Left Turn Ahead: How a New President Could Shake Up Colombia

7 MINS READMar 12, 2018 | 15:11 GMT
Current Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro speaks with journalists in 2010.

Current Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro speaks with journalists in 2010. In recent years, political fragmentation has opened a new path for left-leaning politicians such as Petro. 

  • After years of marginalization, Colombia's political left will have a good opportunity to reach the runoff election for Colombia's presidency in June.
  • If the far-left candidate Gustavo Petro secures the executive office, he may initially withhold Colombian support for heavier U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, but the impact of Venezuela's migration crisis on Colombia would push his government to adopt a harder line against Caracas.
  • A Petro presidency would likely lead to stricter environmental regulations and heftier fines for energy and mining operations in Colombia.

Colombians largely backed the center-right when they cast ballots in the country's presidential primary and legislative elections on March 11, but the rapidly approaching presidential elections in May and June promise to be an entirely different ball game. Colombia's heavily fragmented political scene leaves the door open for an outsider to claim the country's highest office. Recent polling suggests the far-left Gustavo Petro, the pro-environment center-left Sergio Fajardo and the conservative Ivan Duque all stand a good chance of reaching a runoff vote on June 17. And though the country may be too politically divided for any president to corral congressional votes in support of controversial initiatives, a leftist president would have much greater leeway on foreign policy than domestic legislation, meaning a frontrunner like Petro could blunt Colombia's support for heavier U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and threaten new investments in energy and mining.

The Big Picture

Colombia's 2018 election promises to be a competitive one. Years of political fragmentation at a national level have created a system where candidates require relatively few votes to win a presidential election. Colombia has long been a welcoming destination for foreign investment, and a strong U.S. ally in Latin America. But the presidential runoff vote in June may shift the country's leadership leftward, worrying investors and affecting Colombia's foreign policy.

Abandoning the Center

As is the case elsewhere in Latin America, Colombia's politics are sharply split between ideological extremes. But the country's traditional Liberal and Conservative parties have begun losing ground to a number of smaller, niche parties on both sides of the political spectrum. Right now, the upcoming presidential election looks like it will be a tight race among Petro, Fajardo and Duque. One poll by Cifras y Conceptos predicted that Petro, a former mayor of Bogota who represents the Progressive Movement, could receive a quarter of the first-round vote, while another survey predicted that Fajardo, a former mayor of Antioquia aligned with the Green Alliance, commands around 20 percent of the vote. Two other polls show Duque, the right-wing candidate for former President Alvaro Uribe's recently formed Democratic Center party, with about a quarter of the vote. 

Colombians' drift toward the extremes of the political spectrum over the past several decades stems partly from a long-running insurgency led primarily by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government's resultant attempts to halt the rebellion. Because of the stigma associated with the communist-inspired FARC, which first took up arms against the state in 1964, the far-left has long encountered barriers to meaningful participation in national politics; when leftist candidates have run in elections, they have rarely secured enough votes to win major political offices. After the height of the FARC insurgency in the 1990s, Uribe enjoyed high levels of public approval during his presidency from 2002 to 2010. The president still failed to attract support from progressive urban voters and segments of the rural poor, but no leftist candidates earned enough of a backing to challenge his rule.

However, in recent years, political fragmentation has opened a new path for the left. In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos succeeded his mentor, Uribe, as president of Colombia. But Santos' contentious peace deal with the FARC upset his predecessor's allies in Congress, prompting them to split from the ruling coalition and form the Democratic Center. That development is likely to weaken the current president's center-right Social Party of National Unity in the coming elections.

And the schism between Uribe and Santos is only the most recent major split in Colombian politics.  Since the 1990s, the Liberal and Conservative parties have ceded ground in Congress to various splinter parties and factions. The effects of these divisions became evident in the 2010 presidential election, when former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus of the small, center-left Green Party managed to beat out all other challengers before ultimately losing a runoff against Santos. Now, with formerly reliable "Uribista" votes divided among the Social Party of National Unity, the Democratic Center and other former Uribe allies, a left-wing candidate has better chances than ever of winning the presidency.

Petro and Fajardo have both gained support by capitalizing on longstanding social grievances from Colombia's urban and rural poor and by rallying members of the political left who have enjoyed little representation at a national level. And now that vote-splitting means candidates will need fewer votes to qualify for a runoff, the relatively small segments on the far-left of the spectrum have the potential to propel Petro, a political outsider they believe is capable of upholding their interests, into the president's office.

No Escape from Venezuela

At home, the next president's success will depend on his or her ability to work with Congress. Since the legislative composition is more in his favor, Duque would not struggle to find support for legislation such as tax reform if he became president. Petro, on the other hand, would likely meet greater resistance if he tried to push through some of his proposals, such as his plan to quadruple funding for higher education. Such a situation would oblige a Petro administration to rule by decree on specific issues, but there are no provisions to raise social spending by fiat.

Regardless of who wins the election in June, Colombia's next president will have one major foreign policy concern: Venezuela. The economic crisis in the country is only likely to worsen, raising the prospect that hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans will seek respite in Colombia. A possible uptick in lawlessness, such as the recruitment of Venezuelans in Colombia for militant and criminal groups, will become a concern for Colombia's administration no matter who is in power.

A Duque presidency would likely continue Colombia's support for U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, but if the progressive Petro wins the presidency, Colombia could — at least temporarily — reconsider backing measures that would directly affect Venezuela's oil production, such as imposing sanctions on U.S.-produced inputs for Venezuela's oil industry or slapping an oil export ban on the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). Petro's leftist voters might not necessarily back Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, but they would oppose close cooperation with the United States. (This would harm bilateral ties between Bogota and Washington.) Indeed, Petro criticized Colombia's open opposition to the 2017 Venezuelan elections that created the controversial constituent assembly, demanding respect for Caracas' right to self-determination.

However, the rising tide of Venezuela-related emigration and security concerns affecting Colombia would likely shift Petro's attitude toward Caracas over time. Conflict between Colombians and Venezuelans over jobs may increase, while crime associated with new arrivals may grow. Eventually, these concerns could force a Petro administration to restrict the flow of migrants and back measures to remove the Maduro government from office.

Resource Companies' Cause for Concern

A victory for Petro would also elicit concern among mining and energy companies operating in Colombia. On the campaign trail, Petro has repeatedly expressed his desire to extract fewer minerals and hydrocarbons in Colombia due to environmental worries. If Petro were to prioritize a reduction in fossil fuel production and mining, he could direct regulatory agencies such as the Environment Ministry, the Mines and Energy Ministry and the National Environmental Licensing Agency to create a stricter system of environmental regulations. Companies would need to comply with the more stringent guidelines to obtain new licenses or else face fines. Because such an environmental overhaul does not require congressional approval, Petro could implement tougher regulations with comparative ease. Nevertheless, it would bring the Petro presidency into conflict with the Colombian private sector, members of which would resort to the country's federal courts to overturn the president's decisions.

After decades of electing right-wing politicians to the country's highest office, Colombians could take a left turn this year. But if someone from the socialist side of the political spectrum — such as Petro — does come to power, they are likely to encounter stiff resistance to their policies due to a lack of congressional support for more contentious proposals. Still, Colombia's Congress does not have the remit to block all of a president's initiatives, meaning Washington-Bogota relations and the mining and energy industries in Colombia could be in for a bit of a rough ride — at least initially.

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