Colombia at a crossroads: What is at stake in Sunday’s presidential election?

Photo: Gustavo Petro meeting workers during the second round campaign. Credit — @petrogustavo

For more information about the election and the results of the first round, read Liberation’s previous coverage

Three days before the presidential elections, 43 leaders of the 2021 national strike protests were arrested in Colombia. This, along with the deployment of 320,000 uniformed personnel, was all part of an operation ordered by the Minister of Defense after meetings with high level officials of the police, military, and outgoing president Ivan Duque – in anticipation of possible protests and demonstrations in response to the results of the upcoming presidential election run-off this Sunday.

This comes only a day after yet another Indigenous leader was assasinated in the city of Popayan, bringing the total number of social movement leaders murdered in 2022 to 88.

This is the backdrop that the Colombian run-off election will take place under, one of the most important and polarizing contests of all time in this country long plagued by war, inequality, and state-sanctioned terror.

The run-off is set to be a very challenging and close race for the progressive ticket of Gustavo Petro and Afro-Colombian environmental movement leader Francia Márquez, which came in first with more than 40 percent of the vote in the first round. In their way stands millionaire businessman and official candidate of the right wing, Rodolfo Hernandez.

Petro and Francia’s campaign expresses the message of change demanded by the very same leaders that were recently arrested. It speaks to the aspirations of the tens of millions of Colombians living in poverty, hit hard by the pandemic and the deepening of neoliberal policies in Colombia. Their base of support includes the students who are demanding free access to higher education in the face of privatization and debt, rural communities demanding land rights and reform, street vendors and self-employed individuals, as well as those demanding the upholding of the 2016 Havana peace accords.

On the other hand, Rodolfo Hernandez, who is being represented by a media blitz as a “populist” and “anti-corruption” candidate, represents nothing but the continuation of decades of right-wing rule that have brought the country terrible violence, huge inequality, and state-sanctioned terror. Hernandez is a wild card that the extreme right has decided to take a gamble on in order to capture tepid conservative voters who have turned their backs on the traditional right wing along with undecided voters attracted to his presentation as an “outsider.” 

Hernandez has tried to distance himself from the right by supporting several progressive measures — positions that on more than one occasion he has walked back. Ultimately, he is proposing a traditional conservative fiscal policy to reduce spending by eliminating much needed programs and public institutions like the High Counselor’s Office for Women’s Equity. He once said on a live interview that women should stay at home, because no one takes their word seriously in government.

What has happened since the first round

Since the first round of elections, the country has seen a number of scandals, continued assassination of social leaders, and allegations of voting irregularities. The Historic Pact campaign, Petro and Francia’s coalition, filed several lawsuits demanding the audit of polling stations where hundreds of irregularities were found. This comes as no surprise since during March’s parliamentary elections the Historic Pact coalition received an additional 500,000-plus votes that had not been attributed to them after many discrepancies were found during the initial count.

Another key development has been the release by a right wing media outlet of highly-edited videos taken of meetings between members of Petro’s campaign. “I am certain that my life is at risk,” Hernandez ridiculously said on Twitter in a series of tweets about the leaked videos showing Petro advisers discussing strategy and how to expose Hernandez’s deep flaws to the public. Petro replied saying these “petrovideos” are actually proof his campaign is being targeted. Hernandez’s recent claims can not be taken seriously when juxtaposed to the political genocide social movements and leftist candidates have endured in Colombia. 

His unfounded claim of fearing for his life serves as a convenient excuse to flee the country and avoid a debate with Gustavo Petro. Hernandez ran away to Miami saying he wouldn’t come back until his safety was guaranteed. 

Francia Marquez and Gustavo Petro have been the targets of multiple confirmed death threats. They have been forced to give speeches on the campaign trail behind a figurative curtain of fear and a literal curtain of bulletproof shields held by bodyguards. On the contrary, Rodolfo has been a no-show for Colombian workers and farmers, and a no-show at any of the last two nationally televised debates. He only uses social media to communicate and has refused to give any interviews with media his campaign hasn’t cherry-picked.

Colombia for decades has been the United States’ number-one ally in the region and the biggest receiver of military aid. In addition to profound geopolitical consequences for the Americas, the election’s outcome will have deep political and social impacts inside the country. The people’s movements have made it possible that in a country where right wing terror reigns supreme, a left wing progressive ticket is now closer than ever to winning the presidency. That is a source of hope that the Colombian ruling class desperately wants to repress. 

