Elections in Colombia: the rise of Gustavo Petro and the fall of Uribism

On 13 March, Colombia held its legislative elections to the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as “consultative elections” (primaries) in which each coalition voted on its presidential candidate for this year’s presidential election. Gustavo Petro, the center-left candidate, earned the nomination for his coalition, Pacto Historico, with overwhelming support both within his party and among the general electorate.

As a result, Petro has become the favourite for the first round of the presidential elections, and he now aspires to avoid a runoff by winning a clear majority of 51 percent. Considering his base of support, it is well within his means to do so. Almost 80 percent of voters within the party consultation voted for Petro, and his coalition received 47 percent of all votes, well above the 32 percent obtained by the right-wing Team for Colombia and the centre coalition Centro Esperanza’s 19 percent.

In the legislature, Pacto Historico managed to obtain a sizable number of seats both in the Senate (16 – one fewer than the Conservatives, who got the most), and in the House of Representatives (27 – five fewer than the Liberals, who got the most). These are decent achievements, considering that this is a coalition that is running for the first time, even if all the organisations it represents have decades of history behind them. However, it has to be noted that it is still in a minority in both of these institutions.

These are nevertheless tremendously encouraging results for what is shaping up to be a new period in Colombian politics. After two “paros nacionales” (national stoppage movements, characterised by road blockades and massive protests) and the signing of the peace deal that disarmed FARC and integrated them into national politics, it seems that the right-wing establishment headed by president Iván Duque and his mentor Alvaro Uribe Velez is on the backfoot. Room for maneuver is opening up for the left in a country in which it has historically been asphyxiated. As Marxists, we must understand this upcoming period in the context of the world crisis of capitalism in order to work out the correct position.

The establishment on the backfoot

The parties of the Colombian oligarchy have found themselves in a relative ebb in comparison to previous periods. It’s worth remembering that Centro Democratico (the party of Alvaro Uribe Velez) went from having 32 representatives to 16. It also lost five senators. In terms of the raw vote, the party went from 2.5 million votes for the senate to 1.9 million. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, they went from 2.3 million votes to 1.6 millions.

uribe Image WEF FlickrUribe – who finished his presidency in 2008 with an 80 percent approval rating – ended 2021 with an approval rating of just 19 percent / Image: WEF, Flickr

This is a reflection of the fact that Centro Democratico faces complete rejection. Duque has a disapproval rating of 70.7 percent. Meanwhile, Uribe – who finished his presidency in 2008 with an 80 percent approval rating – ended 2021 with an approval rating of just 19 percent. After the elections, the Centro Democratico had a post-mortem meeting in order to assess their losses and the path forward, at which Uribe openly declared that he was to blame for their poor showing.

The right-wing coalition Equipo for Colombia ended up electing Federico “Fico” Gutierrez as its candidate with 2,160,329 votes. It is clear to many that his would be a government that would continue the policies of Uribe and Duque. After all, Fico received Uribe’s endorsement because the Mayor of Medellín and the Centro Democratico presidential candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, had already stepped aside in order to begin consolidating the right vote to prevent a Gustavo Petro victory.

The centre coalition (Centro Esperanza) ended up electing Sergio Fajardo as its candidate, with 2.1 million people voting in the primary – just short of the number that voted for Fico. It is rather telling that Fajardo himself only obtained 723,000 votes: 60,000 less than Francia Marquez, the runner up for Pacto Historico. These results show the degree of polarisation of the electorate and how far the establishment has been set back over the last three years or so.

The historical meaning of a Petro presidency

Colombia’s history is filled with left reformists and populists who have aspired to win the presidency only to be assassinated. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (Liberal Party presidential candidate and an open sympathiser with the ideas of socialism), Luis Carlos Galan (founder of the New Liberalism movement, who openly attacked the establishment and its ties to narcotrafficking), Bernardo Jaramillo (presidential candidate for the Communist Party and Unión Patriotica), and Carlos Pizarro (former commander of the M-19 guerrilla movement, which became a political party, for which he ran for president) were all assassinated before they could be elected.

