The Realpolitik of Gustavo Petro

The lifelong outsider has built a campaign team of political insiders in an attempt to win the Colombian presidency.

By , a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University.
Petro, a man in a suit, gestures while talking in front of a blue background.
Petro, a man in a suit, gestures while talking in front of a blue background.
Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro participates in a presidential debate at the headquarters of El Tiempo newspaper in Bogotá on May 23. Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

On paper, Gustavo Petro, the front-runner in Colombia’s presidential race, wouldn’t seem likely to have gotten this far. He’s a leftist in a conservative country; an ex-rebel in a society still healing from the wounds of armed conflict; and a northerner from a middle-class family in a political system long dominated by Bogotá elites. Yet he’s within a stone’s throw of winning Colombia’s May 29 presidential election outright with a simple majority, eliminating the need for a June runoff.

Petro’s secret? Well, there are two.

The first is timing. Petro has been waiting for a moment like this for years. As a congressman, senator, and mayor of Bogotá, he built a brand as a combative populist willing to criticize Colombia’s conservative governments for corruption, inequality, and human rights abuses. He tore into right-wing populist former President Álvaro Uribe, who for a long while was the most powerful man in the country.

On paper, Gustavo Petro, the front-runner in Colombia’s presidential race, wouldn’t seem likely to have gotten this far. He’s a leftist in a conservative country; an ex-rebel in a society still healing from the wounds of armed conflict; and a northerner from a middle-class family in a political system long dominated by Bogotá elites. Yet he’s within a stone’s throw of winning Colombia’s May 29 presidential election outright with a simple majority, eliminating the need for a June runoff.

Petro’s secret? Well, there are two.

The first is timing. Petro has been waiting for a moment like this for years. As a congressman, senator, and mayor of Bogotá, he built a brand as a combative populist willing to criticize Colombia’s conservative governments for corruption, inequality, and human rights abuses. He tore into right-wing populist former President Álvaro Uribe, who for a long while was the most powerful man in the country.

If Latin American elections as of late seem to favor sprinters—just think of Pedro Castillo, who appeared out of nowhere to win Peru’s elections last year—then Petro is a marathon runner. His political rise, which started with his demobilization as part of the M-19 rebel group in 1990, took decades. Even after his turbulent spell as Bogotá’s mayor—during which Petro was controversially suspended from office for several months on charges of mismanagement—Petro retained a loyal following by consistently hammering home the message that the status quo was broken. All that gave him the appeal of an outsider even as he spent years working in politics.

Yet Petro also inspired fear. When he ran for president in 2018, his second attempt at the office, many worried he might try to install Venezuelan-style authoritarian socialism in Colombia. And his conservative opponents laid into that message. A majority of voters opted for his conservative rival, Uribe acolyte and current President Iván Duque, and Petro lost a runoff election by 12 points.

But then Colombia hit a rough patch. When the Duque government couldn’t find a way out, the country entered a downward spiral. First, there were the unprecedented mass protests over inequality, corruption, and police brutality, which erupted in waves from 2019 to 2021 and in some cases turned violent. The government responded not with solutions but with brutal police crackdowns that left dozens of people dead, tortured, or disappeared. Then there was the pandemic and the deep economic recession that followed. The Colombian economy has yet to recoup its losses, and poverty and inequality have skyrocketed. Violence in the countryside has surged, in part due to Duque’s halfhearted implementation of the 2016 peace accord designed to end the country’s decades-long armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which Duque and his right-wing allies had opposed. Violent crime in cities also intensified after a pandemic-induced lull. By early 2022, 85 percent of Colombians surveyed said they thought the country was headed in the wrong direction.

Many Colombians seem to have lost their fear of electing a leftist as long as he promises to bring change.

Now, with the status quo so broken, many Colombians seem to have lost their fear of electing a leftist as long as he promises to bring change. Petro holds an 18-point lead over his nearest rival and has filled plazas across the country with cheering supporters, while his competitors’ campaigns have stumbled along.

The second factor behind Petro’s rise is less obvious. Despite his outsider rhetoric, he has been willing this time around to get cozy with some of Colombia’s political insiders. For his third presidential run, Petro has mostly left behind his bromides against a corrupt political class. Instead, he has opted to work with some of its wiliest operators.

There’s Armando Benedetti, Petro’s right-hand man and campaign strategist—once a die-hard Uribista and later ally to Uribe’s center-right successor, Juan Manuel Santos, who helped negotiate the 2016 peace deal. There’s also Roy Barreras, formerly the president of a party founded by Uribe and later a Santos ally, who was recently reelected to the Senate on the ticket of Petro’s party. Barreras is currently under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice for alleged corruption in the management of public contracts. And those are just two examples out of dozens of ex-Petro critics from Colombia’s traditional political class who have jumped on the bandwagon. Even Colombia’s second-richest man, banker Jaime Gilinski, is backing Petro’s campaign as one of its top financiers.

