Colombia elects congress and presidential candidates: 3 unprecedented things about the elections that will define the future of the country

“This pod has not started and we are already sucked,” said this week Rogelio Torres, a seller of yucca cakes in Teusaquillo, an emblematic neighborhood of Bogotá.

“Mamados”, in Colombian, means “tired”. And the neighbor’s complaint refers to months of debates and media coverage about an election that still seems indecipherable.

This Sunday, March 13, will be the first of three voting days that will define who will govern the country between 2022 and 2026.

Two things are chosen: the two chambers of Congress and the candidates who will represent the coalitions left, center and right in the first round of the presidential elections (May 29) and, if necessary, in the second (June 19).

“The campaign in Colombia always starts early, but I don’t remember a level of intensity as great as the one we experienced this time,” says political scientist Juan Fernando Giraldo.

And it is not an anecdotal issue, he adds: “This wears down candidates, increases campaign budgets and generates a level of uncertainty that, in principle, seems healthy to me.”

There was a time last year when there were 96 candidates for the presidency. Today there are 23 left. After Sunday, there will be no more than eight.

On Monday, then, a new campaign for the presidency of Colombia begins.

And despite the uncertainty, there are three aspects that differentiate this election from any other in the country’s recent history.

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1. Uribe’s secondary role and favoritism from a leftist candidate

Since he was elected president in 2002, Álvaro Uribe has been a crucial player in every election in the country, either because he was seeking re-election (in 2006) or because his allies—first Juan Manuel Santos, who later became his adversary , and then Iván Duque—ended up winning.

Also in the Senate, where he was between 2014 and 2020, Uribe was a mobilizer of votes and influence.

Politics in recent years was defined by (or in opposition to) the former president, but that now seems to have changed: the loss of prestige of the Duque presidency, the legal cases in which Uribe is being investigated, and the natural wear and tear of a such a decisive figure for two decades have made the former president a secondary actor in these elections. At least until now.

They are going to be the first elections of the century in which Uribismo is not going to define the election nor will it be at the center of the game,” says Yann Basset, a political scientist at the Universidad del Rosario.

Uribe’s party, the Democratic Center, has a candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, but the polls do not give him many options. He will not participate in the consultations and many of his militants, including Duque, have said that they will vote in the consultations, in a gesture of militancy for another party.

Uribe and his candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga.  .

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Uribe and his candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga.

On the right, the focus is on the Team for Colombia coalition. In it, several former mayors will compete on Sunday for what, according to experts, will end up being the most solid candidacy of a right wing that until now —and this is also a novelty— has been divided.

On the left, likewise, something unprecedented is happening.

The senator, former guerrilla and former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro is, according to the polls, the favorite. Hardly anyone doubts their chances of going to the second round. No other candidate has such an advantage.

Although there have been popular leftist candidates in the past, analysts believe this is the first time one has had a real chance of winning.

And although there have been center-left presidents associated with the Liberal Party before (Alfonso López Pumarejo, Ernesto Samper), no candidate outside the traditional machinery, of popular origin and critical of the status quo has reached the presidency.

Even if you don’t win, favoritism de Petro has been a political event that Colombia had not experienced before.

Gustavo Petro poster

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Petro went to the second round 4 years ago. He lost by a wide margin against Duque. Since then he has only campaigned. And the country has changed.

2. The strength of inter-party consultations

On Sunday, Colombians who want to vote in the consultations will have to choose one of the three that are at stake.

In the Historical Pact (left) the polls predict a clear victory for Gustavo Petro, but in the Coalition of Hope (center) and in the Team for Colombia (right) the competition makes predictions difficult.

“In the past there were inter-party consultations, but the coalitions had not co-opted the elections so much, because before they were more structured and predictable,” explains Giraldo.

This time, instead, the result of the internal ones can shake the campaign.

Angélika Rettberg, a political scientist at the Universidad de los Andes, explains it this way: “The crisis of the traditional parties, the emergence of small parties and the rise of a politics where personality matters more than ideology have made coalitions necessary.”

Petro, Ingrid Betancourt and Francia Marquez.

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This electoral process has more women than any other. In the photo, along with Petro, two presidential candidates who have marked the campaign: Íngrid Betancourt and Francia Márquez.

And Angélica Bernal, from the Higher School of Public Administration, adds: “The system favors the large and traditional parties, but since they are in crisis, the only way to unite has been with coalitions“.

Internal coalition debates have dominated media coverage for months, overshadowing the campaign for Congress.

In recent years, no president has enjoyed robust majorities in that chamber: all have had to negotiate to govern.

The coalitions are a response to a disintegrated political scenariodiverse.

But the question is, according to the experts, whether they will be a temporary mechanism for purging candidates, or a system sustained over time that allows the political system to be organized and initiatives to be brought together for the legislative process.

Team for Colombia

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Although everything is given for the irruption of candidates like Rodolfo Hernández, it is expected that the letter on the right will come out of the consultation of the Team for Colombia.

3. The country of signed peace

These will be the first elections in decades in which the agenda of what to do about the guerrillas and the armed conflict does not play a major role.

Those of 2018 were held just two years after the signing of the peace between the FARC and the Santos government. The rejection of the agreement promoted, among other things, the election of Duque.

Now, on the other hand, it is rare to hear the candidates talk about the issue: “Not only is there no talk of war, but neither of peace, and I think that this silence is due to fatigue with the issue, but also because all the candidates have already accepted that peace has no reverse“, assures Rettberg.

The political scientist Bernal highlights the rise of new leadership and some campaign issues after the peace process: “Let’s see if the youth, the one who came out to protest and who saw in peace a space to build a different way of life, has really an impact on the political system.”

Protests in Colombia

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Will the protest movement that shook the country in 2019 and 2021 have political representation?

In the ballots of the consultations and the legislative ones there are more women, more afros, more indigenous than ever. And this, according to analysts, goes hand in hand with the political and social change that materialized with the peace agreement, opening space to talk about inequality, the environment, social rights and corruption.

In fact, some of the reforms agreed in the peace pact will now come into force, including the creation of 16 seats in Congress representing constituencies affected by the conflict.

“Even with violence still rife in some regions, and with a government in power skeptical of the peace process, the campaign has shown, and the elections will likely show, that the peace process is being carried outRettberg concludes.

Colombia, after the signed peace and despite the ongoing violence, is a different country. And these elections will test whether or not social changes have an effect on the power that represents citizens.

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