Colombia’s VERY Surprising Presidential Election

Colombia held the first round of its presidential elections on May 29th and it is hard to overstate just how surprised most analysts were by the results. For generations, Colombia has been dominated by a small political establishment that ranges from the center right to the hard right. Unlike other countries in the Latin America, Colombia has never elected a President from the left wing; nor has Colombia ever experienced a right wing populist.

Yet this be the choice as Colombians head to the polls in a run-off presidential election on June 19th.

The left wing politician Gustavo Petro earned about 40% of the vote in the first round; and defying all expectations, a 77 year old right wing populist Rudolfo Hernandez bested the establishment candidate to come in second place, with about 28% of the vote. His personal wealth, bluster, and clever use of social media have earned comparisons to Donald Trump.

My guest today, Elizabeth Dickinson, is Senior Analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group. She breaks down the first round election results and explains why these results are so surprising. We take a deep dive into the interesting biographies of these candidates then have an extended conversation about what these elections mean for the worsening security situation in Colombia and a landmark 2016 peace deal that ended Colombia’s long running civil war with the FARC insurgency.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What Happened in Colombia’s Presidential Election?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:02:58] So I think what this result represents is really a demonstration of the extent of frustration with the traditional political elite here in Colombia. I think what we had expected to happen was for this really to go into a second-round contest between Gustavo Petro Cruz, the left leaning former mayor of Bogota, who has really pitched himself as sort of an outsider and someone who’s ready to shake up the system, and a candidate that was very much supported by the establishment who was Federico Gutierrez, otherwise known as FICO. And we had expected those two to go into the second round and really for this to be sort of a contest between the political structures of the past, really, and this new model that Petro represents. What we got instead is two candidates who really embody the frustration with the political class and who are essentially populists aiming towards a sector of the population that is really just frustrated with the daily realities of life and have been able to read that sentiment and read the room well enough to capture it in their own rhetoric.

What role have Colombia’s internal conflicts played on the shaping of their political parties?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:03] So it’s fair to say that throughout most of Colombia’s modern history, that politics has been dominated by the center right and the right-wing establishment parties. But now you have these very surprising results in which you have a left-wing populist and a right-wing populist in Hernandez. Is that right?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:04:24] Yeah, that’s exactly right. So, I think the juncture that we’re in is really important to understand and why Colombia is in this moment only now. And unlike other countries in the region, Colombians really never had an experience of a left-wing president in its recent modern history. And that has everything to do with the civil conflict that it has been living for the last 50 years. That was a conflict that pitted the Colombian state against several insurgency groups, the largest of which was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. And the FARC and the Colombian state signed a peace agreement in 2016 that really reshaped the landscape for a few reasons. First, because left wing politicians up to that point really faced a very strong social and political stigma as somehow being sympathetic or aligned or too close to these leftist insurgent guerrillas that were threatening the state. So, their possibilities electorally were always just very limited. But even beyond that, I think the range of issues that were okay to talk about in Colombian politics really revolved around this existential conflict between the state and these insurgent movements. It was really taboo to go into topics like social inequality or frustration with the economic situation because it was like, wait, no, wait a minute, we have a more urgent threat, which is this internal civil conflict. And that really facilitated, I think, the perpetuation of a right leaning status quo that has really existed in Colombia since violence first emerged in the 20th century. And what we’ve seen since the peace accord, again, is that all of those limitations on politics sort of evaporated. So now it’s okay to talk about these things. Now they boil to the surface very visibly, and now we have a wider range of politicians who are entering the conversation without that cloud of stigma shrouding them.

Who is Gustavo Petro?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:25] So that status quo has now been seemingly shattered with the first round of the Colombian elections, which saw the left winger Gustavo Petro and the more right-wing firebrand Rodolfo Hernandez elected. Both have really interesting biographies, and I’d love to dive deep into each. Can we start with Gustavo Petro? What’s his background?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:06:52] So Gustavo Petro has really been a staple of the political left for many decades. So, he as a young student, was part of an urban based guerrilla movement called M19 and the M19 movement again had a leftist ideology with what was very much based in universities in Colombia, very politically driven. After the M19 demobilized, Petro remained an academic and a thinker and an activist. He was a senator very successfully. He was the mayor of Bogota, a very interesting, tumultuous, but also in some ways successful in terms of what he was trying to accomplish. He certainly expanded, I think, social programs, access to key services in the city, just as he’s now promising to do at a national level. But I think, you know, one of the major obstacles that Petro faces, because he’s been a face that’s been around for some time, his rhetoric is a bit populist again, which is clearly the mood of the moment. But I think in this political traditional establishment, he has certainly been flagged as and stigmatized and accused of being someone who will take Colombia toward Venezuela model, who will, you know, drive the economy into the ground, will expropriate: all things that he denies. But there’s certainly this sort of picture around him. He’s a larger-than-life personality in many ways, frankly. The campaign up to this moment has not been about so much issues but been about whether you’re anti or pro Petro.

