Colombia elections: More than a two-horse race

By Emma Newbery May 29, 2022

Colombians will vote today in the first round of the country’s 2022 presidential elections. 

Colombia elections: People queuing up in the rain from early in the morning to vote for the Presidential elections.
Colombia elections: People queu up in the rain from early in the morning to vote for the Presidential elections. Photo: Ángela Forero Aponte

Colombians take to the polls today to vote for one of six presidential candidates. Everybody’s talking about Gustavo Petro, but there’s a genuine question about who will join him if there’s a second round. The other two candidates that stand out in the race are Federico Gutiérrez and Rodolfo Hernández. Today we’ll discover how accurate the pollsters are and whether Rodolfo’s surge will take him above Fico. We’ll also find out just how much support Petro has, and whether Colombia might be ready for left-wing governance. 

If one candidate can win more than 50% of the vote in the first round, they’ll win the race outright. The more likely scenario is that there won’t be a clear winner and we’ll move to a second round. On June 19, the two candidates with the highest number of votes will then face off against each other. At 8 am this morning, over 80,000 mesas de votación opened in over 11,000 locations, which will close at 4 pm this afternoon. Results will come in thick and fast after that as nearly 700,000 people help out with the counting. We should know the results by the evening. 

Gustavo Petro is leading the polls

Leading the polls is Petro. Colombia has never really had a left-wing president, and some are nervous about the possible impacts of a Petro win. With high levels of poverty and inequality, faltering implementation of the peace deal, and growing frustration with the status quo, many want change – in any form. That’s what Petro and his running mate, ​​Francia Márquez, promise. However, others fear that same change, predicting economic issues and problems for country’s international relations, particularly with the USA. If he gets around 40% in the first round, he’ll be in a strong position. Any lower, and he could well struggle.

Recent years have seen increasing numbers of protests, some of which have turned violent. What began as protests against unpopular tax reforms spread to a general expression of discontent. Plus, for those living in rural Colombia, the idea of peace is still a distant dream – in reality, the conflict continues. Not only have illegal armed groups filled the vacuum left by the FARC, but many of the commitments made in the country’s historic peace agreement also remain unmet. That matters because the agreement was a framework for long term peace, including commitments: things like land reform and tackling injustice.

As WOLA put it in an analysis of the first five years of the peace accord, “It offers a blueprint for how to work with communities – most of who had almost no prior contact with their government – to address their isolation, poverty, uncertain land tenure, dependence on illicit economies, and lack of protection.” The report explained, “Colombia – especially rural Colombia – remains the most dangerous place on the planet to be a civil-society leader, human rights defender, or environmental defender, while journalists and opposition political leaders remain very vulnerable.”

Fico and Rodolfo challenging for second place

Petro’s main rival is conservative candidate Federico Gutiérrez, aka Fico. Petro does have a clear lead in the polls, but polls have been unreliable over the last decade. Plus, it’s difficult to measure the strength of the ‘anyone but Petro’ sentiment. Fico is seen as the right-wing candidate and more of the same, though if you read his manifesto, his economic proposals are not actually all that right wing – on paper at least. 

Fico can count on a large number of conservative voters, as well as a chunk of the ‘anyone but Petro’ group. He proposes a relatively austere program of public spending and offers a safe choice for the establishment. However, he’s lost ground recently as a third candidate has gained traction. The real dark horse in the race is Rodolfo Hernández. 

Hernández, commonly known as simply Rodolfo, is a construction business tycoon with a  straightforward anti-corruption message that has garnered support. Put simply, he offers change, promises to fight corruption, and he is not Petro. Rodolfo has found particular success on social media and an article in Al Jazeera compared him to Donald Trump. Interestingly, a recent report from Capital Economics said the economy would probably suffer the most under Rodolfo. It raised concerns about Rodolfo’s steep tax cuts and loose fiscal policy.

General discontent

The challenge for all the candidates is that Colombians have little faith in their politicians and some are clearer on what they don’t want than what they do. It’s difficult to galvanise people or make them believe in change when few people can articulate what concrete changes they want. Following the pandemic, people are certainly tired of the status quo and frustrated by the increasing cost of their weekly food basket. The trouble is that several people we spoke to are unconvinced any of the candidates will solve those issues. 

“It’s like a box of eggs,” said one Bogotano. “They’re all the same inside.” The taxi driver’s antipathy is not so unusual: Petro may have more support than he did last time but some dismiss him because of his past as an M-19 guerilla. Others – like my taxi driver – simply blame all politicians and corruption for all of the country’s problems. The way that Rodolfo has shot up in the polls in recent weeks is more a reflection of frustration with the alternatives than necessarily an endorsement of the man himself.

Few are willing to predict the outcome of today’s elections as there are too many unknown factors. What’s for sure is that the second round will be an entirely different kettle of fish. It will be much more polarised and may look more like a referendum. Whichever person faces Petro, there will be strong lines of difference between the two camps. Whoever wins in the end, there will be a large contingent of very sore losers. With ever-growing fears of fraud, it’s also likely that there will be challenges and suspicion about the validity of any result. One thing is for sure: the next few weeks will be full of rancour and bile and light on decency.