Petro vs. Duque: Colombian elections, war and peace

A women holds a Colombian flag facing the sun. Image: via Nueva Sociedad, All rights reserved

On 17 June, the second round of presidential
elections for the 2018-2022 period will be held in Colombia. After the first
round, the candidates still in the race are Gustavo Petro, representing Colombia Humana, a coalition of
democratic and progressive forces, and Iván Duque for the Centro Democrático, a far right party led by former president
Álvaro Uribe Vélez. 

This election is exceptional for many reasons:
it is the first to be held after the 2016 agreement to end the armed conflict
with the former insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, which
is now known as the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force). It is also the
first time in Colombia’s history that a “progressive” candidate has made it to
the second round of the elections alive, with a chance of winning the second
round. In this election, there is more at stake than just the choice of the president:
for the first time, both the urban and rural elites are having difficulty
controlling and determining the outcome.

In 1948, the liberal candidate Jorge Eliecer
Gaitán, whose programme for a popular government had the support of the
majority of the population, was assassinated by the elite. His assassination
initiated the period known as La
or “The Violence” and later, the Frente Nacional or National Front (the bipartisan agreement between
the liberals and the conservatives to take turns occupying the government). The
FARC also emerged in this period. Further, it is important to remember that
other politicians have been assassinated since Gaitán’s death for their
attempts to democratically challenge the Colombian right wing through elections
including Luis Carlos Galán, Carlos Pizarro and Bernardo Jaramillo.

In 2018, the authoritarian
spell under which Álvaro Uribe governed the country between 2002 and
2012  is trying to re-impose itself. This
authoritarian tendency imposed by Uribe continued under the Santos
administration clothed in a different discourse, and retains considerable support
among the population today. However, for the first time, there appears to be
broad support for rejecting this political group’s ways of doing politics, and
its proposals.

 In the first round of
the election held on May 27, 50% of the votes cast went to parties other than
the traditional ruling parties.

In the first round of the election held on May
27, two changes were notable. First, the number of abstentions declined, falling from 59.93% 4 years ago to 46.62%. The second major shift
was in the amount of voter support for candidates who represented an
alternative to Centro Democrático,
the Partido de la U and Cambio Radical: 50% of the votes cast
went to parties other than the traditional ruling parties. A long list of the
members of the dominant parties have been arrested and convicted for corruption and links to paramilitarism. The turn towards other parties
suggests a change in perspective in a country where the electoral process has
long been characterised by clientelism and a lack of historical analysis.

Three elements of the remaining candidates’
platform proposals are key to understanding the political moment in Colombia
today, as they reveal two conflicting visions for the future of the country.

 The agrarian question

Access to land constitutes one of the historic key
drivers of social and armed conflict in Colombia. Therefore, it is a
fundamental element of any vision for the country, and revealing of the way the
parties promote and represent public interest or private group interests. The
candidates’ proposals are presented as opposites of one another: on one hand, Centro Democrático is proposing the intensification of
extractivism (mining, energy and agroindustrial farming) as the basis for
boosting national revenues. This expansion will be based on two pillars: 1) concentrated land
ownership in the hands of historically large landowners and land grabbers, who
obtained land via forced displacements in the early 21st century;
and 2) leadership by transnational capital, acting as an investor in, as well
as the primary purchaser and exporter of the extracted natural patrimony. This
proposal would give continuity to the so-called investment security policy developed by Álvaro Uribe during
his two terms in power, and maintained by Juan Manuel Santos in
the 8 years
that followed.

On the other hand, Colombia Humana is proposing to tax fertile land that is unproductive, based on criteria to be defined
for a modernised rural cadastre, in order to stimulate greater land
productivity and, at the same time, generate decent working conditions for
Colombian peasants. This proposal defends giving a central role to the state in
guaranteeing small landowners’ access to land and promoting a process of
gradual industrialisation. Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro states that
agribusiness will have a key role in this chain, with peasant farmers in the

In view of these divergent proposals on an
issue central to the social and armed conflict, it is interesting to analyse
voters’ responses from the first round. Consolidated data that allow us to
compare trends in rural and urban areas is not yet available and
generalisations tend to overlook important elements. Nevertheless, when one looks
at the 9 departments where Gustavo Petro won, it is noticeable they are in
regions where the conflict had a strong impact in recent years and, at the same
time, where a social network emerged through popular organising to respond to
the situation. In the remaining 23 departments, the victory in the first round
went to Iván Duque. These departments include regions in which the FARC was
highly active, where there is still a strong presence of paramilitary groups
and social resistance has not been so consistent.

