia for the elections this weekend.

Claudia A. Gonzalez is a Political Analyst with a background in economics. She is currently an Associate at Atheneum and holds a Master’s degree in Political Science. She has attended Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Universidad Catolica Andres Bello and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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