On Sunday 27 May, Colombians will head to the polls for first round of the country’s presidential election.

It will be an historic moment, as the first presidential election in more than fifty years held without the threat of armed conflict with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). The race is still wide open, as in Colombia, like many Latin American countries, if no candidate wins a majority of the vote then the two top vote-winners will move on to a run-off, scheduled for 17 June.

A number of candidates have fallen by the wayside, but some strong contenders continue to pit the establishment against non-traditional values and parties.

Iván Duque

All recent polls show one clear front-runner in the presidential race: Iván Duque. The right-wing senator from the Democratic Center party is former president Álvaro Uribe’s handpicked candidate, which is both Duque’s biggest draw and a significant obstacle to success.

With Uribe’s support, Duque has inherited and consolidated much of the “No” vote against the 2016 peace accord. But Uribe is a divisive figure, and many people, including conservatives who agree with Duque’s policies, may avoid Duque simply because of his affiliation with the former president.

Gustavo Petro

Following Duque in the polls is leftist candidate Gustavo Petro. Petro, a former guerrilla and mayor of Bogotá, has found unlikely success in a highly polarised electoral climate by painting himself as the “outsider” candidate.

His policies, for the most part, are less revolutionary than his background might suggest; and his appeal is related more to what he stands against than what we represents — the traditional ruling class, embodied by former president Uribe and current President Juan Manuel Santos.

Gustavo Petro gesturing
Gustavo Petro is an ex-guerrillero and one-time mayor of Bogotá. Photo credit: Flickr/centrodemocrático1.

If Duque does not win 50 percent of the vote on Sunday (which looks likely), then it is Petro who is most likely candidate to join him in the second round in June. The Colombian electorate, however, has proved polls wrong in the past – most notably in 2016 when forecasters predicted a landslide victory in favour of the government’s peace accord with the FARC.

Germán Vargas Lleras

Germán Vargas Lleras is hoping that he can pull off such an upset.

One of the “traditional” candidates in the running as a former vice president to Juan Manuel Santos, Vargas Lleras has polled poorly among an electorate enamoured with anti-establishment rhetoric.

Vargas Lleras’s party, the Radical Change party, performed well in the 11 March legislative elections, and he can count on the backing of at least a portion of two large parties besids his own — the Conservatives and the centre-left National Social Unity Party (the “Party of the U”). It is unclear whether party machinery will be enough to squeeze Vargas Lleras into the second round, but he cannot be counted out quite yet.

Sergio Fajardo

Colombians hoping for a centrist president in 2018 have been disappointed by the lagging performance center-left candidate Sergio Fajardo. Fajardo, a mathematics professor turned politician, oversaw as mayor the transformation of Medellín from Colombia’s murder capital to the country’s golden city.

Though he led early polls in 2017, support for his campaign wavered, as some of his followers abandoned him in favor of Petro, whom they see as more likely to beat Duque in a second round.

What is at stake?

The biggest issue at stake on Sunday is undoubtedly the future of the peace process with the FARC. All of the major presidential candidates have pledged their support for the peace process, save one: the front-runner Duque.

Duque continues to carry the flag of the 2016 “no” vote, arguing that the peace agreement is deeply flawed and grants impunity and undue political power to FARC leaders accused of drug trafficking and grave human rights abuses.

While Duque has stepped back from saying that he will abandon the peace process completely, he has promised to take a more punitive approach to some of the accord’s provisions, including those related to drug policy and the FARC’s ability to participate in politics.

If elected, Duque will face some constraints in his plan to change the peace accord. Internationally, the peace agreement remains overwhelmingly popular. Colombia’s international allies will likely pressure Duque to honor the 2016 agreement.

At home, a ruling by the Constitutional Court in October 2017 mandated that the next three presidential administrations cannot legally alter or annul the peace agreement with the FARC as signed. There are a number of ways, however, in which Duque could slowly starve the process of funds or neglect to name ministers to key positions. In fact, Duque’s opposition to the peace accord could be his downfall, as voters may turn to Petro in the second round as a way to save the agreement.

Economic woes

But Colombia also faces challenges other than the peace process. A key issue that the country’s next president will face is how to keep Colombia afloat economically. A lagging economy and low oil prices have put Colombia at risk of losing its investment rating, which could scare away much needed foreign direct investment.

Duque and Petro represent radically different visions of economic development. Duque plans to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, making foreign direct investment through mining and oil projects a centerpiece of his economic program. Meanwhile, Petro’s economic plan focuses on developing Colombia’s agrarian sector.

He opposes Duque’s plan to expand oil production, proposing that Colombia substitute avocado for oil exports instead. His other initiatives sound less drastic, but would be a significant shift for a country that ranks as one of worst globally in terms of unequal land ownership. For example, he says that he plans to land owners with unused plots in order to fund rural reforms.

Neither Duque nor Petro’s paths are likely to solve Colombia’s budgetary woes, but they will each send a strong signal regarding who is at the centre of Colombia’s development plan. While a second round is the most likely scenario, the 27 May vote will give a good indication as to how the Colombian electorate views the establishment – and likely give a good indication as to the future of pece in Colombia.



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