Environmental question

The growing importance given to environmental
issues in the debate reflects a shift to from treating environmental issues as
side-issues to understanding them as central to Colombia’s political economy.
The socio-environmental conflicts generated by the development model that is
dependent on agribusiness, mineral, oil and coal mining, and the generation of
the energy to fuel this model are increasingly visible in the country. For
instance, the degradation of soil and water sources and the pollution of territories linked to mining have been
denounced repeatedly. People are scandalised by the impacts on peoples’ health, particularly children who are dying from malnutrition in
areas near coal mines. The number of assassinations of people fighting to
defend the territory continues to rise.

The transition from this model that preys on
life and territories towards an essentially agricultural-based productive
economy is what Colombia Humana is
proposing. The deadly path of deepening the extractivism-based economic model, including
new proposals to promote fracking, is the vision that Centro Democrático defends. The traditional political parties, and their support from major
economic players, shows that it is precisely these interests that are at stake
in this dispute.

In the current
context, however, leaving one’s vote blank could end up serving as silent
support for the Centro Democrático’s authoritarian

The environmental question can be defined in
different ways in Colombia. Internal ideological differences aside, radical
environmentalist movements- including most peoples fighting for the dignity of their
lives and against the model of plundering – have lent their support to Colombia Humana’s political platform.
Environmentalists who defend market solutions by using a rhetoric of
conservation- an abstract and individualist concept disconnected from the
territories and popular movements – have chosen to encourage people to leave
their ballots blank. They claim that they are critical of the polarisation in
the country and do not want to get involved. In the current context, however,
leaving one’s vote blank could end up serving as silent support for the Centro Democrático’s authoritarian

Other self-proclaimed leftist political groups
who do not identify themselves as environmentalists but who claim to represent
popular interests have also chosen to promote leaving the ballot blank. This
strengthens their sectarian and self-aggrandizing visions while taking
advantage of being a permanent opposition.

Continuing the war or concepts of peace in dispute

After the negotiation process was over and the
agreement with the FARC was signed, different concepts of peace are in dispute,
namely “pax neoliberal” versus peace with social justice. The interests of
certain sectors in perpetuating the military and paramilitary model also came
to light. The NO campaign during the referendum on
the peace agreement used a strategy
of disseminating  fake news and
manipulation to strengthen conservatism using fallacious instruments such as accusing
pro-peace activists of promoting ‘gender

 After agreement with
the FARC was signed, different concepts of peace are in dispute, namely “pax
neoliberal” versus peace with social justice.

This dispute over the concept of peace has
taken centre stage in the public debate posing the central question for
Colombian society: whether to give continuity to the history of war eliminating
proposals that diverge from the dominant social and economic model, or whether
to embrace the possibility of building something different through popular
participation and the recognition of the diversity of social actors and their

During this electoral debate, and since the
demobilisation of the FARC, the polarisation of Colombian society has taken on
a new configuration in comparison to the existing one on the wake to 2016
plebiscite. The ones who defended a pax
are now supporting the candidates on the far right, despite
their former denunciation of the agreement.

The potential victory of the far right is very
disturbing because it could once again plunge Colombia into violence, such as
the one experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, when the left-wing political party Unión Patriótica was physically eliminated through the assassination of over 5,000 of its
members. There is fear that this will happen again, but this time against
former members of the FARC. There is also concern that Uribism will once again
become – as it did during the years of 'democratic security' when there was no limits on the
criminalisation of social movements – the 'dark hand' that protects the oligarchy,
so that they do not dirty their names while exterminating all options for
change and different ways of thinking in the country.

On the other hand, the proposal of Gustavo
Petro and Ángela María Robledo provides some hope, as it understands peace as something
that must be built by the society. As well as committing to comply with the implementation of
agreements reached with the FARC and the guarantee of the application of the
Special Peace Jurisdiction, it acknowledges that reforming the Colombian state
in the areas of health, education and the pension system, among others, is
fundamental. It understands a need for social justice in order to build peace.

In a regional context where right-wing
governments are coming to power, replacing 'progressive' governments in some
cases by staging virtual coup d’états, and an international scene marked by
growing support for authoritarian right-wing initiatives, this election is
important not only for the Colombian people. It has gained geopolitical
significance since it has the potential to strengthen or alter the role that
this South American country has historically played in the region. 

In the opposing views on peace in Colombia, what
is ultimately at play is whether the country continues the devastation and
militarisation of its territories to fuel transnational corporate accumulation
or whether it focuses instead on providing dignity to its peoples and helping
to build the common good.

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