Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Five Takeaways from Colombia’s March 11 Elections

Reading Time: 4 minutesColombia’s presidential race takes shape after congressional and primary voting.
Reading Time: 4 minutes


Reading Time: 4 minutes

Correction appended below

Colombians warmed up for this year’s presidential contest with congressional elections and two primary votes on March 11. Control of Congress edged to the right, as opponents of President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace deal with FARC rebels pressed their case against the agreement. Meanwhile, two clear front-runners emerged from primary votes on opposing sides of the political spectrum.

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s voting as the May 27 first-round presidential election draws near:

Uribe Holds Sway
The biggest winners on Sunday were Democratic Center candidate Iván Duque and his political mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe. Duque pulled in 4 million primary votes to become the center-right’s standard-bearer in May. Marta Lucía Ramírez, a former defense minister who earned 1.5 million votes on Sunday, quickly agreed to become Duque’s running mate.

The pair are a center-right dream team. Ramírez ran for president in 2014 and has strong support from female conservative voters. Duque should also pick up many of the highly mobilized religious voters who traditionally support the Conservative Party, whose arch-conservative candidate Alejandro Ordóñez mustered less than 400,000 primary votes.

Then there’s Uribe, a powerful figure who is not on the ticket, but who continues to shape opposition to the 2016 peace deal and will play an important role in the contest. As Duque accepted the nomination on Sunday, it was Uribe’s name that onlookers chanted.

“Duque and Uribe have a perfect good cop, bad cop dynamic,” Nicholas Watson, Senior Vice President of Teneo Intelligence, told AQ. “Duque is more centrist and will act the statesman. Uribe will be in the trenches, criticizing the peace process and riling up conservative voters.”

Petro Stays In
In Colombian politics, party machinery – the organizational infrastructure that strikes deals with regional political blocs, buses supporters to rallies and finances the associated hospitality costs (or cash hand-outs) – is as important as popular appeal. Gustavo Petro, the left-wing former mayor of Bogotá, topped some opinion polls heading into the election, but many analysts doubted he had the machinery to make an impact.

On Sunday, Petro proved some of his doubters wrong: 2.85 million supporters came out to vote for him in the primary, more than any left-wing candidate has received in a general election. Those hoping for Petro to drop out and support a more centrist candidate for president are unlikely to get their wish – though Petro may be playing a longer game. If he makes the second round in May, he could become the de facto leader of the opposition in the next government, a role to which he is arguably more suited.

“Petro had a pretty disastrous spell as mayor of Bogotá, but during the Uribe government he earned a reputation as a brave and eloquent senator, speaking up against corruption,” said Watson. “If he could lead a successful opposition to an Uribista presidency, he could be well placed for the 2022 elections.” 

The Vargas Lleras Machine Works
With Duque now odds-on to make the second round, his most likely opponents are Petro or Germán Vargas Lleras, the former vice president who split from Santos last year. 

Vargas Lleras’ center-right Cambio Radical party has been most active in brokering alliances with regional political bosses. On Sunday, the party earned 14 percent of Senate votes, taking their seats from nine to 16 and leaving them only behind the Democratic Center at 19.

Contact with corrupt local politicians and a brusque manner have tarnished Vargas Lleras’ reputation; he fares poorly on polls of voters’ intentions. Nevertheless, Sunday’s vote suggests it is possible he could reach the second round in the presidential race simply on the strength of Cambio Radical’s party machinery.

A Divided Center
A choice between Duque and Vargas Lleras is the nightmare scenario for Colombian liberals and peace deal supporters – both candidates have said they would revisit key components of the agreement. But Colombia’s pro-peace centrists find themselves in a predicament partly of their own making.

“The Colombian left is chronically divided,” said Watson.

That division played out on Sunday, as two distinct center-left forces vied for Senate votes. Unless they come together, it is hard to see how either will make it to the second round in May.

Humberto de la Calle, a former minister and chief negotiator of Colombia’s peace deal, will earn support from both Santos’ Unity Party and his own Liberal Party, both of which have 14 seats in the Senate.

Sergio Fajardo, the former governor of Antioquia, leads a loose coalition of small parties that now have 15 seats in the Senate. There isn’t much policy daylight between the two. Fajardo’s slightly more business-friendly disposition could drive some voters to opt for Petro. But as long as he remains near the top of opinion polls, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Fajardo bowing out of the presidential race. The question remains: Will De la Calle fall on his sword to prevent the deal he designed from getting carved up?

Nobody Likes the FARC
Reality hit hard for the FARC in the former guerrilla group’s first election since officially becoming a political party last year. Before Sunday, some of their more excitable supporters had voiced a goal of reaching 2 million votes. In the end they achieved 52,000, just 0.34 percent of the vote.

The FARC’s electoral impotence should put the right’s warnings of looming Castro-Chavismo in their proper light, though it’s unlikely that Duque, Vargas Lleras and others will stop pointing toward Venezuela as an example of the risks of a Petro presidency. 

But perhaps the most affecting image of Sunday’s vote was that of former FARC commander Iván Márquez in a sports jacket – rather than military fatigues – casting his vote at a polling station. The scene was one that few Colombians thought they’d ever see. The relevance of this image, and the durability of the peace deal, will be decided in the coming months.

A previous version of this article misidentified the former FARC commander Iván Márquez

Youkee is a journalist based in Bogotá. You can follow him on Twitter @matyoukee

Tags: Colombia, Elections 2018
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