In any election, knowing you exist helps them vote for you. This, which seems like a banality, is more true in some countries than in others. Where political parties are strong, stable, with a long tradition, the candidate’s need for fame can be replaced by the brand of the formation to which he belongs. But if parties are weak, volatile and subject to uncertainty, the degree of knowledge of the candidate is crucial.
This is what is happening in the face of the Colombian presidential elections: right now, voting intention polls are just an indicator of popularity in its most minimal version. The one who leads them all, the leftist Gustavo Petro, is also the candidate with the least “I don’t know/I don’t believe” in the polls that ask for the opinion of each of the candidates.
Petro was the candidate defeated in the second round of 2018, and has been campaigning day by day for four years. Assembling a new version of the coalition of formations that supports it has been part of said campaign: the configuration of parties thus becomes more a way of distributing power from above and maintaining part of the media focus than an exercise in the construction of ideological currents. Colombians’ lack of trust in parties (two thirds of citizens trust them little or not at all) is the cause, but also the consequence, of this dynamic.
Because the ideological currents exist and are more or less clear: they were in the first round of 2018, when the majority of voters opted for left, center or right. And they are today, in the almost exact reflection of this division that maintains the candidate selection process within three different coalitions.
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They have all operated and continue to operate today as systems to distribute power and grab attention, certainly, but the Historical Pact is the only one in which the candidate is clearly defined from the beginning. No one seriously questions Gustavo Petro’s victory in the March referendum. In fact, some of his rivals have openly admitted that his only goal is to finish second to be his vice-presidential formula.
In the center, the process is somewhat more open. Sergio Fajardo dominates it, but in a much less clear way than Petro. In the first round of 2018, the fiercest battle was precisely between these two candidates to obtain a place in the second round. The leftist would end up winning, which gave Fajardo a double fragility that he now suffers. First, it made him an apparently less competitive candidate, which encouraged stronger rivals to fight within the same space. It matters little that some of them have their eyes set more on 2026 than on 2022, and that this competition is more a way to start getting known than a serious challenge to Fajardo. That is perhaps the case of Juan Manuel Galán, regenerator of the New Liberalism that his father Luis Carlos founded in the eighties before he was assassinated. It hardly matters because the competition and internal wear and tear is real.
Added to this is the lack of media attention that Fajardo was able to enjoy after 2018. The cameras and loudspeakers focused on Petro, naturally by demonstrating his ability to reach 42% of the votes in the second round. Meanwhile, Fajardo has lost approval, but (as can be seen in the graph that also includes the disapproval metric) more because the number of people who do not have a definite opinion about him has increased. Petro, by contrast, remains a more polarizing figure, but certainly one with greater prominence.
We tend to think of a candidate’s knowledge as a dichotomous variable: people either know or don’t know who they are. But reality corresponds more to memory: people remember more or less. Fajardo is simply less present in the media and in the minds of voters.
And even less so are the candidates on the right. The table that opened the article shows the considerable indifference aroused by names such as Federico Gutiérrez (former mayor of Medellín) or Óscar Iván Zuluaga (candidate defined by the Uribe Democratic Center). As a consequence, the competition for the leadership of this current is the most open of the three right now in Colombia: it is difficult to anticipate who, and even if it will be only one, due to the lack of clear leadership added to the weakness of all the parties in this space. As a novelty, the weakness includes a Democratic Center more fractured than ever at the end of its own government (that of Iván Duque) that has a meager popularity, less than 30%. In 2018, the CD was able to turn Duque, a young and little-known senator, into a celebrity who dominated the first and second rounds. It is not clear that he is in a position to do it again, which opens the possibility for neither the elites nor the vote to coordinate between now and March, consolidating the divisions that remain after a mandate that has been too non-technical for the moderates, and too little daring for ideologues.
In the short term, the undoubted result of the weakness of the parties and the power of the candidates is perfectly reflected in the fact that none of them has more than a third of the preferences of the total number of voters. Neither does the independent Rodolfo Hernández, who is taking better advantage than anyone else of this competitive environment based on specific names without solid platforms to gain popularity by getting the media and analysts to mention him for free at every outing he has, a tactic that reminds quite similar to that followed by Donald Trump in 2015 and 2016. The “none” dominate in the different voting scenarios restricted to the candidates of each of the three currents, yes. But they dominate in some spaces more than in others, reflecting precisely that in a universe of organizational weaknesses, media and discursive strength is the only handle to start building a candidacy.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.