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In just over a month, 29 May 2022 to be precise, Colombians go to the polls to elect their next president.
Fico fights back
There are two things that we can take as virtually certain at this stage. One is that the country’s next leader will be a man. The other is that this man won’t be declared the winner on 29 May.
The reason for the latter is that for a candidate to win the presidency in the first round, he/she needs more than 50 per cent of the overall valid votes cast. With eight runners currently in the field for the nation’s top job and polls showing no runaway favourite, it’s pretty much certain a run-off will be needed between the top two candidates.
That head-to-head — barring some dramatic game-changer in the coming weeks — will be between former Bogotá mayor and runner-up in the 2018 presidential election, Gustavo Petro, and Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, former mayor of Colombia’s second city, Medellín.
Opinion polls have shown the leftist Petro with a relatively consistent lead throughout for some time now. Indeed, with a split centre/centre-right vote in round one — that there is no official candidate from the party of the still popular yet divisive former president, Álvaro Uribe, the man who helped propel outgoing president Iván Duque to victory, is a factor here — it seems safe to assume the one-time guerrilla will win the first round but fall somewhat short of the magic number to obviate a second day out.
‘All this has to be balanced against the idea that a leftist, former guerrilla becoming Colombia’s president takes the cherished sweetness out of the morning coffee of many citizens.’
Thus, similar to 2018 (see my post from that year, Right you are Colombia, for background), the key question is, where will the votes from the losing candidates in round one go in round two?
Most observers, backed up by polling — polls do tend to be reliable in Colombia — suggest Gutiérrez (I’m loath to call him by the affectionate “Fico” monicker) will take the lion’s share. This may be enough to get him over the line but it looks set to be very close. (Do note that traditionally conservative Colombia has never returned what one may consider a genuine leftist candidate.)
The country’s electoral system does also allow for a valid protest/blank vote, ‘voto en blanco’ (see https://wwcorrigan.blogspot.com/2018/02/colombia-vote-ve-blanco-for-real-change.html). In the 2018 run-off, this took 4.2 per cent of the overall votes, an increase of three percentage points from that year’s first round. In one opinion poll in March this year, 16 per cent of respondents said they would vote blank. With that in mind, this phantom candidate may play a decisive role this time.
A turnout for Petro?
Another important factor is turnout. It hovered around 54 per cent in both rounds in 2018, a rather high figure compared to all the other presidential elections this century. As a reference, turnout for this year’s congressional elections in March was just over 47 per cent of registered voters, about 1.5 percentage points lower than the 2018 figure.
If turnout increases for this year’s presidential election — the various controversies with voter registration in Colombia aside — and we guesstimate that this means a greater participation of younger voters, the belief is that this would be a positive for Petro.
All this has to be viewed in the light of the idea that a leftist and former guerrilla becoming Colombia’s president takes the cherished sweetness out of the morning coffee of a not-insignificant number of citizens.
Even the slightest suggestion of something socialist sees many people point to the east and the ongoing mess that is neighbouring Venezuela.
That aside and while Petro’s mayorship of Bogotá was not without its ideological battles (see https://wwcorrigan.blogspot.com/2012/12/petrograd-colombias-new-capital.html & https://blogs.eltiempo.com/wrong-way-corrigan/2014/01/24/ordonez-petro-et-al-fiddle-while-bogota-continues-to-burn/), one finds it hard to envisage a Petro presidency turning the country into the next Venezuela.
Brother countries they may be but the overall more conservative nature of Colombia means it is unlikely radical social change will occur here akin to what we’ve seen in Venezuela over the last twenty years. What’s more, Gustavo Petro is no Hugo Chávez Frías.
Indeed, it could be argued that the most radical departure Colombians could take in this presidential election would be if voto en blanco won the day.
That won’t happen. So, as a largely independent observer, if I was forced at this stage to put some of my hard-earned pesos on the outcome, I’d go with Gutiérrez. Very hesitantly, that is.
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.