Colombian President Iván Duque has had to face several obstacles in his five months in office. His difficult relations with Congress stand out, along with a voracious opposition that manifests itself in the legislature and on the streets, raising doubts regarding his leadership abilities and scarce experience in politics and public administration. So far, his administration has not enjoyed the so-called “honeymoon” that most new governments count on at the beginning of their mandates. The challenge ahead for Duque will be to change his governing style without renouncing his principles or values.
His major legislative initiatives, including tax reform, the reform of the justice system and campaign financing reform, became true Frankenstein’s monsters, forcing the government to consider pulling them from congressional consideration to be redrafted and resubmitted next year. All this turmoil is the result of Duque’s challenging relationship not only with the opposition, but with his own political party and others considered close to his government.
One of the youngest presidents in Colombia’s history, Duque’s capacity to lead is being tested in a complex and polarized country. The young president will have to demonstrate that he has the political skills to carry out his ambitious government plan. Duque and his team must improve their game to achieve his goal of changing the way politics are conducted in a country where politicians and interest groups are accustomed to perks in exchange for support for government initiatives.
Furthermore, although Duque obtained 54 percent of the votes (his 10.4 million votes were one of the highest electoral results in history), his opponent Gustavo Petro also won a record number of votes for Colombia’s leftist movement (8 million). It is important to mention that, under Colombian electoral rules, Petro’s second-place finish gave him a seat in the Senate, where he is the natural leader of the opposition.
It also is noteworthy that the government, which criticized the peace deal during the campaign, has had to establish relations with members of the newly created Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (FARC) political party. The FARC obtained seats in Congress under the peace agreement negotiated by Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos – not by popular vote. Nonetheless, the party’s representatives have the same rights as any other member of Congress. As is to be expected, they have joined the opposition caucus. Additionally, Congress is adopting a “Statute of the Opposition,” which establishes rules of the game that allow opposition greater visibility and room for maneuvering in the legislative practice.
Things do not stop there. Street protests have become a systematic tool aimed at destabilizing Duque’s government. The mobilization of the masses in the streets to rally around any popular dissatisfaction has proven to be very effective. The problem is that many times malicious interests take advantage by “fishing in troubled waters,” infiltrating these manifestations and creating an atmosphere of apparent uncontrollable chaos. Regardless of whether the current government has any responsibility for the complaint behind the protest, it is forced to deal with the unrest.
It is no surprise that, according to the most recent opinion poll done Dec. 10, 2018 by YanHaas, President Duque’s approval rating was only 24 percent. Another worrisome result in this poll was the fact that only 18 percent of people between 18 and 24 years old approves of the current government. Proof of this discontent are the recent massive student protests demanding improvement in the quality of and access to public higher education in Colombia. The students’ strategy was so successful that they forced the government to negotiate on their terms. Public opinion’s perception is that both the student movement and the coalition of leftist parties triumphed. Nobody stopped to think that the incoming government had scarcely 100 days in power. After this success, street demonstrations have become the main mechanism to obtain benefits for different interest groups. Additionally, there are other challenges within the government’s own political party, the Centro Democrático. Part of the problem is that the party is not run by the president in office but by former President Álvaro Uribe. This has forced Duque to take independent positions in order not to be seen as Uribe’s puppet. This lack of cohesion has hampered Duque’s interaction with some members of his own party – to the point that they are not reliable when it comes to supporting bills presented by the government. Some members of the party have manifested their disagreements publicly, including requests for the dismissal of high-ranking officials or even of the military leadership.
But it is certainly praiseworthy and refreshing to have a president who wants to govern free of compromises rather than engage in compromises that might be mistaken as corruption. Governing effectively, however, will also mean not confusing political alliances with corruption. The utopian ideal of governing without political alliances can boomerang after any failure, however minimal. Politics, after all, is conducted with politicians not with angels. On the other hand, Duque could better navigate these waters by expanding his circle of confidence beyond technocrats to surround himself with people who are knowledgeable and experienced in the design and application of public policies. His main partner should undoubtedly be a person as experienced and knowledgeable as Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez, who until today has been basically ignored.
Sooner rather than later, Duque will have to turn his rudder to make the changes he wants; taking into account that he only has four years in office. If his administration is not successful, and if he doesn’t overcome the obstacles that undermine his governance, the chances of a radical anti-democratic and anti-liberal government coming to power are undoubtedly high.
Unfortunately, the perception is that market-oriented economies are manipulated in favor of the privileged few, democracy is increasingly managed by powerful minorities that only claim rights and assume few obligations, and corruption ensures that these conditions never change. Although the Venezuelan crisis has served as a deterrent example, leaders in Colombia and in Latin America in general must make an act of contrition. If classical liberal leaders do not change politics as usual or fail to effectively address the basic needs of the population, new generations of voters will continue to be attracted to the progressive or populist leftist agenda. In both style and substance, Duque’s agenda is an admirable one. But it is up to him to adjust his leadership style so that he can achieve genuine progress to ensure a better future for the Colombian people.
Prieto is the general director of Foros Semana and a political analyst based in Colombia.