And if those sound like strange bedfellows, it gets stranger. On Thursday, Barreras announced at a public meeting in Cartagena that several Conservative Party members from Colombia’s Caribbean coast had given their support to the Petro campaign. While Barreras didn’t name names, the meeting was attended by Conservative politicians linked to William Montes, who spent over seven years in prison for ties to paramilitaries, and to Enilce “The Cat” López, an alleged narcotrafficker who was convicted for her own paramilitary connections.

It’s not that Petro has entirely swapped out leftists for establishment figures. His running mate, Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian lawyer and environmental activist, is the consummate political outsider who would become Colombia’s first Black vice president. Instead, his campaign has morphed into a strange hybrid, fueled in part by idealism and in part by a chunk of the political establishment.

Petro is far from the first leftist outsider to forge pragmatic alliances with the political class to make it across the finish line. Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ran for president three times before finally winning in 2002 with the help of center-right and right-wing parties. And now he’s banking on the strategy yet again in a bid to return to office in 2023, having tapped a centrist former rival as his running mate. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pulled off a similar move in 2018, recruiting members of a right-leaning party to join his movement. In countries where establishment politicians rule the day, it makes strategic sense for lifelong outsiders to ally with insiders. It might be their only path to office.

But what Petro’s bargain would mean for his presidency should he win is an open question. Along with dialing down his anti-system rhetoric, Petro has also toned down his policy proposals since he launched his latest campaign—somewhat. His platform is mostly run-of-the mill social democracy, although for historically conservative Colombia that still represents a big change. Petro promises to boost investment in public services and protect small farmers to make Colombia a net food exporter. He also wants to stop exploration for oil—Colombia’s biggest export—and shift toward green energy. But to foot the bill, he’s advocating plans that are sure to prove divisive. They include raising taxes on the richest 4,000 Colombians; progressively taxing companies, including the mining industry; and shifting money from private to public pension funds.

Besides the economy, the other big issue dominating Colombia’s election is corruption. Eighty percent of Colombians surveyed believe it’s the biggest problem facing the country. Yet on corruption, Petro has been remarkably quiet, at least compared with the past. His platform devotes a few pages to discussing judicial reform in general terms, but the topic hasn’t factored much into his messaging. On Friday, just days before the election, Petro discussed a bold proposal to invite the United Nations to set up an independent anti-corruption commission modeled on the now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). He also proposed making its head Iván Velásquez, a Colombian jurist who formerly led CICIG and is also famous for daring investigations into Uribe’s paramilitary allies. Petro previously said he would nominate Velásquez for attorney general.

On both the economy and corruption, it’s a stretch to imagine that all of Petro’s latest allies and the country’s fragmented legislature will happily jump on board. But on the campaign trail, there has been surprisingly little pushback. What exactly serves as the glue holding together Petro’s coalition remains somewhat of a mystery. Popularity is one factor, and Petro’s momentum was no last-minute surprise. The candidate held a wide lead over prospective rivals as far back as two years ago, and opportunists with keen political instincts such as Benedetti and Barreras have hopped teams before, switching loyalties from Uribe to Santos when the latter’s star was rising. But one has to wonder what the ex-Uribistas, traditional party operators, and financiers such as Gilinski are expecting in return for their support. Surely it’s not free.

One possibility is that they are hoping for impunity in return for political support—and while it’s far too soon to say whether Petro would make the trade, there have been concerning signs. Just weeks ago, Petro’s brother was exposed meeting with politicians serving time for corruption. The candidate chalked the meeting up to a good-faith effort to heal the country’s divides and work out a “social pardon”—an idea short of legal amnesty that Petro has mentioned several times but never fully fleshed out or included in his platform. Not everyone bought it. Even so, Petro did ask one of his allies most embroiled in scandal, Sen.-elect Piedad Córdoba, to leave her campaign until the Supreme Court could complete an investigation into alleged links to Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and its corruption.

A Petro victory would in many ways be a historic first for Colombia, which has never elected a leftist president. The big risk is that this first might be purchased at the price of letting justice slide—at least for Petro’s allies.

If Petro can’t win 50 percent of the vote outright, which seems likely, the race will go to a June runoff. The outcome of that race will depend very much on the candidate facing Petro. Support for the candidate of the right, former Medellín Mayor Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, has hit a ceiling; continuity doesn’t seem too appealing for Colombians hungry for change. If Gutiérrez ekes his way into the second round, polls have Petro winning handily.

If Petro is instead forced to face down Colombia’s other presidential front-runner, the wild-card independent Rodolfo Hernández, all bets are off. Hernández, who blasts the political class as hopelessly corrupt, is even more of an anti-establishment outsider than Petro. In contrast to the leftist front-runner, he has virtually no alliances, only recently publicly accepting the support of Ingrid Betancourt, another ex-candidate for the presidency. In a runoff, Hernández might even be able to sell the message that Petro’s alliances are proof he has been co-opted by the same political class he long struggled against.

If one thing is certain, it’s that Colombians are ready to gamble on change. And there’s a candidate, Petro, who says he will give it to them. Time will tell if the bargain he struck to make it this far will open the door to a new beginning—or lock it shut.

Correction, May 28, 2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Conservative politicians who attended the public meeting in Cartagena on May 26. It has been fixed. 

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University and 2022 Fulbright Hays grantee to Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala. Twitter: @WillGFreeman

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