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Mainstream, VOL LX No 29, New Delhi, July 9, 2022

Colombia turns to the left | Juan C Hernandez

Friday 8 July 2022

by Juan C Hernandez *

The victory of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez of the leftist alliance Pacto Histórico, last June in the second round of the presidential elections marks a new era in the political history of Colombia and the Latin American region.

Its importance is not limited to the fact that a former member of the urban guerrilla and a social leader from the country’s poorest region, two outsiders to the political system, will govern one of the Latin American largest economies for the next four years. The 2022 elections are a turning point in the republican history of the Latin American country.

The first thing that stands out is that the left will rule the country for the first time since its independence. During its two centuries of republican history, Colombia has always been a two-party system where the Liberal and Conservative parties alternated in power until the end of the 20th century with a single three-year interruption during the military dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla.

Since the enactment of the 1991 constitution, the political system has expanded to a multi-party system giving birth to new movements from both sides of the spectrum. This slow but steady change has paved the way for the Pacto Histórico, a broad front of left and center parties and movements, to obtain the highest vote in a presidential election ever. Petro and Marquez were elected with 11,210,000 votes, 700,000 more than the runner-up Rodolfo Hernandez. This turnout of more than 20 million Colombians to the polling stations was also the highest voter turnout in history.

However, this victory is not only limited to the presidential elections. Last March, the progressive movement obtained the highest number of votes amongst all contending parties in the legislative elections, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. This result also marks a new milestone in the country since the Pacto Historico is the first leftist movement to obtain the highest number of congress members in history: 20 of the 108 seats in the Senate and 27 out of 188 seats in the House of Representatives.

Although it represents far short of an absolute majority, the Pacto Historico faces the challenge of building consensus and coalitions around its political agenda. Therein lies the importance of the most recent appointments of a Conservative and former peace negotiator as Minister of Foreign Affairs and of one of Colombia’s most renowned economists as Minister of Finance.

Another of the most important aspects is the support base and social representation. For the first time, power does not come from the political and economic elites. On the contrary, this is the first popular and diverse government in history. The 11 million votes come from the marginalized and remote regions of the country: the Caribbean region, the islands of San Andres and Providencia nestled in the Caribbean, the Pacific coast, the Amazon region, and the suburbs of cities like Bogota and Cali. They all belong to the Colombia of the nobodies, the same which Francia Márquez mentions in her speeches and Eduardo Galeano evokes in a poem of one of his finest works, "the book of hugs" (el libro de los abrazos).

These citizens inhabit the deep Colombia of which the writer Mario Mendoza speaks, the ‘Bitter Colombia’ described by the chronicler Germán Castro Caycedo, that archaic Colombia of Gabriel García Márquez, the exploited Colombia that appears in José Eustasio Rivera’s novel, The Vortex, that Colombia full of hunger and misery narrated by Arnoldo Palacios. They are the Colombians who prevailed in these elections.

Furthermore, this political shift opened the door of power to many movements and political parties included in the Pacto Historico. It brings together left-wing parties such as the Alternative Democratic Pole, the Communist Party, and the Patriotic Union; indigenous and Afro-descendant movements such as "Soy por que Somos", MAIS and AICO; environmentalists, feminists, trade-unionist movements, and even dissidents from the Liberal Party and the center party, the Green Party.

As Gustavo Petro himself said in his speech on June 19, after the national electoral authority announced the results: "...we are part of a resistance that is already five centuries old, we are the sum of Colombia’s resistances and past of rebellions against injustice, discrimination, and inequality...". This victory is nothing more than the continuation of that popular resistance that started with the black freedman Benkos Biohó; Jose Antonio Galán and the revolt of Los Comuneros; the socialist Jorge Eliecer Gaitán; the Father Camilo Torres and his politics of love; the peasant leader Juan de La Cruz Varela; and the indigenous leader Manuel Quintín Lame, to name few.

Finally, the victory of Petro, Marquez, and the Historic Pact also represents the dissatisfaction of millions of Colombians with the social and economic situation of the country. It represents the defeat of the government of the right-wing Iván Duque, the worst government in the recent history of the country, which registers the worst social and economic indexes of the 21st century: the second most unequal country in Latin America, with double-digit unemployment and inflation, with almost 20 million Colombians submerged in poverty and with a country where human rights violations occur daily.

This shift to the left represents a new alternative for Colombia. The new government of Petro and Márquez will have to rebuild a politically polarized nation plagued by hunger with a comatose peace where war and drug trafficking are becoming more entrenched in society. Time will tell if their promises of enduring peace, social justice, and an environmental economic model can become true.

(Author: Juan C Hernandez is a Colombian political scientist. He has worked in the fields of higher education and international cooperation in Germany, Colombia and India)

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