MS Risk Blog

Colombia Elects its First Ever Leftist President

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On 19 June, Gustavo Petro was elected as the next president of Colombia, with 50.8% of the vote. His rival, Rodolfo Hernandez, gained 46.9%. A current senator and previous mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro was also a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement.

Petro’s victory marks the first time the country has seen a leftist president. His vice president will be Francia Márquez, a prize-winning defender of human rights, marking the first time that a black woman will occupy the post. Colombians opting for leftist Petro over populist Hernandez is the latest continuation of a region-wide trend, as in the last couple of years multiple South American countries have selected left wing leadership. In 2021, Chilean presidential elections saw Gabriel Boric being voted in, and Pedro Castillo was elected president of Peru. Silvana Amaya, an analyst at Control Risks consultancy in Bogota, describes Petro’s victory as “historic,”, elaborating that “Colombia has traditionally voted very conservative. This marks a big change, a move to a very different economic model.”

Luis Eduardo Celis, of Colombian thinktank the Peace and Reconciliation foundation, lists a number of the issues that Petro will need to address including “agrarian reform, an economy at the service of the people, a more equitable taxation, to get out of hunger, out of poverty, to put an end to all that violence.” Petro himself advocates that he will listen to “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth.”

Petro is expected to take a new approach to historic domestic issues, such as Colombia’s problem with armed groups. Of particular importance will be managing the situation with former FARC dissidents and The ELN (National Liberation Army) – the two largest guerrilla groups in the country. Fighting between former FARC members and the ELN has caused significant numbers of civilian casualties over recent months. January saw 23 people killed in Arauca over one weekend. At least 66 people were killed in the region overall, and at least 1,200 people were displaced by the violence according to Colombia’s ombudsman’s office. The resurgence of violence from the FARC is thought to be in large part due to current president Ivan Duque’s disregard for conditions of the 2016 peace agreement, where the FARC agreed to disarm in exchange for being permitted to re-integrate into society without retribution. Though Petro has not provided specific details of his planned security policy, it seems likely that it will differ from Duque’s approach and hopefully see more success. An early indicator of this is that the ELN have now expressed that they are open to dialogue with Petro.

Petro proposes some revolutionary reforms to Colombia’s economy, pledging to reduce Colombia’s dependence on raw materials extraction, particularly oil. If he executes his plan to ban new contracts for oil exploration, Colombia would become the world’s biggest crude exporter (in terms of crude oil’s share of the country’s total exports) to take this step. He says that he would honour existing exploration and production contracts, in order to eventually replace oil revenues gradually with revenue from other sectors such as agriculture, manufactured goods, tourism, and clean energy. It would be a considerable amount to make up via other means since The Colombian Association of Petroleum and Gas estimated in May that banning new oil contracts could cost the government around $4.5 billion in tax revenue by 2026.

On international matters, it is likely that Petro’s election will lead to a renewed relationship with neighbouring Venezuela. He has advocated for reneging Duque’s policy of isolation, and opening dialogue with Nicolas Maduro. This approach is unlikely to be well received by the U.S. and other countries who support the opposition government led by Juan Guaido.