Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Who Has the Edge in Colombia’s Presidential Race?

Recent polls show Iván Duque (pictured), the candidate of former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center party, in a dead heat with former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro.

Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla who later served as mayor of Bogotá, and Iván Duque, the candidate of former President Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center party, are virtually tied less than three months ahead of Colombia’s May 27 presidential election. According to a poll published Sunday by daily newspaper El Tiempo and W Radio, Duque had 23.6 percent support, as compared to Petro’s 23.1 percent, while former Medellín Mayor Sergio Fajardo had 8.1 percent support, and ruling party candidate former Vice President Germán Vargas had 6.3 percent. What issues are shaping Colombia’s presidential race ahead of the May 27 vote, and how have the top candidates gotten where they are today? What factors will decide the election’s outcome? Would any of the front-runners pursue radically different policies from the current administration of centrist President Juan Manuel Santos?

Adam Isacson, senior associate for the regional security policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America: “The polls have varied widely, but four candidates appear to stand out in the most recent ones. Let’s list them, from left to right. 1) Gustavo Petro made his name as a senator who investigated corruption and had a stormy 2012-15 term as mayor of Bogotá. 2) Sergio Fajardo, a center-left, pro-free market mathematician, enjoyed high popularity as mayor of Medellín from 2004-2007. Petro and Fajardo are buoyed by perceptions that they are not corrupt. 3) Germán Vargas Lleras, the grandson of a president, has built support among traditional political patronage networks around the country. Though he served as Santos’vice president, he has since broken with the president on the FARC peace issue. 4)Senator Iván Duque is the chosen candidate of the party headed by ultraconservative, still-popular ex-president Álvaro Uribe, which guarantees him support despite low name recognition. Two of these candidates would continue Santos’ slow-moving implementation of the peace accord (Petro and Fajardo). Two would slow it down (Vargas Lleras and Duque), perhaps to the point of undoing it. Petro would significantly increase the state’s role in the economy, while Duque would significantly reduce it. The other two would make leftward or rightward adjustments. If the most recent polls are right and nothing changes, Petro would face Fajardo or Duque in a runoff. But don’t write off Vargas Lleras: polls may not be capturing his formidable, shady get-out-the-vote machinery. Polls tend to give one of the lowest ratings, usually below 2 percent, to the candidate of the FARC political party, Rodrigo Londoño also known as Timochenko."

Maria Velez de Berliner, president of Latin Intelligence Corporation: "Polls lost credibility when the ‘No,’ which polls predicted would not win, defeated the ‘Yes’ in the referendum on the peace agreement with the FARC. A March 1 poll by Polímetro shows a tie between Gustavo Petro and Iván Duque. A poll by Celag shows Germán Vargas Lleras first, and Sergio Fajardo second. Speculations about who will win are premature, based on who does the polling, the sample’s composition, and the questions asked. The results of Sunday’s congressional elections will show the coalitions and alliances entered into by the presidential aspirants. Therefore, the legislative vote will be a more reliable predictor of who might win the presidency on May 27, or in the second round on June 17. Three subtexts will drive voters’ preferences: 1) Voters are fed up with the excesses of public corruption at all levels of government and the irrisory penalties. those who snitch and/or collaborate with justice receive. 2) Today’s widespread criminality and personal insecurity is what voters feared would come as a result of the peace agreement with the FARC. 3) Some voters want anyone but a Santos-like president.Given the prevalence of anti-Santos and anti-FARC sentiment, and the electorate’s general dissatisfaction and fear of insecurity and danger, a swing from the center to the hard right seems probable. Should a hardright coalition win the presidency, a majority of Colombians would welcome policies that deal a heavy-hand against criminality, further militarize law enforcement, make changes in the judicial branch, and bring a return of ‘democratic security,’ the signature policies of Álvaro Uribe’s government (2002-2010). Most Colombians long for the relative peace and security they enjoyed under ‘democratic security."

Juan David Escobar Valencia, director of the Center for Strategic Thought at the Universidad EAFIT in Medellín: "The reason for Petro’s initial success can be explained by the historically known and recurrent phenomenon of societies in crisis, especially economic ones, in which the most affected sectors are attracted by populist proposals. The March 11 legislative elections are not an exact reflection of the presidential ones, but they would put the electoral contest in the final stretch, which will be between those who support and those who oppose the process of appease.ment signed between Santos and the FARC. But there is something that cannot be underestimated. The majority of Colombians have three powerful feelings: 1) They are afraid of becoming the next Venezuela, and that will be a factor that will be at odds with the Chavista candidate, Gustavo Petro. 2) They never agreed with the appeasement agreement with the FARC, which will be an obstacle for Sergio Fajardo, badly qualified as a centrist, because the allies that he acquired for his campaign, defenders of the agreement, are closer to the left than o the center. 3) They do not want anything that smells like Juan Manuel Santos: his 15 percent approval rating is the best proof of that. Both Petro and Fajardo are defending government projects."

Alberto J. Bernal, chief emerging market and global strategist at XP Securities: "The 2018 presidential contest is a transcendent one for many reasons, but perhaps more so because the next president of Colombia will have to implement the agreements that the Santos administration negotiated with the FARC. Implementing these agreements will prove a titanic ordeal, as they will remain fiscally expensive to implement, and perhaps even more cumbersome, politically costly to implement. If anything, the reduction of violence that has been seen in the country since the negotiations started—violent deaths per 100,000 stood at 24 at the end of 2017, the lowest rate in 30 years—has not translated into increased support for ‘peace’ by the population at large. On the contrary, most Colombians are now demanding changes to be introduced to the Havana agreements. In fact, roughly 70 percent of candidates that are running for seats n Congress this year are promising to introduce changes to the accords. In my view, the 2018 election will be decided in the second round, and it will be a sequel of the peace plebiscite that took place a couple of years ago. The center-right will run an anti-impunity and anti-corruption campaign, and the left will run a ‘pro-peace’ and anti-corruption campaign. My base case scenario remains that hard-left candidate Gustavo Petro and center-right candidate Iván Duque will face each other in the runoff, and that Duque will win the election by a relatively comfortable margin. He is a fiscal hawk and clearly one of the most market-friendly candidates in the roster (together with Germán Vargas and Marta Lucia Ramírez). If my view proves inaccurate, and Petro wins, markets will react violently, as Petro’s economic agenda is highly interventionist and not conducive to Colombia remaining a large recipient of foreign direct investment."

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