Is Colombia Ready for a Leftist President?

Election front-runner Gustavo Petro is a former left-wing guerrilla.

By , a podcast intern at Foreign Policy.
Gustavo Petro, Colombian presidential candidate for the Historic Pact coalition, gestures at the presidential candidate for the Team for Colombia coalition, Federico Gutiérrez, during a presidential debate at the headquarters of El Tiempo in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 23.
Gustavo Petro, Colombian presidential candidate for the Historic Pact coalition, gestures at the presidential candidate for the Team for Colombia coalition, Federico Gutiérrez, during a presidential debate at the headquarters of El Tiempo in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 23.
Gustavo Petro, Colombian presidential candidate for the Historic Pact coalition, gestures at the presidential candidate for the Team for Colombia coalition, Federico Gutiérrez, during a presidential debate at the headquarters of El Tiempo in Bogotá, Colombia, on May 23. YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Colombians head to the polls on Sunday to vote in the first round of a presidential election that could transform Latin America. Colombia is the only major country in the region that has never elected a left-wing president, and according to recent polls, that’s likely to change. The front-runner is Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla turned economist and politician whose populist message is resonating with voters tired of high levels of inequality.

Petro, 62, is no newcomer to politics. He previously served as a legislator as well as mayor of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, and has run for president twice before. Petro came close to winning the last election, in 2018, when he challenged current conservative President Iván Duque Márquez. The incumbent, who faces a one-term limit, now has a disapproval rating of 75 percent.

Petro has a real chance at beating this year’s conservative candidate, Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez. But his campaign has also polarized a country that has suffered through decades of Marxist-inspired conflict. Petro’s rise reflects the broad instability Colombia has experienced over the last few years.

Colombians head to the polls on Sunday to vote in the first round of a presidential election that could transform Latin America. Colombia is the only major country in the region that has never elected a left-wing president, and according to recent polls, that’s likely to change. The front-runner is Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla turned economist and politician whose populist message is resonating with voters tired of high levels of inequality.

Petro, 62, is no newcomer to politics. He previously served as a legislator as well as mayor of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, and has run for president twice before. Petro came close to winning the last election, in 2018, when he challenged current conservative President Iván Duque Márquez. The incumbent, who faces a one-term limit, now has a disapproval rating of 75 percent.

Petro has a real chance at beating this year’s conservative candidate, Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez. But his campaign has also polarized a country that has suffered through decades of Marxist-inspired conflict. Petro’s rise reflects the broad instability Colombia has experienced over the last few years.


How did we get here?

Right-wing leaders have dominated Colombian politics for most of the country’s history. Since the 1970s, they have received U.S. backing as part of the so-called war on drugs and profited from fear about leftist dictatorships elsewhere in South America, such as in Venezuela.

During the Cold War period, the Colombian government also became ensnared in a decades long conflict with the far-left Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, which was only settled recently in 2016 with a peace deal. Duque, then a senator, was opposed to the agreement. When he was elected in 2018, Duque pledged that he would crack down on armed groups—not just the FARC but also the National Liberation Army (ELN) and cartels like the Gulf Clan, which launched an armed strike in northern Colombia this month. The ELN has declared a 10-day cease-fire to ensure a safe election.

Some analysts criticize Duque for not fully implementing the peace deal and harming the demobilized rural communities where its socioeconomic provisions are needed most. His backing has declined further as a result of state violence against protesters. Last year, thousands of Colombians took to the streets to protest a tax reform that would disproportionately affect working- and middle-class citizens. At least 44 civilians died from excessive police force.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated inequality in Colombia, which is the third most unequal country in Latin America. As of 2020, more than 40 percent of Colombians lived in poverty, up 6.8 percentage points from 2019. Many voters believe the government has fallen short on its promises and appear ready for a new leader.


Who’s running, and what are they promising?

Colombia’s election features six presidential and vice presidential tickets. Petro heads the left-leaning “Historical Pact” coalition. He has inspired strong reactions across the political spectrum: While Petro has a considerable lead in the polls, with around 41 percent saying they would vote for him, he also faces the highest disapproval rate of any candidate at 37 percent.

Petro’s proposals include raising taxes on the rich and moving Colombia toward a greener economy by cutting production of oil and coal, the country’s two main exports. His 12-year plan involves boosting the tourism sector to replace lost fossil fuel revenue. Petro’s focus on reducing economic inequality has appealed to many Colombians reeling from the pandemic and inflation. But his former membership in the M-19 guerrilla group and his occasionally combative tone have raised concerns in a country with a history of violence. Petro has said if he does not receive strong congressional support, he would impose an economic emergency to pass his policies.

Petro’s main contender is Gutiérrez, 47, who leads the conservative “We Believe Colombia” coalition. A civil engineer and the former mayor of Medellín, Gutiérrez is polling at 27 percent. His campaign has focused on education reform as well as anti-crime and anti-poverty measures, such as creating a basic income for 5 million poor households and providing free tertiary education for lower-income students. He also advocates reducing market regulations and has earned the endorsement of Colombia’s business class.

