Álvaro Uribe may very well be the most influential 21st-century Latin American populist. As president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, he pursued a scorched-earth military campaign against the Marxist FARC guerrillas, cultivating celebrity status through his diatribes against the country’s left. He holds Colombia’s record for the most votes received in a Senate election and is the country’s de facto kingmaker, helping to elect Juan Manuel Santos as president in 2010. Then, through a campaign of disinformation and fearmongering, Uribe single-handedly sank Santos’s peace deal with the FARC in a 2016 referendum. Uribe’s influence has outlasted that of nearly all of his contemporaries, the leftist “pink tide” leaders in Latin America, with the exception of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Unlike them, however, Uribe shows little sign of faltering.
Last Sunday, Uribe flexed his electoral muscles once again, celebrating the election of his handpicked protégé, Iván Duque, a Georgetown-educated populist with minimal political experience. “Álvaro Uribe has reigned over elections for the past 16 years,” read a post-election headline in El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest daily. Duque, who will assume the presidency this August, handily won 54 percent of the vote, 12 points over Gustavo Petro, the progressive ex-mayor of Bogotá and former M-19 guerrilla. The election was marked by sharp divisions among the country’s left and polarization around several issues, chief among them the FARC peace agreement.
Despite the growing political divisions, Duque’s successful campaign served as a sobering reminder of how deeply entrenched Colombia’s conservative political establishment—particularly Uribe and his political party, the Centro Democrático—remains. Duque’s meteoric rise has become one of the most unsettling aspects of Colombia’s presidential elections. That he was elected president by a 12-point margin, despite a political résumé consisting of a single term as senator, is remarkable. That his election came as little surprise to anyone is even more so. He was virtually unknown among most Colombian voters this time last year, and spent months hovering around 1 percent in polls before an endorsement from Uribe turned him into an overnight sensation.
Tapping into Uribe’s vast sphere of influence comes with its own set of costs. Santos, who during his presidency split from Uribe, hailed from one of Colombia’s most powerful political families and had already cultivated his own electoral base. Duque, on the other hand, is a political neophyte. “Politically, Iván Duque is a nobody,” said Sandra Borda, a political scientist at Los Andes University in Bogotá. “He owes every single vote to Álvaro Uribe.”
A quick glance at Duque’s platform suggests as much. Though he is considered one of the more moderate members of the Centro Democrático, Duque supports a return to harsher measures for combating drug production and consumption in Colombia, including the recriminalization of minor drug offenses and a return to aerial spraying of coca crops, a hazardous practice that was halted under president Santos despite pressure from Washington. Over the past few months, Duque has also supported partnerships between the private sector and the government’s educational branch, and he has vowed to continue the mining and oil drilling operations that have contributed to global warming and perpetuated violence across the country. He’s allied with ultra-conservative politicians such as Alejandro Ordoñez, a former seminarian who opposes LGBT rights, and Marta Lucía Ramírez, a staunch opponent of women’s reproductive rights who will serve as the first female vice president in Colombian history.
Perhaps most importantly, Duque has also attacked the country’s nascent peace deal with the FARC, calling for revisions to the final agreement. But despite the focus of much of the international media’s mainstream analysis on Colombia’s peace agreement, it seems unlikely that Duque will endanger the country’s pact with the FARC. The rebel group, on its end, said it wouldn’t take up arms again; before the runoff vote, the guerrilla army’s former commander, Rodrigo Londoño, said that a return to war was not an option.
Given that the agreement was ratified by Congress and much of it has been approved by Colombia’s court system, attempts to amend it could result in a legal labyrinth. Instead, what Duque can do is simply refuse to implement parts of it, such as stipulations in the pact calling for health care and credit to farmers and building new roads in rural conflict areas. “I don’t know if he’s going to modify it at all,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at WOLA, a Washington-based think tank on Latin America. “What he can do is nothing. He can underfund it. He can drag his feet on anything that involves spending money to implement the accord.”
