Why Colombia’s Election Has Voters Looking Left

Why Colombia’s Election Has Voters Looking Left

Colombians may elect a leftist president for the first time in their history this year. Senator Gustavo Petro, who is calling for a new economic model and a shift away from oil and coal, has been leading in polls with a wide lead over all of his rivals, which has investors on edge. Elsewhere in the Andes, Chile and Peru elected leftist leaders in 2021. Presidential elections will be held May 29 and if no candidate reaches 50% plus one vote a run-off will occur three weeks later. 

1. Why are investors worried?

Crude and coal account for almost half of Colombia’s exports, so Petro’s pledge to halt oil exploration, if carried out, would be a break from a history of reliably pro-business administrations. Notes for state oil company Ecopetrol SA have lagged other emerging-market oil companies since August, when Petro first said he would end oil exploration. Such policies would come at a time when the nation is enjoying a bonanza from the surge in energy prices triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

2. What would a Petro presidency look like?

Continuing to rely on fossil fuels and ignoring the consequences of climate change would be the “politics of death,” Petro said in a January interview. He said he’ll push to start phasing out these industries in favor of a tourism-driven economy. Petro has also vowed to reform the central bank so that “productive organizations” gain a voice in setting monetary policy. More recently, he said that he’d declare an “economic emergency,” which would allow him to bypass the normal workings of congress for a 30-day period. For that to happen, he would need approval from the constitutional court, and the decrees that are passed during the period could still be struck down by congress. 

3. What explains his appeal?

Petro’s tax-the-rich message has wide appeal in a country in which about 40% of the population lives in poverty. He is popular especially among Colombians on low incomes, who were hit first by the pandemic, and now by a surge in inflation. Food prices jumped by more than 20% in February from a year earlier, and the number of Colombians who aren’t eating three meals a day has nearly tripled since 2019, according to the national statistics agency. Although the economy is rebounding strongly from the 2020 crash, the jobs market is still weak and there’s been an increase in the number of people who are unemployed or trapped in the informal economy and earning less than the minimum wage. 

4. How have things changed after the primary elections? 

Primaries held on March 13 transformed Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, the conservative former mayor of Medellin, into the strongest contender to face Petro. Sergio Fajardo, also a former Medellin mayor, was elected in the centrist coalition but his primary received about 2.3 million votes, a distant third compared to 4.1 million in Gutierrez’s and 5.8 million in Petro’s. While the candidate from the ruling Democratic Center party ended his presidential run to back Gutierrez, other candidates who are still in the race and didn’t take part in primaries include Rodolfo Hernandez, a former mayor of Bucaramanga and construction magnate who is running as an independent with an anti-corruption campaign, and Ingrid Betancourt, an environmentalist who was kidnapped by guerrillas during the 2002 presidential campaign and held captive in the jungle for six years.

5. Who did they pick as running mates?     

Petro doubled down on his focus on wealth distribution and a green economy by picking as his running mate Francia Marquez, a 39-year-old Afro-Colombian woman who’s an environmental activist and human rights campaigner. She was the clear favorite after garnering more than 780,000 votes in the leftist primary. But while she may attract more women voters, by having her on his ticket Petro risks losing some centrist voters. Federico Gutierrez, adopted the opposite strategy and did choose someone from the center, in naming Rodrigo Lara Sanchez as his running mate. He’s a surgeon who was mayor of the city of Neiva in southern Colombia and whose father, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, was ordered assassinated in 1984 by drug lord Pablo Escobar. A recent poll carried out by Centro Nacional de Consultoria showed Petro continuing to lead voter intention with 32% compared to 23% for Fico Gutierrez and 10% each for Fajardo and Hernandez. Undecided voters are around 15%. Petro has high rejection ratings and, in a second round of voting, a lot of Colombians would back almost anyone else to keep him out. Four years ago, he lost the runoff against Ivan Duque, who is now president. Duque’s disapproval rating, however, is hovering above 70%.  

6. Why is the current government so unpopular?

Besides the economic hardship that usually plays against the incumbent, polls also show voters are concerned about corruption and a surge in crime. Duque was elected pledging a tough security policy, but illegal armed groups are overrunning the countryside and production of cocaine rose to new records, fueling chaos. In the legislative elections also held March 13, leftist parties gained representation but no group won a majority, so the next president will need to form alliances to get any reform passed. 

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