Colombia’s Peace at Stake in Polarised Election
Colombia’s Peace at Stake in Polarised Election
Colombian presidential candidates: Sergio Fajardo, for the Colombia Coalition; German Vargas Lleras, for the Cambio Radical Party; Ivan Duque, for the Democratic Center Party and Gustavo Petro for the Colombia Humana Party
Colombian presidential candidates: Sergio Fajardo (Colombia Coalition); German Vargas Lleras (Cambio Radical Party); Ivan Duque (Democratic Center Party) and Gustavo Petro (Colombia Humana Party) take part in a TV debabate in Medellin on 3 April, 2018. AFP/JOAQUIN SARMIENTO
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 9 minutes

Colombia’s Peace at Stake in Polarised Election

Colombians head to the polls on 27 May to choose a new president. The frontrunners have starkly different views on peace talks with guerrillas and how to handle Venezuelan refugees. In this Q&A, our Colombia Senior Analyst Kyle Johnson surveys the field of candidates.

What’s at stake in the 27 May election?

That day will see the first round of voting to decide who will be Colombia’s next president. Two outcomes are possible. The first is that no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, in which case the two candidates with the most votes will move on to a second round to take place on 17 June. The second potential – although extremely unlikely – outcome is that one candidate wins over half the votes and is automatically elected president, taking over on 7 August from incumbent Juan Manuel Santos.

The next president will inherit a batch of unresolved issues that will play a pivotal role in determining Colombia’s future peace and security. These include the implementation of the peace agreement signed between the Colombian government and the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in late 2016; ongoing negotiations with the smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN); and the possible forthcoming surrender, disarmament and demobilisation of Colombia’s largest drug trafficking organisation, the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces, whose leadership has suffered numerous losses at the hands of state forces despite being able to ship tonnes of cocaine to international markets.

Another question looming over the Colombian election campaign is how to handle the flow of Venezuelan refugees crossing into Colombia – which might well increase following the re-election of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in a 20 May vote that many Latin American countries, as well as the U.S., regard as illegitimate.

The impending right-left showdown makes the future of the fragile FARC peace process [...] subject to a high degree of uncertainty.

Opinion polls, although not entirely reliable, point to a polarised outcome, with the candidates from the farthest right and left of the political spectrum advancing to the second round. That would be a novelty in Colombian politics, at least in recent decades, when the democratic left has tended to be weak and overshadowed by Marxist insurgencies. The impending right-left showdown makes the future of the fragile FARC peace process and other negotiations subject to a high degree of uncertainty, especially since the polarisation looks set to favour the right.

Who are the main candidates and what are their chances?

Five candidates are contesting the vote, though two of them appear to have a comfortable lead over the others. Currently leading in opinion polls is Iván Duque, the candidate of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, and a disciple of former president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe has consistently excoriated the peace agreement with the FARC, leading opposition to that deal in an October 2016 plebiscite that saw voters narrowly reject it (though a new version of the deal with substantial changes was subsequently approved by both houses of the Colombian Congress instead of going to a second vote). Uribe remains a profoundly divisive figure, standing out as both Colombia’s most liked and disliked politician. Duque, though largely unknown to the public until late last year, won more than 4 million votes in a combined primary of two right-wing parties on 11 March, over double the tally of the nearest challenger.

The second candidate is Gustavo Petro, a former senator, mayor of Bogotá and ex-guerrilla fighter (from another group, the M-19). He now represents the left-wing Humane Colombia party. Petro shot up in the polls toward the end of 2017, astonishing many while unsettling the political and economic elites with his denunciations of the country’s inequalities. He has called for a Constituent Assembly to redesign the nation’s democracy, a major land reform program and a shift away from dependence on extractive industries. His historical sympathy for late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has also caused some consternation among the Colombian population in general. In the left’s cross-party primary, also held in March, Petro won close to 3 million votes, establishing him as a viable candidate. Constant attacks on him by almost all the remaining candidates, particularly at a time of deep-seated public disaffection with traditional political parties and economic stagnation, appear to have proved counter-productive and may even have enabled him to gain traction. His stirring anti-establishment rallies have also drawn large crowds across the country.

The centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo, a fierce critic of political corruption, lags several points behind Petro in the polls. Oddly enough, the candidate far back in fourth place in the polls enjoys an outside chance of advancing to the second round. Germán Vargas Lleras is the grandson of a former president, and a career politician who served as vice president under Santos. His centre-right Radical Change party has focused on the traditional formula of creating alliances with local and regional barons. In principle, these political clan leaders mobilise “their” votes in exchange for future perks. Vargas Lleras’ chances thus depend to a large extent on the barons’ ability to deliver those votes though patronage mechanisms. This dynamic is generally not captured in opinion polls, which is why Vargas Lleras is considered a dark horse.

What do these elections mean for peace with the FARC?

Four of the five candidates – all bar Duque – have stated that they support the peace agreement with the FARC. In fact, the candidate who stands last in the polls, the Liberal Party’s Humberto de la Calle, was the government’s chief negotiator during the talks with the FARC in the Cuban capital, Havana, that led to the deal. In the first round, the pro-peace vote will be split, aiding Duque, who claims to want to change key parts of the peace agreement.

