The battle-weary Wilmer walked past the encampments to the public library of Santa Lucia. Flanked by his two sons, he made the long muddy walk up to vote in the 2018 presidential elections. 20 of his 40 years were spent as a member of the 18th Front of the FARC and, with the birth of peace between the infamous guerrilla group and the government in 2016, he was excited about his first time as a participant in a presidential election.
“I feel Colombian today,” he said, “Even more than before, because now we’re all under the law.”
Like many of the former FARC ex-combatants that lived in the reintegration zone in Santa Lucia, Wilmer voted for Gustavo Petro. The very fact that a candidate like Petro is running in an election so soon after peace was borne has been a compelling narrative during this election cycle. A former member of the M-19 guerrilla group in the 80s, Petro couldn’t have been a more fitting candidate for new voters when Rodrigo Londoño, leader of the FARC, stepped out of the race in April this year.
Petro’s past however, while relatable and a source of hope to FARC members, continues to cause concern among many voters. The argument “once a soldier, always a soldier” is enough for many to be wary of casting their ballot for Petro, who had been a member of the rebel group that disarmed in 1990. Despite having served as councillor, Senator and then Mayor of Bogotá, there remain many who see him as a ‘guerrilla’ rather than a politician.
Former Mayor of Bogotá and Green Party Leader Antanus Mockus, who supported Sergio Fajardo in the first round, wrote an op-ed this week stating that, rather than being a deterrent, this ought to be why people ought to vote for Petro. “More than two decades ago,” Mockus wrote of Petro, “he unilaterally and irreversibly renounced the path of arms, opted for the path of democracy and has remained that way.”
It wasn’t just Petro’s past that attracted voters like Wilmer, they also related deeply with his message of equality and his demands of a society that shed itself of the excesses of capitalism.
Yet that flight from capitalism is another major concern that Colombian voters have in voting from Petro. Many continue to fear that he will turn Colombia into Venezuela, a country that has now become a byword for economic mismanagement and a humanitarian crisis. Private investors have openly stated their nervousness of keeping their money in Colombia. It’s entirely possible that the fear of becoming Venezuela may be the reason that Petro continues to lag in the polls and if success were to come his way on Sunday night, it will be as a result of him effectively making the case for why such fears are misplaced.
Another concern, raised more by his supporters than his detractors, is whether Petro, if elected, can be successful in initiating his agenda given the intense opposition that he will face. His inability to govern efficiently also plagued his years as Mayor of Bogotá where administrative lapses unceremoniously ended his tenure in the capital. To this end, Petro has done himself no favours in openly calling the opposition ‘rapists’, ‘murderers’ and even comparing Duque to Hitler.
His vice presidential candidate Angela Robledo relayed to The Bogotá Post that it has been a golden rule for the campaign, even if not always followed to the letter, that insults have no place in the discourse over truthful arguments: “An insult is a lost vote,” she told us, “an insult is an unnecessary offense. We prefer to use arguments, we prefer to recognize the emotions, which can be indignation, sometimes anger. But in a country that has lived so many years in war, it needs to rid itself of the hatred, resentment and the indignation that is present here.”
Instead, Robledo insisted that the message ought to remain on the desire to end internal conflicts and shirk Colombia’s reputation as an unequal country.
“Colombians love their country,” she said, “so sometimes they can be misguided. But as García Márquez says, here in the midst of violence life emerges.”
Despite the concerns relating to his past, his economic program or his inability to moderate his language, this much is true: Petro has come further than any previous left-leaning candidate before him. “Petro is hope” according to some like former combatant Wilmer. Come Sunday, the question will be what hope does Petro have to win?
With reporting by Arjun Harindranath and Sophie Foggin.