Engineer and former mayor of Bucaramanga, Rodolfo Hernández Suárez, has avoided forming coalitions with other groups and is running as an independent with the League of Anti-Corruption Governors. Of voters, 21 percent said they intend to vote for Hernández, 77, who has self-financed his campaign. He has developed a strong social media presence to spread his anti-establishment platform, which, as his party’s name would suggest, focuses on combating corruption. But some question his promises. In August 2021, local outlet Vanguardia released audio of Hernández asking congressional candidates for money to be placed on the league’s legislative list.

The other main candidate is Sergio Fajardo, 65, the former governor of Antioquia who leads the centrist “Hope Center” coalition. Polling at about 5 percent, Fajardo aims to improve education standards by lowering the cost of university tuition. However, his campaign has been marred by ongoing legal proceedings at Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice, where he faces embezzlement charges for a $98 million loan contract he secured during his time as governor.

An industrial engineer with experience in finance, John Milton Rodríguez, 52, is running under the banner of the conservative Colombia Justa Libres party. Polling at less than 1 percent, Rodríguez’s platform is based on traditional Christian values on family and work.

Last in the running is Enrique Gómez Martínez, 53, a lawyer from Bogotá and the candidate of the conservative National Salvation Movement. Although his family has a history in Colombian politics, his poll numbers barely register. Martínez campaigned on new justice reforms and helping secure agricultural rights.


What is the role of vice presidential candidates in all this? 

Colombian presidential candidates’ vice presidential picks have gained outsized publicity this year because four out of the six are Afro-Colombian. In a country with one of the largest Black populations in Latin America, this shift has forced Colombians to grapple with conversations about race and racism rarely heard in the national discourse.

Hernández has chosen Marelen Castillo, who has experience in education and organizational leadership. Rodríguez’s vice presidential candidate is Sandra de las Lajas Torres, who has experience in public administration and been a longtime advocate for Afro-Colombian rights. But while Castillo and Torres’s candidacies are groundbreaking, most agree there are only two contenders with a fighting chance to become the first Black vice president in Colombia’s history.

One top vice presidential contender is Luis Gilberto Murillo, former governor of the predominantly Afro-Colombian state of Chocó and Fajardo’s running mate. His vision for Colombia is one of a country that reinvests in science, education, and technology as well as recommits itself to the implementation of the FARC peace accord. Murillo argues that a stronger security presence in rural areas is necessary to protect civilians. Although his experience in public policy is plentiful, Murillo’s perceived elitism—he was educated abroadmay be the very thing Colombians have tired of.

However, it is Petro’s vice presidential pick, Francia Márquez, who has garnered the most media attention. An environmental lawyer and activist, Márquez has never held political office but won third place in the left-leaning presidential primary that formed Petro’s coalition. She stands to be the first Black female vice president in the nation’s history. But her rhetoric on privilege and race has also made her the target of racist tropes and death threats.

Marquez’s fight to be included on the ticket has made conversations about inclusion central to the presidential race, yet it also continues to polarize Colombians as they head to the polls. Márquez has proved unafraid to push Petro toward a more feminist platform and has openly criticized his record on women’s issues. Her candidacy is projected to attract more women voters at the risk of losing centrist support.


How does the two-round election work?

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, a second round of voting will take place on June 19. Given current poll numbers, this is virtually guaranteed.

The more than 39 million Colombians registered to vote so far will choose candidates from a ballot that lists eight tickets rather than six. This is because some candidates have dropped out since ballots were finalized. A vote for one of the withdrawn candidates, such as centrist Íngrid Betancourt, will automatically go to the candidate who received their endorsement (in Betancourt’s case, Hernández).

Colombia is unique in that it grants its voters the option of a “voto en blanco,” the constitutionally recognized way of expressing dissatisfaction with candidates. Although it is not projected to happen, a majority “voto en blanco” would automatically trigger a new election with different candidates.

One major change in this election is that the Colombia-Venezuela border has been temporarily opened to allow more than 195,000 Colombian nationals living in Venezuela to enter Colombia to vote. Colombian consulates in Venezuela have been closed since the 2019 breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries.


What challenges will Colombia’s next president face?

According to polls, more than 74 percent of Colombians believe their country is headed in the wrong direction. Some of the biggest challenges facing the next administration will be addressing inequality and poverty as well as dealing with drug trafficking and regional geopolitical issues.

Cocaine production in Colombia has risen significantly in recent years. It is a major source of income for the country and at times exceeds the value of its legal exports. The next administration must have a plan in place to provide effective economic alternatives for the agricultural players involved. This includes developing strategic relationships with the Indigenous reserves, Afro-Colombian communities, and natural parks—where half of all coca crops are located.

On the international stage, Colombia remains on the front line of Venezuela’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. Colombia has received the largest number of Venezuelan refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants of any country, and more than 1.8 million Venezuelans live in Colombia as of August 2021. The government’s open-door policy and Duque’s decision to provide a pathway to citizenship for these migrants has strained hospitals and other public services.

The next president will have to decide whether to restore diplomatic ties with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Although Gutiérrez remains critical of the Maduro regime and opposes renewed ties, Petro believes that better relations would help the countries revive trade and regain control of their shared border. This would put Colombia at odds with its longtime allies in Washington, which do not recognize the Maduro regime.

Correction, May 29, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated Hernández’s vote intention rate as his approval rate and stated that M-19 was explicitly tied to Marxism instead of having just advocated for left-leaning nationalist reforms.

Maria Ximena Aragon is a podcast intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @menitaaragon

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