What are the current economic and social conditions in Colombia?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:23] And presumably being pro Petro means you support a broadly socialist agenda that is up till now, something of an anathema to Colombian politics, right?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:08:37] That’s right and I mean, I think it is really important to remember what’s happened in recent years, again, since the signing of the peace agreement, when all of this space opened to talk about social grievances. Last year, we had mass protests across all of Colombia that shut down the country for two or three months. That was really an expression of the level of frustration that ordinary citizens of Colombia enjoy, and the levels of inequality and social mobility here are staggering. One of my favorites, because it’s the most telling statistic is from the OECD, which indicates that for a poor family to advance to a median income, so sort of just mid-level, it would take 11 generations in the current economic system. So, what does Petro promise? Petro promises to open up opportunities in terms of education, in terms of pension reform, in terms of health services, and frankly, to make the elite a little bit more uncomfortable because there’s this model of, they win and everyone else loses, as he, I think would describe it, is clearly not satisfying the majority of Colombians.

Who is Rodolfo Hernandez?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:44] So as you said, it was expected that Petro would advance to the second round of the presidential election. What was not expected was the showing of Rodolfo Hernandez. Can you describe his background and profile? He seems like a wild character.

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:10:04] He is quite a character. That’s exactly, I think, the way to describe him and I think exactly why he has been able to plug into this moment. So, if this was a little election that was going to favor outsiders, Rodolfo Hernandez is the outsider. He is a businessman from Santander, which is a region of Colombia that’s home to the third or fourth largest city, Bucaramanga, and he made his career up from a very modest upbringing through property development and the selling and repurposing of land. Today, he’s a multimillionaire and speaks very freely his mind. He is clearly someone who has strong opinions about the political class. He describes them as corrupt and useless. He has almost a Trumpian character to him in the sense that he doesn’t have a filter. And he, I think, says a lot of the things that many Colombians feel inside, particularly about the exploitation and corruption in the system, and he’s been able to channel that very, very well. Interestingly, his entire campaign has essentially been waged on social media. He hasn’t shown up to debates. He hasn’t held campaign events. His campaign is extremely small. We’re talking about maximum, maybe a dozen people. It’s a very closed circle of advisers. He’s clearly the manager and chief type personality, wants to make the decisions, a bit distrustful of certainly, you know, the politicians who have, I imagine, approached him in recent days. And again, you know, I think what makes this contest now really interesting is that both Petro and Hernandez have a real opinion vote from the disaffected population of the lower class and also the working class. And frankly, you know, because inequality is so stark in Colombia, that could very easily propel either of them to victory, even without the traditional machinations of Colombian politics, which has involved in the past vote buying, very specific organizing, collecting of votes by traditional parties. Those mechanisms are being thrown up into the air with this contest between two people who are really, they haven’t built themselves necessarily so much on that system.


[00:12:25] What policies does Rodolfo Hernandez say he will enact if he becomes president of Colombia?


Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:26] Other than being bombastic and focusing on corruption, does Hernandez have any discernible policy platforms?


Elizabeth Dickinson [00:12:38] So we’ve started to see in recent days he just released his program and has started to, I think, put a little bit more skin on the bones of, again, his main focus, which is this idea of cracking down on corruption. Some of the things that he promises to do, for example, are to reduce the VAT tax, eliminate it altogether on food, for example. And so that certainly is a popular type of policy to, you know, to appeal to the general population. On foreign policy and geopolitical type issues, he wants to legalize marijuana and possibly even other drugs as well, arguing that the current approach is not working. I mean, he’s threatened to close embassies and sell the houses in order to regain revenues and spend them on paying student debt. I mean, his policies are very much along the lines of cleaning house, rooting out these systematic interests that have gone into the system. But again, the specifics, especially on corruption and anti-corruption programs are very unclear at the moment. What we have, again, is a lot of dart throwing at the wall to see what sticks. And I think it’s going to be interesting to see who populates that campaign in the next two weeks to try to really convince voters that there is a program behind all of this.

