Senior Research Fellow / Elcano Royal Institute
fter Sunday’s second round of presidential elections, Colombia is set to become a new Latin American example of the three “I’s” syndrome: uncertainty, ungovernability and inflation.
Uncertainty because the result is expected to be very close in a second round that pits two candidates who embody a triple punishment vote: against the system, the government and the hegemonic elites. A businessman and former independent mayor of Bucaramanga (Rodolfo Hernández) versus the leader of a left-wing party (Gustavo Petro, former mayor of Bogotá) who has never achieved power in Colombia. For the first time in two decades, neither a pro-Uribe candidate nor one of the traditional parties that governed from 1958 to 2000 has made it to the second round. Both are tied in voting intentions after a campaign for the second round in which Hernández (77 years old) seems to have lost his initial advantage: Petro, the most voted in the first round (40% vs. 28%), started behind Hernández with a view to the second round at the polls. However, Petro’s fear, his Achilles’ heel, has lost specific weight as the former Bucaramanga mayor’s strategic errors accumulated.
Uncertainty will give way, after Sunday, to ungovernability born of the mixture of polarisation and extreme fragmentation. Colombia must choose between a populist and a demagogue who represent two incompatible country-agendas that do not guarantee future governability. Neither of the two possesses sufficient strength in the legislature and their respective characters (arrogant in Petro’s case and irascible and unwilling to compromise in Hernández’s) are obstacles to forming coalitions that will provide institutional stability. It is true that Petro is an old political fox who knows how to pact and compromise. And Hernández, despite his permanent campaign against the political class, which he accuses of corruption, has the potential to build bridges with the traditional parties. However, the high level of polarisation caused by Petro (one part of Colombian society fears and loathes him, while another – the young – seems to idolise him) and Hernández’s irascible character suggest that he is more likely to fight and quarrel than to reach agreements and consensus. The opposition, raising the spectre of fear, would make life impossible for a future government of Gustavo Petro, who is aware of the “petrophobia” and the “political climate of hatred and sectarianism” that surrounds him. For his part, Hernandez only knows how to govern against the grain.
The uncertainty over the electoral outcome and the looming ungovernability is taking place in a context of complex national and international economic prospects, inflationary pressures and, above all, the absence of reforms for more than two decades, which has left the country on the periphery of the new emerging economy. It is a Latin American phenomenon: governments without a majority in the legislature are unable to push through the reforms needed to modernise economic structures. This has been Colombia’s story since 2010: neither Juan Manuel Santos’ ‘five locomotives’ nor Iván Duque’s ‘orange revolution’ have succeeded in driving change in Colombia’s economic-productive matrix.
After 19 June, the real risk for Colombia is ungovernability. Much more than a hypothetical (and unrealistic) “communist government” – as pointed out by Petro’s enemies who see him still in his role as a former guerrilla – or a Trumpist executive (Rodolfo Hernández). The most likely scenario is that this whole situation will lead to a new lost four-year term: one of paralysis, at best, if not economic-social and institutional regression. A breeding ground for the expansion of narco-terrorism and an increase in citizen insecurity, economic stagnation and widespread social unrest capable of calling into question Latin America’s second oldest democracy.
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