economics

Colombians Face Starkest Choice in Decades in Presidential Election

Colombians Face Starkest Choice in Decades in Presidential Election

  • Conservative Duque leads ex-guerrilla Petro in Sunday’s runoff
  • Candidates have sharp differences on economy, peace process

An attendee wears a t-shirt featuring a portrait of Gustavo Petro, in Bogota, on Thursday, May 17.

Photographer: Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg
Photographer: Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg

A former leftist guerrilla and a market-friendly, U.S.-educated lawyer are vying for Colombia’s presidency Sunday, offering starkly different visions for everything from implementing a peace deal to the future of one of Latin America’s largest economies.

Ivan Duque

Photographer: Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg

Polls predict a decisive victory for Ivan Duque, 41, who wants to cut corporate taxes, over Gustavo Petro, 58, who wants to redistribute land and cut oil dependency. The vote is a departure from past Colombian elections that have pitted establishment candidates against one another, said Jorge Restrepo, an economics professor who heads the Conflict Analysis Resource Center in Bogota.

“This is an election unlike any Colombia has seen for a long time,” Restrepo said.

The winner will inherit real challenges: a sluggish $300 billion economy which recently suffered its first credit rating downgrade in 15 years, hundreds of thousands of hungry Venezuelans pouring across the border, and a huge increase in cocaine production. Despite this, Colombia has been an investor favorite in Latin America this year, a nod to uncertainty elsewhere in the region and to how far the country has come from the brutality of a decades-long Marxist-led civil war to new membership in the exclusive Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Amid fiscal woes in Argentina and political risks in Mexico and Brazil, which both hold presidential elections this year, Colombia’s peso has strengthened the most in emerging markets in 2018 as prices rose for crude, the nation’s biggest export, and traders bet on a Duque victory.

Even if Petro won, a hostile Congress and other institutions mean he would have a hard time implementing his more radical ideas. Moody’s Investors Service said this week that Colombia’s “market-friendly” policies will continue whatever the outcome.

Duque, whose governing experience has been limited to one term in the senate, studied at Georgetown University and spent half his adult life in the U.S. He was plucked from obscurity by former President Alvaro Uribe, still Colombia’s most popular politician eight years after leaving office. Duque backs oil and mining exploration, and has pledged to abolish value-added tax for six days a year. How closely he would mirror Uribe’s policies is unclear.

Like Uribe, Duque has criticized the 2016 peace deal as too lenient to members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which agreed to lay down arms in exchange for concessions from the government, including reserved spots in Congress. There may be little he can do to reverse the deal, since key provisions have been upheld by the constitutional court. However, Duque could impede the agreement’s full implementation, said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

“What Duque could do easily is things like cut funding and appoint people who are not terribly interested in implementing the peace agreement,” she said. “There’s a lot he can do to let it die on the vine without setting up a constitutional court challenge.”

Gustavo Petro

Photographer: Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg

Petro is a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement. He demobilized nearly three decades ago, and switched to democratic politics, eventually becoming mayor of Bogota, where he’s remembered, among other things, for boosting subsidies on water and bus fares for the poor. As president, Petro says he’d support solar power and agricultural products such as avocados, while reducing dependence on oil and coal. He supports the peace deal and wants to tax land owners with the goal of redistributing unused rural farm acreage.

Petro’s progressive agenda resonates in parts of the country that feel left behind and that have had few openly leftist politicians as long as FARC violence was so widespread. If, as expected, he loses, Petro is expected to begin preparing to run again in 2022.

“This is the first national election in a long time that has not taken place under the shadow of a guerrilla war, which has, fairly or not, always tinged Colombia’s left,” Arnson said. “That creates more political space for a candidate like Petro.”

— With assistance by Oscar Medina