Any modifications to the agreement under Duque would almost certainly be to the transitional justice mechanism, known by its initials in Spanish, JEP, which he called a “monument to impunity.” The JEP offers reduced sentences in exchange for confessions related to the country’s armed conflict with the FARC. Duque has voiced a desire to modify the JEP and once even proposed the idea of replacing it—along with Colombia’s five other independent courts—with a single “super court.”
In the months leading up to the election, conservatives lamented the JEP as too lenient on offenders, most of them former FARC members. But among the left, the transitional body also represented a larger battleground on a crucial issue: corruption. Petro’s campaign fiercely defended the JEP as instrumental to unearthing evidence of the rampant corruption during Uribe’s stints as president and, before that, as governor of his home department of Antioquia. Immediately after Duque floated his “super court” proposal, Petro warned that it was a ploy to deter key witnesses who could reveal to the JEP criminal ties between Uribe, drug clans, and paramilitary groups during the armed conflict. Any attack on the transitional body, Petro argued, was tantamount to obstruction of justice.
Polls ahead of Sunday’s election suggested that corruption had become the single largest issue in Colombia, over the FARC peace deal. Two days before the first round of voting, a report by The New York Times revealed that declassified State Department cables from 1992 to 1995 accused Uribe, an up-and-coming senator, of ties to multiple drug clans in Colombia, including the Ochoa family, who formed part of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel and who allegedly financed Uribe’s senate campaign of that era. While president, Uribe also abused a state intelligence agency to spy on journalists, political opponents, and members of Colombia’s Supreme Court. And during his tenure, the country’s military killed thousands of civilians and presented them as guerrillas to boost combat statistics. Since February, the supreme court has been investigating Uribe for intimidating witnesses who could have testified against him and his brother, Santiago, for links to paramilitary groups. One of them was killed in April.
Uribe, however, has managed to distract Colombians by exploiting Venezuela’s economic collapse to stoke fear among voters. His tirades against “castrochavismo,” a term fusing the surnames of Fidel Castro and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, which he loosely applies to progressive opponents, are often echoed and amplified by his supporters. Comparisons likening Petro to Venezuela’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, are common. “We don’t want another Maduro in Colombia. That’s what Petro is,” said Ruth Teresa Ramos, 48, who was volunteering as an electoral witness in Bogotá for Duque’s campaign on election day. Fredy Urrego, another volunteer for Duque who spent two decades serving in the military, said he was voting “so that Colombia doesn’t become another Venezuela.”
Despite Petro’s efforts to distance himself from Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and his attempts to woo moderate voters, other left-leaning, peace-supporting factions refused to support him in the runoff, even under the looming threat of a potential Duque presidency. Sergio Fajardo and Humberto de la Calle, two center-left candidates who finished with a collective 26 percent in the first-round vote, both called for their voters to cast empty ballots in the runoff instead of voting for Petro. Others, like prominent center-left politicians Claudia Lopez and Antanas Mockus, only announced their support for Petro’s campaign after he pledged to uphold twelve political “commandments,” which were actually written in stone. Among them were promises against land expropriation for rural development and against convening a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, as Maduro had done last year in Venezuela. “If politics were clean, if we focused on political platforms, arguments, and proposals alone, we’d win,” said Gustavo Bolivar, a senator recently elected to Congress with Petro’s Colombia Humana party.
Yet for Petro and Colombia’s left, this year’s election represented meaningful progress against the country’s conservative elite. Once marginalized and outcast as FARC sympathizers, the country’s left has since mounted an electoral resurgence thanks in large part to Santos’s peace deal with the guerrillas, which eliminated one of the political establishment’s biggest scapegoats in the country. “The traditional political class in Colombia had always associated political parties on the left with illegal armed groups,” Sandra Borda said. “That’s over now.”
Petro may have lost by 12 points, but by winning over 41 percent of the vote—an unprecedented electoral feat for Colombia’s left after decades of isolation and political assassinations—his candidacy became the most successful leftist campaign in modern Colombian history. “There is no defeat here,” he tweeted shortly after the election results were announced. “We won’t be governing,” he wrote, “for now.”