Duque says he would reclassify drug trafficking from a political crime, and as it is treated in the accord, to a common crime punishable by law. He is thus sending a clear message that he hopes to rewrite key aspects of an agreement that took years to negotiate. While this change seems like a technicality, it would, if implemented, create fear among FARC leaders and mid-level commanders that they could face significant jail time. The threat of actual legal action along those lines, against any FARC leaders or members, would breed enormous discontent in the movement’s ranks, potentially even pushing some to take up arms again. The arrest in April of commander Jesús Santrich for his alleged part in a plan to ship ten tonnes of cocaine has deepened divisions among the guerrillas and emboldened FARC dissidents to urge their old comrades to abandon the accord. 

The second round in June will most likely feature candidates who represent both sides of opinion toward the peace agreement.

Moreover, Duque has stated unequivocally that Colombia’s burgeoning coca crop should be eradicated without farmers’ consent and that he would return to aerial fumigation of crops, which has been prohibited in the country since 2015. Both policies would seemingly wreck the Colombian government’s voluntary coca crop substitution program, which formed a central part of the peace accord with the FARC. If this program were to give way to forcible eradication, the size of coca crops might indeed shrink in the short term. But intensive coca cultivation would likely continue in Colombia over the long term, with farmers allying with guerrillas, dissident groups and drug traffickers to defend their livelihoods and rejecting participation in future alternative development schemes.

Duque is unlikely to win outright in the first round of voting. Thus the second round in June will most likely feature candidates who represent both sides of opinion toward the peace agreement. Even if Duque wins the runoff, as polls currently predict, he would probably not terminate the FARC accord – the political and security risks of doing so would be huge. But he might choose to respect only certain parts of the deal, such as reintegration plans for ex-FARC combatants, while amending others, for instance limiting the reach of the transitional justice system. He might also end coca substitution and sabotage the long-term plans for rural reform. The result would be to starve the accord of its financial and political sustenance. In such a scenario, the FARC leadership would likely continue to fight for implementation of the peace accord as a legal political party; but mid-level commanders and low-level fighters could easily return to war.

What do the elections mean for negotiations with the ELN?

Peace talks with the smaller ELN guerrilla group, comprising close to 2,000 fighters, are far less important to the Colombian public than the FARC agreement. Nevertheless, these negotiations resumed weeks ago in Havana after withstanding a series of major setbacks caused by the group’s ongoing armed attacks. Public scepticism about the ELN’s intentions has grown over time, as the group has expanded in the wake of the FARC’s withdrawal, seized control of certain drug trafficking routes and maintained a substantial rear guard across the border in Venezuela.

Among the presidential candidates, most suggest imposing conditions on talks with the ELN. Duque says he would talk to the ELN only as a prelude to its demobilisation; at the outset of his presidency, he says, he would demand that the group gather all its fighters in one place so that a ceasefire could be easily monitored. But the entirety of the ELN would refuse to comply. Álvaro Uribe, Duque’s political boss, broke up attempts at talks with the ELN in 2005 and 2007 by making the same demand.

Petro has said he will continue talks with the ELN, but insists the guerrilla movement must negotiate in earnest or run the risk of following “the path of Pablo Escobar” by becoming an organisation motivated solely by drug profits. Should the ELN choose the latter route, he would combat it militarily. Were Petro elected, the progress of talks with the ELN would depend largely on how committed the group is to the peace process and how impressed it is by a genuinely left-wing president. Petro would be Colombia’s first ever.

Vargas Lleras is similarly pragmatic. He has said that the ELN has from May until August – when the next presidential administration begins – to show that it is a bona fide partner in negotiations. The ELN recently announced a unilateral ceasefire that it will enforce around election day, a gesture that could encourage the candidates to endorse continued talks.

In the meantime, Colombian authorities remain hopeful that the leaders of the country’s largest criminal organisation, the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces, will soon turn themselves in after facing three years of sustained military and police operations. At least part of the group has apparently shown willingness to do so, but the terms of surrender are as yet undefined. This group’s demise, however, does not mean the narcotics trade will vanish. Huge profits and acquired experience – on the part of guerrillas, farmers, money launderers and others – amount to very powerful motives to keep up the cocaine supply.

In the last year, Colombia has received hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans seeking refuge either there or in other countries. How will these elections affect them?

The issue of Venezuela is central to these elections. The Democratic Centre, as well as other right-wing parties and politicians, have repeatedly invoked the spectre of spreading “castro-chavismo” to sow fear that Colombia could turn into another Venezuela, currently a synonym across Latin America for hunger, hyper-inflation and oppression. Petro, under pressure from both right-wing and centrist parties, has adopted a more critical stance regarding Venezuela, especially after Maduro’s dubious victory on 20 May, which he described as the “kidnapping of democracy”.

The 27 May vote – and the likely runoff three weeks later – will define Colombia’s political landscape for the next four years.

Most candidates have made vague statements as to how they would deal with the Maduro government, a problem that confounds them as much as it does leaders across the hemisphere. Meanwhile, they have made some concrete proposals regarding Venezuelan refugees (an estimated 800,000 Venezuelans now reside in Colombia, over half of them illegally). Duque has called for a special fund to address the humanitarian emergency with UN support, essentially a continuation of President Santos’s current approach. Vargas Lleras concurs that refugees need aid. But he hastens to add that those responsible for crime in Colombia should be deported, thus playing to increased xenophobia toward Venezuelans, who are commonly and often unfairly blamed for rising insecurity wherever they live.

The 27 May vote – and the likely runoff three weeks later – will define Colombia’s political landscape for the next four years. Most probably, the second round will pit two candidates, one unambiguously right-wing and the other unmistakably left-wing, against each other, reflecting Colombia’s polarisation. Prospects for peace are very much up in the air.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.