Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Who Were the Big Winners in Sunday’s Vote in Colombia?

Leftist presidential hopeful Gustavo Petro secured the nomination of the Historic Pact Coalition in Sunday’s balloting in Colombia. // File Photo: Facebook Page of Gustavo Petro. Leftist presidential hopeful Gustavo Petro secured the nomination of the Historic Pact Coalition in Sunday’s balloting in Colombia. // File Photo: Facebook Page of Gustavo Petro.

Colombians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new Senate and Chamber of Representatives, as well as pick from a wide field of presidential primary candidates. There were 103 seats up for grabs in the Senate, and 166 in the Chamber, with five seats reserved in the Senate and 22 in the lower house for special groups. How did the composition of Congress change in the election, and what were the biggest surprises? Which parties had the strongest showing, and which fell short of expectations? Has the balance of power in Congress shifted, or did the status quo endure? Were there any surprises in the level of voter turnout, and what does this say about the mood of voters heading toward the presidential election in May?

Sergio Guzmán, co-founder and director of Colombia Risk Analysis: “It is noteworthy that Sunday’s turnout of 18 million voters was a little over 46 percent of the total eligible electorate. Turnout was in line with previous elections and does not suggest a significant invigoration of the voting public. The composition of Congress will make for a very frustrating four years for the next government. It will be very unlikely that bureaucratic arrangements alone, without genuine programmatic compromise, will provide the next president with any way to effectively govern. Voters cast close to six million ballots more for Congress than they did for the intra-party primaries, suggesting there is plenty of space for presidential candidates to expand their voter base ahead of the first round on May 29, and improve their chances of making it to the second round. While many say this was an election against the political class, establishment political actors are very much alive, and they matter going forward. Any candidate going into the second round who ignores these parties and their interests runs the risk of losing votes. This will have a moderating effect on Federico Gutiérrez, may make Sergio Fajardo more pragmatic and may lead Gustavo Petro to negotiate. Each of these things carries its own risk for the candidates who won their primaries. The presidential election remains competitive on several fronts. This is very much still an anti-incumbent moment, but it is unlikely that the election will be won in the first round, considering there will be a consolidation of candidates after Óscar Iván Zuluaga dropped out of the race, and centrists will find new ways to rally around the front-runner instead of attacking him. Gustavo Petro is leading, but the future of the race depends on who he faces in a runoff. If he stands against Gutiérrez, polls suggest he will win handily, but a runoff vote against Fajardo will be more competitive.”

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director at RTG-Red Team Group: “The left-wing Historic Pact alliance picked up a large number of seats, as did the Liberal and Conservative parties. The other establishment parties such as the Democratic Center, Radical Change, the U Party and the Greens also made significant gains in Sunday’s legislative elections. This means that Colombia’s Congress is and will continue to be very fragmented and factionalized. So regardless of who wins the presidency—Gustavo Petro, Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez or Sergio Fajardo—the next president will be forced to negotiate with several congressional ‘bancadas’ (party representations) to reach the necessary majorities needed to govern this extremely polarized country. Colombia is in dire need of comprehensive tax reform, better roads and highways, access to 21st-century levels of education, reform of the health care and pension systems, and a reduction of violence and insecurity. If the centrist candidate Fajardo—along with independent presidential candidates—throws his combined support behind Gutiérrez, as Óscar Iván Zuluaga did, it seems unlikely that Petro will receive the 10 million-plus votes he would need to win the presidency outright. Depending on a number of factors, and given the volatile nature of Colombia’s politics, one can envision a scenario where Gutiérrez faces off against Petro in the second round. If the current electoral trends continue, Colombians could hope the country’s core conservatism would propel Gutiérrez to victory. Importantly, no one should overlook the open or behind-closed-doors influence of people like Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Germán Vargas Lleras, César Gaviria, Juan Manuel Santos and other political heavyweights in the run-up to the second round. It would also be unwise to ignore the growing political power possessed by Francia Márquez (Historic Pact), Carlos Amaya (Center of Hope), and David Barguil (Conservative) in Colombia’s political landscape. The three did surprisingly well in Sunday’s vote, and they could end up being the future leaders of their respective parties.”

