Showdown Of Populists From Left And Right Looms In Colombia Presidential Runoff
Colombians spurned the establishment candidates in the first round of presidential voting. In the second round, on June 19, they will have to choose between Gustavo Petro, a former Marxist guerrilla, and Rodolfo Hernández a "tough-talking" businessman being compared to Donald Trump.
BOGOTÁ — Colombians went out on May 29 to make themselves heard. Early figures showed participation was higher than the first round of presidential elections in 2018, and what we saw was a motivated citizen body actively taking part in the elections to make an impact. It was a relief that — after years of social tensions — Colombians found in voting an eloquent language with which to express themselves.
The National Civil Registry also worked impeccably to dispel the unfounded fears of electoral fraud, after facing criticisms for months.
The chief loser of the election was President Iván Duque, whose electoral interventions were brazen, followed by the political parties and clans that have dominated Colombian politics in past decades.
Rejecting the establishment
The conservative current led by former president Álvaro Uribe, which effectively chose our presidents for the past 20 years except for Juan Manuel Santos's (2014) reelection, also lost. Federico Gutiérrez was clearly the continuity candidate, and President Duque intervened in his favor, which we criticized several times.
Gutiérrez had the support of the political establishment: the Democratic Center (Uribe's party), the Conservatives and the Liberals, the (center-right) U party, the Team Colombia (Equipo por Colombia) coalition (of which Gutiérrez was a co-founder), and powerful, regional clans. His defeat was both surprising and decisive, and showed Colombians have had enough of the same political names and brands. This makes the election a time for profound reflections.
Gustavo Petro supporter on May 29
Both the socialist Gustavo Petro and independent businessman Rodolfo Hernández, who will be competing in a second round — situated at opposite ends politically — represent a rejection of the political establishment.
Petro has devoted his political career to presenting himself as the opposite of the ideas defended by Uribe and his successor, Duque, who beat him to the presidency four years ago.
Hernández, while closer to the conservative currents that have been ruling the country, campaigned denouncing a political class he dubbed "corrupt" when he wasn't using uglier words. Between them they won almost 69% of all votes cast in the first round, which would have been unthinkable some years back.
Echoes Of Trump and Bolsonaro
Yet the change voters want must be constructed and implemented, and questions arise when a populist will be the executor of that change.
Colombians would do well to demand campaigns that clearly defend the country's democratic institutions.
Both candidates adopted a populist discourse, even displaying authoritarian traits, though Hernández was ahead of Petro in that sense. His campaign was built on a simplistic but aggressive discourse that spoke of "them," of "bad folk" against us "good folk." His political strategy has been rightly compared to those of presidents Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.
In the second round of voting, Colombians would do well to demand campaigns that clearly defend the country's democratic institutions. Because it is through those institutions that the nation's hopes for change, expressed in the first round of voting, can come to fruition without turning into enormous frustration, with unpredictable consequences.
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