Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Does the Colombian Center Stand a Chance?

Centrist politicians appeared to have learned lessons from 2018. But ahead of elections in May, unity – and success – look increasingly unlikely.
Sergio Fajardo speaking during a presidential debate in Bogotá on January 25.Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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BOGOTÁ – Many Colombians, tired of the country’s prolonged period of polarization, hoped this would be the year things changed. Ahead of presidential elections in May, efforts by erstwhile centrist rivals to unite behind a single candidate looked uniquely promising. The Center Hope Coalition – an alliance of centrist and center-left politicians from different parties and independent movements formed last June – have touted their “strength through differences” and made rejecting the extremes a campaign platform.

But as quickly as hope came, it seems to have evaporated. After two weeks of defections, recriminations and infighting within the Coalition, unity in 2022 looks increasingly out of reach. And a run-off between populist candidates on the left and right– in the vein of similarly divisive elections in 2018 – more likely.  

How did we get here?

In the elections in 2018, the centrist vote split among three contenders in the first round, allowing Gustavo Petro on the left and Iván Duque on the right to advance to the runoff. Duque, the political heir of former President Álvaro Uribe, prevailed in a second round in which more than 800,000 Colombians, dissatisfied with their choices, submitted blank ballots.

For much of this campaign season, the center appeared to have learned its lesson. Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellín and governor of Antioquia, and Humberto de la Calle, the government’s lead negotiator in the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC – who faced off in the first round four years ago – helped form what became the Coalition last June.

The plan was to bring together presidential hopefuls who rejected the extreme views represented by Petro and Uribe and embraced a new form of doing politics based on debating proposals rather than buying votes. The Coalition would choose its presidential candidate in an inter-party consultation (effectively a primary among candidates from different parties or movements within the coalition) on March 13, alongside congressional elections. Primaries are still relatively new in Colombia, where party leaders have traditionally chosen candidates at their discretion. This is the first time that broad coalitions of party nominees and independents have attempted to choose a single candidate via popular vote.

When Alejandro Gaviria, a renowned academic and former health minister who entered the presidential race last August, decided after a few months of wavering to join the Coalition, the prospects for a united center seemed better than ever. Gaviria was joined last month by Ingrid Betancourt, a prominent politician who was held hostage by the FARC from 2002 to 2008.

However, the project derailed with surprising speed after a rancorous presidential debate on Jan. 25. During the live broadcast event, Betancourt accused Gaviria of corrupting the Coalition by accepting the support of politicians from traditional parties linked to vote buying and clientelism – the very practices the Coalition pledged to reject.

Far from backing down after the dust-up, Betancourt issued an ultimatum: reject alliances with the traditional political class or she would leave. When a statement from the Coalition clarifying its position on alliances failed to satisfy her, Betancourt abandoned the group less than two weeks after joining and vowed to contest the presidential election on her own.

The implosion seriously threatens a repeat of 2018. A recent poll of voter intentions showed Betancourt at 7% – more than any of her former coalition partners. A couple percentage points could make the difference between a centrist candidate qualifying for the runoff or not.

Even if Betancourt’s support fizzles out – other polls show her with only 1-2% of the vote – the center’s strategy of forgoing alliances with traditional parties and politicians is risky.

Gaviria sought the backing of members of these parties – which include the Liberals, Radical Change, and the National Unity party – because their allegiance will be critical for winning the presidency (and is still very much up for grabs).

Petro, who currently leads the polls, has no qualms about receiving their support. He has forged pragmatic (some would say cynical) alliances with traditional party politicians who can help deliver votes in key regions such as Antioquia and the Caribbean coast.

While this strategy has upset part of his progressive base, it has allowed Petro to establish a formidable national political operation, which has been on display in massive rallies throughout the country.

The other candidate who stands to gain from the center’s infighting is Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate and former mayor of Bucaramanga, a mid-sized city near the Venezuelan border. Hernández, who will forgo the March primaries and run as an independent, has gained ground with a brash, social media-driven campaign that is heavy on diatribes against corrupt elites but light on policy proposals. Recent polls show him running second to Petro.

A lot could change before the first round on May 29, and it is still too early to write off the center. However, the Coalition would need strong turnout in the March primary and a more coherent message to voters to regain momentum ahead of the first round.

If they fail, Colombians could be facing a choice between two populist, polarizing candidates, from the right and the left, who promise to shake up the political class and policy consensus of the last several decades.

Kahn and Amaya are senior analysts in Control Risks’ Global Risk Analysis practice

Follow Silvana Amaya:   X/Twitter

Tags: Alejandro Gaviria, Colombia, Colombia Presidential Election, Elections 2022, Gustavo Petro, Ingrid Betancourt, Rodolfo Hernandez, Sergio Fajardo
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