Colombia is also one of the most dangerous countries to be a trade unionist or a social activist of any kind. 33 activists have already been murdered in 2022, and 1,319 have been murdered since the signing of the peace accords. Six former FARC combatants and signatories of the peace deal were also assassinated this year. The brutality of the Colombian ruling class is well documented. Historical events like the decimation of Unión Patriotica (UP) – with the state leaning on paramilitary groups to assassinate different members of the UP; or the false positives scandal, in which up to 6,402 people were murdered by the army and dressed up as enemy combatants in order to justify their assassination, demonstrate exactly what we’re dealing with here.

However, the mood of the workers, peasantry and youth is not one of pessimism in the face of all of this. The last four years have proven to be a massive rebuke to the ruling class’ tactics of repression and austerity. The peace deal meant the withdrawal of FARC as a guerilla force from the political scene. Without the guerrillas, the government simply did not have a scapegoat to justify its heavy reliance on the army and police in order to maintain social order, and the masses were no longer scared to organise and fight for their rights. It is fair to say that the two paros nacionales (‘national strikes’) of 2019 and 2021 simply would not have occurred without the signing of the peace deal.

The paros nacionales movements saw the irruption of the masses on the scene, as part of a continent-wide movement that included the Ecuadorian insurrection and the Chilean uprising at the end of 2019. They showed the enormous strength of the masses, and the deep-seated anger and massive opposition to the Colombian oligarchy and its political representatives. The masses, with the youth at the forefront, fought against austerity measures and were not cowed by brutal police and military repression. The importance of the two paros nacionales cannot be underestimated. However, lacking a clear leadership, eventually the movement petered out. Having won some concessions from the government and without a clear perspective of how to go forward, the masses withdrew from the streets and their whole attention was focused on the electoral process of 2022.

The Colombian masses have not had the experience of a reformist government. This makes a Petro presidency a promising prospect, and there are expectations that he will deliver on some of the reforms promised. In fact, the room for maneuver for implementing meaningful reforms is very limited, for reasons which we will explain. However, a victory for Petro in the presidential elections is important because it’ll provide confidence to the masses as they go forward and struggle for better wages, working conditions and fight against the ruling class, while also providing valuable and necessary lessons in the limits of reformism.

Petro’s conciliatory nature

The key question becomes, what would a Petro presidency look like? It is rather telling that Petro flew to Chile before the election to witness Gabriel Boric’s inauguration as president there. In a profile on Petro by María Jimena Duzan, he is quoted as saying that he might be forced to govern alongside a right-wing congress, not dissimilar to the situation facing Boric in Chile, where his party is a minority in both chambers. Petro’s whole approach is also similar to Boric’s: he promises reforms but wants to achieve them within the limits of a system which he wishes to “improve” rather than overthrow.

In effect, Pacto Historico, while a big minority in a congress divided between 10 parties, is still in a minority position. It will argue that it has to make concessions in order to pass any laws it proposes. But the only way to overcome an unfavourable parliamentary arithmetic would be to instead rely on the mass mobilisation of workers, peasants, youth, women and indigenous people on the streets in order to advance a programme of social transformation.

hope or fear Image Edgar Zuniga FlickrThere’s a section of the ruling class that recognises the necessity for a Petro presidency precisely to appease the masses and prevent a new uprising. But there’s another layer of the ruling class that recognises the danger behind Petro / Image: Edgar Zuniga, Flickr

When this is coupled with the composition of Pacto Historico itself (a popular front, uniting both workers’ organisations and renegade, right-wing establishment figures that openly seek the alliance of the liberal party in order to bolster Petro’s presidential campaign), it is clear that the rank-and-file members of Pacto Historico will have to fight tooth and nail in order to obtain the gains that a Petro presidency promises.

It is worth remembering that in 2018, when Petro made the second round, he shifted towards conciliation and watered down his programme substantially. He went from fighting for land reform to claiming his government will not carry out expropriations. On issues like abortion, Petro tried to play it both ways by saying he supports a woman’s right to choose, while he would also prefer to rely on sex education in order to prevent pregnancies in the first place. This opens a door to backpedaling in the event that a referendum comes up to challenge the recent Constitutional Court decision to decriminalise abortion.