Why is the right-wing in Colombia supporting Hernandez despite his anti-corruption claims?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:59] Given that his rhetoric seems to be devoted to cleaning house, as you said, is it surprising or interesting to you that the establishment seems to be rallying behind Hernandez? I saw, for example, that Gutierrez immediately gave his support to Hernandez, and it seems, from what I’m reading, that most of that conservative right-wing establishment in Colombia politics that has become so entrenched is supporting Hernandez.

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:14:29] I think there’s two dynamics that we really have to keep in mind here. The first one is something that is really hard to understand, I think, outside of Colombia, which is just the depth and extent of what we call here, Petro-phobia. So basically, this idea that if Petro is able to take power, somehow, he’s going to completely unravel the entire economic system, he’s going to take the country towards a disaster as Chavez and then Maduro have done, supposedly. And we have to remember that Colombia now is home to several million Venezuelan migrants. So, the experience of watching those individuals flee Venezuela, the stories they tell, the extent of their economic deprivation and really poverty, I think is a very powerful model for many Colombians to say, you know, these leftist leaders, I don’t know. Petro himself is a polarizing character. And he has certainly built up his base, and it has grown, for example, since the last time he ran for president four years ago. It has grown significantly. I think the Petro-phobia, this idea that anyone is better than Petro has also expanded and that’s very much the logic that moves us towards Hernandez. I think one of the key dynamics and a way to understand why Hernandez emerged as the next candidate and the candidate that will face him in a second round is really because of this fear of Petro. And the polling several weeks ago, for the second round, mapping out if certain candidates advance, who would win. It showed that the previous establishment candidate, FICO Gutierrez, would not win necessarily against Petro in a second round. Hernandez however, again, because he has this real opinion vote, he appeals to, frankly, some of the same population that Petro appeals to, he was polling much better. And today, the first polls that came out for a second round showed that he’s as many as seven polling points ahead of Petro in the second round. So, you know polling has never been perfect here and there’s a lot of caveats to add to that, but I think that one of the reasons we saw a significant shift from the right towards Hernandez was simply out of a logic to beat Petro.

How might escalating violence in Colombia affect the presidential election in June?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:40] So I’m curious to learn from you how the security situation in Colombia is informing politics. You wrote in a recent piece on the Crisis Group’s website that the country is entering a dangerous period with armed groups across the board intensifying their use of violence so far in the first few months of this year. Can you describe that security dynamic and weigh in on how that security dynamic is informing voters as they head to the polls in late June or mid-June?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:17:15] Yeah, absolutely, so just a bit of context, when the peace agreement was signed in 2016 with the FARC, what it did was remove the largest actor of conflict. But what it didn’t do was have a solution for how to fill those gaps and vacuums that were left behind and unfortunately, what we’ve seen in the last four years is that other armed groups and criminal organizations have been much more adept at filling those spaces than the Colombian state. So, for example, in a rural area that is where coca is grown or there’s a trafficking route along rivers, it has been much easier for criminal and armed groups to move into those areas than for the military and social services. And it’s two visions of the state simply haven’t, frankly, had the will or the capability to keep up with that dynamic. As a result, we really have a conflict that hasn’t gone away, but it’s simply been reconfigured. We have more actors on the ground. We have more armed groups with more localized interests that are not necessarily driven by ideology as in the past, but more by economic calculations and local concerns about territorial control. And in the first months of this year, we have seen an acceleration of activity from armed groups to consolidate the places they already have control of to move into new areas. It really is a brazen attitude, taking advantage of the lack of strategy that has emerged from the government to combat this situation. I think the risk now in this electoral scenario is that these armed groups are very good at understanding when their opportunities are emerging and any time there’s uncertainty or the eye is off the ball or the military is distracted by protecting voting booths, they’re going to take advantage of that situation, which is something that we’ve already seen and I think we can expect to see in the coming months. So, whoever arrives in office, they’ll be inaugurated in August, they’re going to face a very urgent situation in which a higher and higher percentage of Colombia territory is now occupied and, in some cases, fully controlled by illicit armed groups.