This is not some unfounded fear or paranoia. Colombia has a long and bloody history of political genocide against political and social movements. Ever since the peace accords, room was made for demobilized ex-combatants to come out in the open from their clandestine positions to participate in the public sector. If Hernandez wins, there is fear that the wave of violence that has been unleashed on the leaders of the Colombian working class and peasant movements will intensify. So far over 1,000 social leaders and demobilized combatants have been assassinated since the signing of the peace accords, with most of these murders occurring under the current president’s administration – a major reason for last year’s National Strike. 

The National Strike

Before being threatened with a laser in her face in the middle of the stage on the eve of the first-round elections, Francia Marquez gave a historic speech that touched the hearts of the people who yearn for change in Colombia. She declared, “I know that many of you have been told to be afraid of change, what we have to be afraid of is that nothing will change in our country, what we have to be afraid of is that massacres will continue in our country, that our young people will continue to have their eyes gouged out and killed for demanding education, fear that as a society we will not be able to give a legacy to our future generations.”

Francia was referring to the massive national strike protests that erupted last year, when millions of Colombians brought the country to a halt for 50 days of mass mobilization against not only the government’s anti-worker tax reform, but also the Duque administration’s negligence in handling COVID-19 and the violations of the peace accords. The state responded brutally using police, special units such as ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios) and the military to repress the protesters. 

State forces exercised systematic violence against the people. At the end of the national strike, according to the organization Temblores, nearly 2,000 cases of police violence, more than 40 homicides, more than 1,000 cases of arbitrary detentions, 28 cases of eye assaults, 12 cases of sexual violence, and 548 missing persons were registered. These figures are conservative and many abuses have not been officially reported.

The national strike protests were the third consecutive year of mass demonstrations in Colombia. In Colombia and in other parts of Latin America that have erupted in protest against neoliberal governments, people have embraced the slogan that, “they have taken away everything from us, even fear”. That is why Petro and Francia’s campaign enjoys such a massive outpouring of support – the Colombian people are yearning for a historic change.

The Historic Pact

Petro and Francia are part of the Pacto Historico, a big tent coalition of the left including Petro’s Humane Colombia party along with many other political organizations and social movements such as the Colombian Communist Party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, the Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement, the Congress of the People, The Citizens Power Movement, and the Patriotic Union. He also has the backing and support of many more mass movements and parties of a broad political spectrum. 

The main challenge for the Petro and Francia campaign during the runoff has been to amass votes from the millions who refuse to see another four years of far right rule and from supporters of other candidates that lost in the first round. One of these is Sergio Fajardo, a centrist candidate who got a little over 4% of the vote. Fajardo in the past acted as a proxy for the right, and is partially responsible for Petro’s defeat in 2018 by urging many of his supporters to vote blank ballots during the runoff between Petro and Duque. After his first round defeat this time around he pledged to endorse Hernandez as long as he turns down the backing and support from Uribistas.

In her historic speech, Francia ended with an emotional message of resistance and hope:

“I did not ask to be in politics, but politics has messed with our lives, and has made our lives miserable. That patriarchal, hegemonic, racist, and classist politics. That is the politics that today we want to transform with our president Gustavo Petro and his vice-president Francia Marquez. The time has come for the nobodies to stand up, for the Blacks, the Indigenous people, the peasants, the popular sectors, the historically excluded people, to join hands in order to bring change.”

Petro enjoys broad support from several social movements. Urban feminist popular movements, which were part of Petro’s 2018 presidential campaign, supported him because he was the only candidate promoting progressive reforms such as eliminating the tax on feminine hygiene products, supporting LGBTQ rights, fighting for reusable energy, and police reform including the abolition of the ESMAD.

In order to secure a victory this time around he considered it necessary to build a broader coalition. Although the Historic Pact performed well in the March parliamentary elections, right-wing parties still hold a majority in both houses of Congress. A victory this Sunday will be a major step, but it is only one step on a long and difficult road to change in Colombia.

The right-wing parties hold 55 of the 108 seats in the Senate. For its part, the Historic Pact has 16 seats and the support of the Alternative Indigenous and Social Movement (MAIS) and the Movement of Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO), with 1 seat each. It will also have to seek the support of the center-left Alianza Verde and the Coalición Centro Esperanza (14 seats) and the Liberal Party (15 seats) to move forward with the necessary social reforms. Likewise, in the House of Representatives right-wing forces have a majority. 


Petro’s strategy of seeking allies from a much broader base in hopes of breaking the “vote ceiling” and winning comes with major challenges. Luis Perez, former governor of Antioquia department and author of a book glorifying Uribe, and Alfredo Saade, a pro-life, anti-gay Christian leader, are two traditional right-wing leaders now supporting Petro. This tactic has drawn criticism from the left, including from some of the same feminists who are among his staunchest allies.

