Colombia’s upcoming presidential elections are sure to be historic, no matter the outcome. With 75% of the population disapproving of current president Iván Duque at the beginning of 2022, citizens are looking for something new. Following the March primaries, the lack of support for centrists reflects a desire for more radical change. Fico Guitérrez, former mayor of Medellín and conservative politician, and Gustavo Petro, a left-leaning politician and former M-19 guerilla group member, emerged as the leading candidates for the upcoming election in May. Gustavo Petro is a particularly interesting candidate in the crowded field. Appealing primarily to younger people in Colombia, Petro exemplifies the new Latin American left that has emerged in recent years. He could be the country’s first leftist president in its democratic history. Regardless of whether or not he succeeds, Colombia’s electoral system is clearly in a state of transformation.
With over 20 candidates in the primary elections, no viable candidates align with the traditional party system in Colombia. This tumultuous political playing field is unsettling at best, but is understandable given Colombia’s recent democratic track record. Duque’s low approval ratings and use of force against citizens, combined with the effects of COVID-19, socioeconomic pressures, and long-term divisions in Colombia, have shaken the system. Emerging from this backdrop of instability is a trend of increased polarization, clearly reflected in the current polls.
Polarization in Colombia is not new. For decades, guerilla and militia violence plagued Colombia’s political activity. In 2016, the government came to a peace agreement with FARC, one of Colombia’s most prolific guerilla organizations. The agreement emerged as a major dividing line in Colombian politics, with citizens and elites split over whether the agreement was harsh enough given the great deal of violence that FARC had engaged in. This division was a major factor in the 2018 presidential elections, but the intense polarization has faded over time due to the institutionalization of the agreement. Polarization in general, however, has not disappeared from the political field. COVID-19 and deep socioeconomic divisions have elicited new forms of polarization. In 2019, Colombians began to protest issues they felt had been long ignored due to the FARC negotiations and persistent armed conflict. The issues ranged from corruption to income inequality, and protests picked up again in 2020 and 2021 following the pandemic and important tax reform decisions. These protests were followed by brutality from the police and state, resulting in dozens killed.
This shift in polarization and the subsequent political activity of citizens reflects larger trends in polarization globally. According to theories of democracy and polarization, a polarized society can be generative for democracy if the division is not based on a preexisting identity cleavage and if the power is roughly balanced on either side of the divide. This generative polarization can encourage people to mobilize for their cause, helping to strengthen democratic institutions through this political action. This may be part of what we are seeing in Colombia. The protest movements are centered around socioeconomic polarization, and we see broad coalitions of civilians emerging to protest. The shift from a deep-seated polarizing force such as the FARC agreement to a perhaps less intense division of economics and social policies could also be lessening the harmful effects of polarization. Ultimately, if candidates like Gustavo Petro can harness this civilian power into political action that reverses the undemocratic trends of the current regime, then perhaps polarization can serve as a positive force for democracy.
The key for Colombian politicians and the future president will be to maintain the conditions necessary for generative polarization. This means avoiding “us vs them” language, maintaining respect for opponents’ legitimacy, and putting democratic processes above polarizing policies. The people of Colombia are asking for a new kind of governance, and it is the responsibility of politicians to be receptive to their constituents. These elections, though polarized, have the potential to create a more democratic, responsive Colombian state.