Petro’s approach involves winning over the masses to a programme of change while watering down such a programme in order to appease the ruling class. In fact, this ‘realistic’ approach is counterproductive. The masses of workers, peasants and the oppressed can only be rallied by a programme of radical transformation. Smoothing off the radical edges will not fool the ruling class, but might have the effect of provoking despondency and demobilisation amongst Petro’s natural base of support.

There’s a section of the ruling class that recognises the necessity for a Petro presidency precisely to appease the masses and prevent a new uprising. But there’s another layer of the ruling class that recognises the danger behind Petro. While his programme and his party might be reformist, they have won the backing of hundreds of thousands of people who want to put an end to the cruelty of Colombian capitalism. And those people will not be happy with cosmetic reforms forever.

This layer will do anything to stop a Petro presidency from being successful. For instance, there’s the ‘Petro clause’. Many business contracts have a clause stating the contract can be voided by either party in case of a Petro presidency. There’s also the slanderous campaign thrown at Petro and his programme throughout the whole media, making it seem like a ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ in the making. This is the scaremongering campaign of a ruling class that is afraid. The reality is that his programme is, by his own admission, one of “humane capitalism”.

This ruling class is used to having a man in the presidency who works for them. Only now have they found themselves being truly opposed. The guerillas were never really a challenge to their power, even if in certain episodes like the siege of the justice palace, they may have seemed stronger than they were. But the government was always skillful in separating the guerillas from the masses. And, outside of episodes like El Bogotazo (massive riots that erupted in 1948, beginning in Bogotá) and the Paro Nacional of 1977, the Colombian masses haven’t often challenged for power in the way they have over the last three years.

Petro’s government and the tasks of the Marxists

If Petro were to come into power, he would do so with an economy that has had a semblance of a recovery from the pandemic. 88.4 percent of jobs lost in the pandemic have been recovered, and GDP has increased by 10.6 percent (2.8 percent above pre-pandemic levels). However, Colombia is facing a 5.61 percent inflation rate and a national debt of 181 billion USD (equivalent to 61.5 percent of GDP). Similarly, attempts to raise the minimum wage are barely keeping up with the cost of day-to-day living (to wit: the minimum wage is 262 USD, whereas cost of living is calculated to be between 209 USD to 786 USD). Under these conditions, it is clear that the logic of the system is enabling the oligarchy to enact austerity measures in order to drive up their profits. This situation leaves a reformist government little room to maneuver and grant concessions.

Furthermore, it’s worth considering the situation of world capitalism in general. On the back of a financial crisis and a war that threatens to substantially reduce the world’s supply of oil, it is very likely that Petro’s proposal to stop all oil and mining operations as soon as he comes into the presidency will be met with staunch opposition from both the Colombian oligarchy and the ruling class internationally. Furthermore, Colombia is a country which has been a stronghold of US imperialism in the region for a very long time. It holds US military bases and has a strategic importance for Washington. They will not allow it to slip out of their control without putting up a fight.

A Petro presidency would be a tremendous boon to the nascent movement of the working class, peasantry and youth. Not necessarily because of what Petro would do for them but due to what they would have to do in order to both obtain a Petro presidency and then defend his reformist programme from the attacks of the right wing. They would have to struggle in order to beat back the wing of the ruling class that is not ready to lose an inch in a country they have ruled with an iron fist for decades.

We are critical of Petro’s programme and the approach of Pacto Historico, as we do not think that capitalism can be reformed, improved, nor made to work in the interests of the mass of workers and the poor. At the same time, it is clear that the perspective of Petro coming to power reflects the aspirations of hundreds of thousands to finally leave behind decades of austerity, repression, and the horrors that have turned the Colombian oligarchy into a ruling class renowned internationally for its cruelty. We do not share those illusions but we will accompany the masses in their experience. It must be explained patiently that the workers can only trust their own forces. The masses will learn through their own experience.

A new chapter is being written in the class struggle of this continent and Colombia has found itself as one of its main linchpins. A country that many on the left had given up on as doomed has now had not one but three nationwide insurrectionary movements in three years, and is about to leave the blight of Uribismo behind. It is necessary to create a revolutionary leadership that can unite the struggles of the peasantry, the working class and the youth under one banner, and dare to seize the commanding heights of the economy from those who have done nothing but feed off the country’s backwardness.

In the presidential election on 29 May, our slogan must then be: Vote for Petro, Fight for Socialism!