Since the first round of the 2018 presidential elections, the Colombian electorate has been divided into three currents that correspond exactly to the three open consultations to elect the presidential candidates in 2022: left, where Gustavo Petro clearly dominates; center, led by Sergio Fajardo; and right, more open than the previous ones, but with the former mayor of Medellín Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez leading the polls. The three have intertwined this Thursday a confrontation of consultation leaders in the first debate that puts them face to face towards the May elections, an exercise that has served to better understand what the form of political competition is for this 2022, and how it is anchored with the data that represents the reality of Colombia.
The first and most important, the point from which the speeches of all the candidates are born, is the lack of credibility of the current democratic system. Colombia is the second country in Latin America in which the proportion of the population that declares itself quite or strongly disagrees with the idea that democracy is superior to other systems of government has increased the most.
In this, it is crucial to underline it, Colombia is out of the usual relationship in the region (and in the whole world) of the worse quality of democracy, the greater its lack of credibility. Colombian democracy is far from perfect, but it is also exactly the same from the most dysfunctional: we could say that, comparatively speaking, it is a mid-table democracy in its institutional and freedom indicators. However, its citizenship is one of the worst valued.
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This apparent inconsistency could be explained because the disagreement with the system would be influenced by a frustration of expectations with its central representatives: parties, coalitions, candidates and elected representatives. A perception of lack of representativeness of central demands, which was clearly seen in the 2019 protests, which were taken up again in 2021 by a citizenry (especially in its younger segments) whose cry is quite similar to the “they do not represent us” that resonated in the Spain of the “indignados” of 2011.
During this campaign, each of the reference candidates is trying to connect with this context by selling change, so that the novelty-relationship axis with the establishment becomes one more of competition. In the debate, the attempts of Petro, Fajardo and ‘Fico’ to present themselves as the most different while pushing their rivals into the closet of the past have been transversal. But they have always been anchored to specific aspects of reality: in fact, each of the three has chosen for the debate and for the entire campaign a key theme that serves as a discursive landing for their proposal for “change”: security for ‘Fico’, inequality for Petro, and education for Fajardo.
Insecurity on the rise
In 2021, the homicide rate rose significantly in Colombia for the first time in a decade. This increase exceeded not only the volume of 2020, abnormally low due to quarantines and confinements, but also that of 2019, 2018 and 2017.
Now, the levels are still very far not only from the worst years of the country, at the end of the 20th century, but even from the point at which Álvaro Uribe won the presidency in 2002 thanks to a speech based on security (to which he added the adjective ‘democratic’). Likewise, the former mayor of Medellín is trying to follow a template not very different from that of the first Uribismo: the first thing, security. For there to be health, economy, education, security is needed. And the current leaders have not been able to offer it. This is your cornerstone.
A problem for him is that insecurity has two sources, as the moderator Roberto Pombo pointed out during the debate: on the one hand, there is that of urban centers, which is perhaps the one that can best connect with the discourse of a politician who built his mayor’s office based on a “heavy hand” against “criminals.” But, on the other hand, there is the increase in violence in large non-urban territories as a result of the imperfect implementation of the peace agreements reached with the FARC during the mandate of Juan Manuel Santos. And this is the first flank that Gustavo Petro takes advantage of to attack discursively.
Poverty, inequality and war
It may seem contradictory, but the Colombian left does better electorally when the template used to vote is the one from the plebiscite for the 2016 peace accords. I say that it may seem contradictory because in that plebiscite it lost the option it defended, the ‘ Yes’. But the percentage obtained was above that of Petro in the second round of 2018. And the defeat of the referendum was by a few thousand, not by millions. So it makes sense that Petro always returns to peace (or its absence: conflict) as a point of reference. A peace that, according to him, would serve the “people”.
Petro’s story structure is populist at its core: a corrupt elite captures and blocks all the benefits that the population as a whole could obtain, and he has the solutions to unlock them. What happens is that the context is favorable to this discourse: on the one hand, disbelief in current democracy. On the other, and more fundamentally, the unprecedented increase in poverty suffered by the country’s urban centers during the pandemic.
If we add to this the context of an upturn in conflicts and violence, it turns out that an attractive discourse emerges from intertwining the ideas of peace, prosperity and representation, especially for the urban youth who led the protests in 2021.
This, in turn, facilitates the discursive work of ‘Fico’, who can articulate a platform with a similar populist structure (people vs. elite) but with very different solutions: security and values to lead us to peace and prosperity. For him, as for Petro, the most advantageous competition template is that of dividing the electorate into two halves.
In this sandwich, the center is imprisoned and in search of a lever that will serve to reopen its voting space.
Education, starting point?
Sergio Fajardo likes to talk about education. This is not new to this campaign: it has always been the preferred starting point for someone who doesn’t mind being nicknamed “teacher.” But speaking of education in a context of institutional erosion, of physical, mental and monetary security runs the risk of sounding somewhat naive. That is why it is surprising that Fajardo has not mentioned a fact like the following, and that in fact he does not repeat it every time a microphone is put in front of him: during the pandemic, school dropouts tripled in Colombia. In non-urban areas it multiplied by six.
It could be argued that security and inequality, the vectors of the other two candidates, hang from this data, almost as dramatic as the number of covid-19 infections that Colombia suffered, a country considerably hit by the virus. But, to move to this point, Fajardo in particular and the center in general should complete a discursive turn that allows them to more freely use the tools that, more effectively, their rivals are already using.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.