Colombia’s Looming Presidential Election Is Set To Be Historic

The results of Colombia’s 13th March presidential primary elections have shed light on who the leading candidates are for the country’s approaching presidential election on 29th May. Leader of the Historic Pact (Pacto Histórico) coalition and ex-guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro stood out among his competitors by receiving 3 million votes, the largest number of votes received by any candidate during the primaries. Federico Gutiérrez, former mayor of Medellín, emerged as his closest competitor, netting around 1.4 million votes.

Political Polarisation
The primaries also underscored a notable degree of political polarization among voters. Petro’s Historic Pact coalition obtained 5.8 million votes and Gutiérrez’s Team for Colombia (Equipo por Colombia) totaled 4.1 million, illustrating voters’ support for leftist progressive candidates and conservative-leaning candidates respectively. In comparison, the Hope Center Coalition (Coalición Centro Esperanza) led by centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo received a total of 2.2 million votes. Fajardo himself secured only 72 thousand, trailing behind both Gutiérrez and Petro.

The apparent decline of Colombia’s political center is indicative of the Colombian public’s thirst for socioeconomic change in the face of numerous challenges, both recent and long entrenched. In the recent past, Colombia experienced social unrest driven in part by the harsh economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw Colombia’s GDP shrink by 6.8% in 2020. Though the economy has seen signs of recovery, growing by as much as 13.2% in the third quarter of 2021, Colombia’s employment rate has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Fatigue and anger at long-term issues including high income inequality, corruption, and Colombia’s ongoing struggle with guerrilla and criminal groups have also spurred demand for change.

A Heated Electoral Battle
Given his performance in the primary and voting intention polls, Petro is by far the leading presidential candidate. Gutiérrez’s good performance at the primaries, which came as a surprise given his lower ranking in a February voting intention poll than competitors like Fajardo, suggests that he will be one of Petro’s main challengers. Petro may also face some competition from independent candidate and former mayor of Medellín Rodolfo Hernández, who came closest to Petro in the February poll with 13% to Petro’s 27%, ahead of both Fajardo and Gutiérrez. However, it’s possible that the splitting of the anti-Petro vote among opponents such as Hernández and Gutiérrez could benefit Petro’s electoral prospects.

n Colombia’s 2018 presidential election Petro received 25% in the first round and 41% in the runoff. Despite performing better in this year’s primary than that of 2018, it remains unlikely that Petro, or any other candidate, will receive more than half of the votes in the first round of Colombia’s election on 29th May. Nonetheless, Petro is highly likely to move into the second round, scheduled for the 19th of June, as he did in 2018. It is harder to gauge who will garner enough votes to join him in the runoff, though Gutiérrez or Hernández are the most likely candidates.

Gutiérrez’s opponents have argued that he represents a continuation of the politics of incumbent President Iván Duque and the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) party; this accusation is not entirely without justification given that Democratic Center candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga stepped down on the of 15th March to support Gutiérrez. Consequently, Gutiérrez may struggle to obtain support from Colombia’s youth and other groups eager for change. By contrast, Hernández stands to gain among those tired of Colombia’s political establishment due to his status as a political independent and vocal anti-corruption platform. To shore up his chances for victory in the runoff Petro must make an effort to assuage the concerns of moderate voters in the face of polling reinforcing that, despite increasing identification with the political left, the majority of Colombians (60%) identify with the political center.

The Election’s Significance
In the short term, uncertainty surrounding the election’s outcome is likely to dampen foreign investment somewhat. If a more conservative candidate like Gutiérrez or Hernández wins the election it is probable that markets would react positively, or at least that any negative turns would be more subdued.

On the contrary, a victory for Petro has the potential to create significant uncertainty and curtail investment in areas including Colombia’s energy sector as a consequence of Petro’s stated aim to roll back Colombian oil production. This policy, if implemented, would likely have serious economic consequences for Colombia given that oil is Colombia’s largest export good and that oil rents account for approximately 3% of Colombia’s GDP (as of 2019). Petro has also come under fire for his plan to move the savings of private Colombian pension funds into the state pension system (Colpensiones) and use the money to, among other things, provide a pension to 3 million elderly Colombians who do not currently receive one. Critics have described it as tantamount to the expropriation of Colombian workers’ savings and a move that would decrease investor confidence in Colombia.

A victory for Petro would be an unprecedented development in Colombian history, where a leftist President has never been elected before. His election may lead to unrest among a subset of Colombia’s population, concerned that Petro will turn Colombia into a state like neighboring Venezuela or nearby Cuba. Such an outcome is not very probable as his party does not hold a majority in either house of Colombia’s Congress and Petro would need to build a coalition in both houses in order to implement his planned reforms. This, along with the stiff conservative opposition Petro would face, would likely result in the softening of several of Petro’s proposals. Nevertheless, a Petro victory would likely initiate a process of rapprochement between Venezuela and Colombia which, though it may upset those who argue that the Maduro regime should be isolated for its human rights violations, may also open up avenues for dialogue and humanitarian assistance.

Colombia’s 2022 electoral developments have highlighted that the country’s political landscape is in flux, undergoing polarisation, and desperate for change. This political flux has been observed elsewhere in Latin America in recent years, with countries like Honduras, Peru, and Chile also experiencing elections that saw the election of often left-leaning candidates outside of the political establishment. Such a result in Colombia would confirm this trend and undoubtedly have a lasting impact on Colombia’s political and economic trajectory, as well as on inter-Latin American relations.

By Global Risk Insights for Oilprice.com