Colombians will go to the polls Sunday for the first round of a presidential election that represents a turning point in the country’s politics on several levels. The front-runner in the race, Gustavo Petro, would be the most progressive Colombian president since the 1930s should he win. A former leftist guerrilla, Petro has promised to expand the country’s social safety net, including improved access to health care and education, and reconfigure its economy by moving away from dependence on mining and hydrocarbons. His running mate, Francia Marquez, is one of five Afro-Colombian vice presidential candidates; prior to this year, no Afro-Colombian had ever appeared on a presidential ticket in Colombia’s modern democratic era.
But the election also represents a turning point in the country’s divisions over the 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrilla insurgency. Both Petro and his closest rival, the center-right candidate Federico Gutierrez, supported the deal and would seek its full implementation, unlike incumbent President Ivan Duque, who opposed it and sabotaged many of its provisions. To be sure, Colombia’s “peace” has been in large part chimerical. Violence has persisted, whether carried out by insurgents who either never demobilized or turned toward criminal activity, or else by paramilitaries. And the brunt of that violence has been borne by marginalized communities in the country’s periphery, including Indigenous leaders as well as labor and environmental activists.
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Still, the past few years in Colombia’s politics have been defined as much by large-scale social protests—which began in 2019 and, after a pause due to the pandemic, reemerged across the country last year—as by the violence associated with the FARC and ELN insurgencies. Petro’s coalition in many ways represents the aspirations of those who demonstrated across the country last year. But it remains to be seen if he can mobilize to get Colombians to the polls as effectively as the social protest movement did to get them into the streets.