On Sunday, Colombians will go to the polls for the second round of the Presidential Elections in which leftist candidate Gustavo Petro will face off against the extreme right-wing candidate, Iván Duque. These elections are a key moment in the country’s history. Colombia is a country that has not once had a leftist president. Its political system has been dominated by a traditional oligarchy that consistently serves the interests of international capital, large landowners and perpetuates the violence and war that has ravaged the country for over 60 years.
For many, these elections boil down to the choice of breaking with status quo and fighting for a humane Colombia, where the majority has an opportunity for a dignified life or a continuation of the same model of governance that has made the country a land of inequality, violence, insecurity and corruption.
So who are the two candidates? Iván Duque is a young and relatively inexperienced Senator from the Democratic Center Party led by ex-President Alvaro Uribe and has been the favorite candidate of the latter since the beginning of the campaign. Many see no difference between Duque and Uribe as it is Uribe’s influence that won Duque the candidacy and his proposed cabinet is full of former Uribe government officials and extreme right-wing politicians.
For example, Maria Paula Correa, the proposed Foreign Minister in Duque’s government, was the Advisor to the Chief of Staff of Uribe, and has recently been working for the global conservative organization Concordia.
Then, there is Alejandro Ordoñez, who Duque is likely to tap for Minister of Defence. Ordoñez, also from the Democratic Center Party, was the Inspector General of Colombia for 7 years and is infamous for his extremely conservative and religious right-wing ideology. In 1985, in his city Bucaramanga, he participated in a book burning outside a public library in which books by pornographic magazines, Gabriel García Márquez, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx were all burned. Ordoñez’s time as Inspector General was also marked by statements and actions that were extremely homophobic, anti-sex worker and misogynist. He has also been a fierce opponent of the FARC peace process.
Ordoñez was also responsible for exploiting an orchestrated crisis to persecute Gustavo Petro when he was the mayor of Bogotá. The incident took place during a transition from private to public management of the waste management system in the city. The private operators stopped their trash collection three days before the public operation went into effect, which led to a paralysis of the garbage collection system. Ordoñez used this crisis to suspend Petro from his position and it wasn’t until 4 months later, following the intervention of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, that he was reinstated. It is significant to note that recently, trash was not collected in many parts of Bogotá for several days but the current mayor, the conservative Enrique Peñalosa, did not face any action.
These are just two of the people that are likely to be part of Duque’s government. The biggest fear though, in the event of a Duque victory, is the influence Alvaro Uribe will have on the country. Uribe’s 8 years as President were among the bloodiest in Colombia’s history. His government took an extremely brutal approach to the internal armed conflict and essentially attempted to annihilate the guerillas and anyone associated with them. This led to the forced disappearance of around 32,000 people during his term, the illegal wiretapping of opposition politicians, journalists and activists, the extrajudicial executions of thousands in the ‘false positives scandal’, countless massacres and the extermination of almost an entire generation of social leaders and human rights defenders. Uribe currently has more than 270 open cases against him, linking him to paramilitary groups, narco-trafficking, corruption rings, massacres, land disputes and more.
On the other hand, Petro represents a complete change from this status quo. A former M-19 guerrilla fighter, he demobilized during the peace talks and has been involved in legal political life since the 1990s as part of various left-wing political parties. As mayor of Bogotá from 2012-2015, he was responsible for significant changes in the capital city. His approach to governance was termed Humane Bogotá, with policies focused on the advancement and progress of the citizens and the most marginalized in the city. His administration oversaw the creation of the Women’s Secretariat, the inauguration of the LGBTI Citizenship Center, an increase in access to birth control and abortion, the promotion of the conservation of the wetlands of Bogotá and the creation Mobile Attention Centers for Drug Addicts (CAMAD), among other things.
His presidential platform talks about health care for all, free higher education, housing, transition from fossil fuels and an extractive economy to renewable energy, land redistribution, an end to subcontracting and a strengthening of workers’ rights, renewed attention to peasant and small farmer agricultural production, no more obligatory military service, an end to the politics of war and total support for the peace talks and agreements.
His campaign has established alliances with people’s movements, trade unions, victims’ organizations, left-wing parties, civil society groups, academics and prominent cultural figures.
The right-wing says Petro will turn Colombia into Venezuela, that his proposed policies are ‘castro-chavista’, and that they will ruin Colombia. They have used fake news, slander and media campaigns to spread lies and fear among the Colombian population, and sway their opinion. The entire political elite has united against Petro. After the first round of elections, all the non-left parties have extended support to Duque and some sections of the center-left have stated that though they will not vote for Duque, they will instead cast a blank vote in rejection of both ‘extremes’.
Nonetheless, many have high expectations of this Sunday’s elections. It is the first time the FARC will participate in politics as a legal entity. The National Liberation Army (ELN) that is now conducting peace talks with the government in Havana has announced a temporary ceasefire so that all can freely exercise their right to vote. Colombia today is at a crossroads and its citizens have before them the possibility of ensuring that the peace process continue and peace agreements are respected, and that a brighter future be created for millions of Colombians who have historically been denied the most basic need such as health, education, housing and a life free from violence. In case Duque wins, however,, it will be a continuation of the life that the country’s people and social movements are familiar with – of relentless struggle on the streets and in the courts to demand that the government guarantee their right to a dignified life.