Although Petro does not support the criminalization of abortion, he does not consider himself “pro-abortion” either. On the contrary, in the debates he has said that he supports prevention campaigns that will lead the country to “zero abortion”. After the historic victory in Colombia that decriminalized abortion, Petro explained in an interview in the New York Times that the path to “zero abortion” is “…with education, sexual prevention, opening up equal opportunities for women and men, empowering women. In perspective, a society that opens the doors to education and gender equality should see its abortion statistics decline year after year.” In another interview he states, “Abortion today is a reality in Colombia. There are tens of thousands of abortions. Thousands of women die clandestinely in abortions. We have a judicial system that prosecutes more women for abortions, as criminals, than men for sexually abusing women.” 

At the same time, Francia Márquez openly disagreed with Petro in a debate in December. “I ask Petro, how many women have to die, how many women have to go through these painful situations until ‘zero abortion’ arrives?” she said. “The reality is that women are dying every day … I don’t share the ‘zero abortion’ story,” Francia continued, “because while we are working to get to ‘zero,’ it is Indigenous, Black and impoverished rural women who are dying in the most remote place in this country.”

Economic justice, education and health

Petro’s campaign has proposed replacing the economy’s dependence on fossil fuels, mining and hydrocarbon extraction with agriculture. To this end, he plans to introduce an agrarian reform and seeks to increase the property tax on large estates of more than 500 hectares of fertile but unproductive land. “Those who have governed us for years have expropriated our rights, our lands, our lives. We propose appropriation so that the fundamentals are guaranteed: land to produce, knowledge to create and credit to undertake,” he said in a debate on March 14, a day after the parliamentary elections. “We are going to create an International Global Fund to save the Amazon rainforest and combat climate change. We are going to change the drug policy in Colombia for one that boosts food production with agribusiness to replace coca leaf cultivation,” he added.

Petro has promised to present a tax reform that eliminates corporate exemptions and increases taxes on the wealthy. He has pledged to transform the minimum wage to a living wage and has promised to make reforms to the current private pension system to achieve a minimum pension. “Colombians will have a decent public pension that will allow them to live well and with greater peace of mind in their old age. It is time for our fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers to be able to go to bed without hunger, with a full stomach,” Petro said.

Petro pledged to increase the current budgets for education, culture and sports. Other proposals include a universal public health system for prevention and primary care, electric transportation and free drinking water. “In our government public health will be preventive, we will take thousands of doctors to the homes of Colombians to attend to families,” Petro said.

A strong critic of the U.S.-led “war on drugs” in Colombia, Petro wants to renegotiate a 2006 bilateral trade agreement that has hurt Colombian farmers and manufacturers. 

Racism and the environmental struggle

Francia Márquez has fought racism and threats to the environment throughout her life. She is the daughter of miners and a native of the small town of Yolombo, in the Cauca Valley, on Colombia’s Pacific coast. This region is home to a large percentage of Afro-Colombians and regularly subjected to right-wing paramilitary violence.

At the age of 13, Francia Márquez became a leader who took up the fight for environmental and ancestral land rights. She organized a 350-mile, 10-day protest march from the district of La Toma in Cauca to the capital, Bogotá, with 80 women to demand an end to illegal mining operations. This ended with a sit-in at the Ministry of the Interior. Once in Bogotá, Francia and the women spent 22 days protesting in the streets, finally reaching an agreement with the Colombian government to take action and eradicate illegal mining in La Toma. 

In 2018, she won the highest award recognizing environmental defenders – the Goldman Environmental Prize – in the most dangerous country to do that work. She has become a powerful example to others overcoming racism, sexism and corruption to lead the La Toma struggle and many subsequent people’s struggles. Of the six presidential tickets in the first round, four had an Afro-Colombian female vice presidential candidate, a remarkable change in a country historically run by white men from a small group of elite families. 

Francia has focused her campaign on the need for economic investment in rural areas affected by armed conflict, the environment and ensuring the implementation of the 2016 peace accords. She has called on the country’s oppressed peoples to unite, invoking the movement for Black lives by appealing to supporters “to break the structural racism that has not let us breathe.”

Francia and Petro, while admitting fear for their lives, reiterate that no threats or violence can stop this movement. The Colombian people have suffered an infamous civil war for over 60 years. They have resisted and survived every form of violence and oppression that has come their way, and they understand that this will be no different.

Petro and Francia ended their first round victory speech on May 29 by thanking their supporters from the regions where they enjoyed the most support – Cundinamarca, Choco, Narino, and Valle del Cauca. Petro also gave special thanks to the Colombian Caribbean Coast where he is from, as is the famous Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This year is the 55th anniversary of the publication of his world famous novel 100 years of Solitude. In anticipation of the June 19th runoff election where millions of Colombians will vote for a new path, Petro declared: 

“We, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of an opposite world. A new and sweeping new world of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

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