How might Colombia’s presidential election affect the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:26] If that’s the state of play of the armed groups who are not the FARC or not folded into that 2016 peace agreement, what impact does this election have on that 2016 peace agreement and its implementation?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:19:46] This is so important because what the 2016 peace agreement did — this is an agreement that’s more than 300 pages — and it’s quite unique internationally in that it went well beyond just demobilizing this insurgency to really address some of the fundamental reasons that that conflict has been perpetuated for so many years in Colombia: things like the lack of state presence in rural areas, vast inequality between urban and rural settings, the inability for poor peasants to access land. These sorts of fundamentals have driven the conflict and facilitated armed groups predation really on the civilian population for many years. The peace agreement offered a roadmap on how to unravel some of these structural trends. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that the implementation has been very slow and very spotty, focusing really on political priorities of this particular government rather than on combating some of these hard issues. I think that our message to whoever takes office in August is that this is the last and final opportunity to take advantage of the opportunity that the peace agreement offers. There was a window of security, there was a window of trust that opened with this agreement. I think a new president will have once again an opportunity of trust to show that they’re interested and committed to implementing the agreement. If that window is lost, frankly, I think that the deterioration of the security situation in the countryside and also the lack of trust from communities who live in these areas is really going to make the full implementation of the peace agreement somewhat impossible. And that would really be a tragedy because it would be truly a missed opportunity to shift Colombia’s future path away from violent armed conflict in rural areas and towards a more sustainable model.

Which candidate in Colombia’s current presidential election, Petro or Hernandez, is more likely to focus on implementing the 2016 peace agreement?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:40] Is it fair to say that, at least in theory, given his history and current politics, that Petro would be perhaps more inclined to want to fulfill the obligations of the 2016 peace agreement than Hernandez?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:21:56] Well, the first data point here we have is, there was a referendum on the peace agreement when it was first negotiated and signed in 2016 and the country was quite divided between yes to the peace agreement and no. Petro voted yes and Hernandez voted no. And if you look at the electoral map that emerged from this recent vote, it’s quite interesting because the vast majority of regions that voted yes on the peace agreement voted for Petro and the vast majority of regions that voted no on the peace agreement are with Hernandez. Now, having said that, both candidates have committed on paper at least to implementing the agreement. On the Petro side, I think for sure we might expect an invigorated process, for example, rural development, different changes towards poor coca farmers who need a way out of that livelihood. I think on Hernandez’s side, the details are completely unclear. But I think that this is really a symptom, frankly, more than anything, of the lack of infrastructure that his campaign has, the lack of policy yet on paper. So, you know, what we can say about him really is we don’t know what he would do on the agreement, which parts he would find interesting to implement, and which parts he would probably leave behind.

How are Petro and Hernandez polling now in the lead up to Colombia’s presidential election?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:15] So you mentioned earlier that Hernandez seems to be leading in some early polls and we’re speaking on Wednesday, June 1st, about two weeks or so ahead of the elections. In the coming days or weeks, what would you be looking towards that will suggest to you how this election will play out?

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:23:38] So I think, if you do the electoral math as it stands from the first-round vote, Pedro came out with about 40% of the vote with about 9 million, and Hernandez got about 6 million while his close third place candidate, FICO Gutierrez, got about 5 million. If you just do the electoral math, if we assume that the entire political right that supported Federico Gutierrez goes with Hernandez, he wins, that’s just the basic math that I think people are doing now. However, that is very far from being set in stone. Why? Because there’s a huge pool of voters, I would say that Hernandez and Petro potentially share that is still very much shifting and fluid. More of those voters could go with Petro, more of those voters could go with Hernandez. Petro could work on a getting out the vote style campaign in rural areas that would, I think, probably favor his election. Hernandez also, I think, faces a real obstacle, or at least a challenge in trying to maintain his outsider status while receiving essentially the support of the entire political traditional class. And, you know, what he’s done so far is saying anyone’s welcome but I’m not working with these people. You know, I don’t have anything to do with them, they’re corrupt and etc. and sort of assuming that that part of the vote is guaranteed. He may be right. That might be a miscalculation. We just don’t know. I think the big calculation here in how this turns out is voter turnout. If you have a lot of people who are, for example, disillusioned with the result or who don’t show up or if there are security incidents, for example, in the countryside that suppress turnout, this shifts the result dramatically. And again, I just really want to emphasize here that the interesting thing about this vote is that there is a high percentage of voters that are potentially shared between Petro and Hernandez, so we just don’t know how it’s all going to fall down.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:43] Well, Elizabeth, thank you so much for your time. This was great, as always.

Elizabeth Dickinson [00:25:48] Thank you so much for having me. It’s always great to talk to you, Mark.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:53] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Elizabeth Dickinson, as always, for speaking with me. It’s a very timely conversation. I always appreciate when I can get a quick turn around on world events like this. I know it helps you. It helps me, too. I love learning about these things. And as I mentioned in the introduction of this episode, if you’re listening to me right now on Apple Podcasts, please do take a moment to leave a review of the show. It really does help. Thank you. I will see you next time, bye!