Richard McColl, host of the Colombia Calling podcast: “In the press, much is being made of the Colombian political landscape ‘shifting left,’ and while there is truth to this statement when considering the sizable haul of votes taken by Gustavo Petro—and the impressive showing of second-place candidate Francia Márquez in the presidential primaries—this doesn’t tell the whole story. Even as the current front-runner in May’s presidential elections, it’s unlikely that Petro will win in the first round, as neither history nor figures are on his side. Should Petro win the presidency, he will lack a majority in Congress and find it difficult to pursue an agenda without significant compromises to create coalition support. With the balance of power at an impasse similar to that of the 2018 elections—when leftist Petro was pitted against current right-wing President Iván Duque—will history repeat itself in 2022? This time it’s a contest between Petro and Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez, who eased into the top spot in his Team For Colombia alliance. The ruling Democratic Center party, under the tutelage of floundering candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga, was pummeled in the legislative elections. That party is now throwing its support behind Gutiérrez after Zuluaga dropped out, so the impetus is with ‘Fico’ to try and draw votes away from Sergio Fajardo’s centrist support base. Fajardo, the presidential nominee for the Center of Hope coalition, can celebrate victory over rival Alejandro Gaviria and his flaccid campaign, but he will need to counter negative momentum and entice voters who backed Francia Márquez, Juan Manuel Galán’s New Liberalism party, as well as the traditional Liberal party. Fajardo must also find a way to speak to large swaths of the dissatisfied population that protested nationwide in 2019 and 2021, and work toward a uniting voice rather than the polarization of Gutiérrez and Petro. From now until May 29, we can expect skirmishes between old political bedfellows to strengthen coalitions and settle undecided voters. All three candidates must appeal to traditional establishment parties, such as the Liberals, Conservatives, Radical Change and the U Party, to tap into their considerable political infrastructure at this critical time.” 

Silvana Amaya, senior analyst at Control Risks in Bogotá: “The political landscape in Colombia is changing, and this was on display in Sunday’s legislative elections. Colombia will still face a very fragmented Congress and polarized populace, but with clear signs that Colombians are looking for change, they could choose a left-leaning candidate to govern the country for the first time in history. The left-wing Historic Pact led by presidential hopeful Gustavo Petro attracted 47 percent of votes in the presidential primaries. Petro won the nomination handily (as expected), securing more than 4.4 million votes, which confirms his widespread popularity and the discontent of a large percentage of the population with the political and economic elites. Surprisingly, the center-right also had a strong outcome, garnering 34 percent of the vote. And former Medellín Mayor Federico Gutiérrez positioned himself as the main contender to defeat Petro—especially after Álvaro Uribe’s designated candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, dropped out and threw his support behind Gutiérrez the day after the elections. The biggest loser was the centrist Center of Hope coalition, whose candidate Sergio Fajardo—also a former Medellín mayor and Antioquia province governor—won fewer votes than Francia Márquez, who finished second in the Historic Pact primary. Despite the strong showing of the left in the primaries, Congress will remain fragmented. Colombia’s traditional parties (including the Liberals and Conservatives) are still highly influential, as both are among the three largest blocs in the Senate and the Chamber. Even if Petro can forge an alliance with the Liberals, as has been rumored, he still will need to secure the support of other parties to pass key reforms, given that his Historic Pact alliance is far from possessing a simple majority in Congress.” 


Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.

Related Links

Suggested Content

Latin America’s Political Pendulum

The pendulum of Latin American politics is swinging rightward once again. Yet as the “pink tide” recedes, the forces of change have more to do with socioeconomics than ideology. Dramatic economic and political crises have coincided in countries like Brazil and Venezuela. Still, the final result for Latin America may be the emergence of centrist, pragmatic modes of governance, and with them, opportunities for the U.S. to improve relations. The new administration must look beyond the neoliberal model of the 1990s, and develop an approach to relations fit for the 21st century.

˙Michael Shifter

Who Has the Edge in Colombia’s Presidential Race?

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?

˙Maria Velez de Berliner

photo of Michael Shifter

“Es exagerado afirmar que si Petro gana, Colombia sería otra Venezuela”

La izquierda y el fervor religioso se hacen un lugar en medio de los históricos récords de impopularidad de los mandatarios salientes este año: Santos, Temer, Peña Nieto, Cartes y Solís, quienes difícilmente superan el 20 por ciento de aprobación a su gestión. Michael Shifter analiza en esta entrevista con Semana este incierto panorama político de 2018.

˙Michael Shifter