This week Colombian President Ivan Duque travelled to Washington, DC, where he was greeted—legitimately—as one of the U.S.’s strongest allies in the region. A partner in helping the Andean country beat back crime and illegal armed groups, a solid ally on battling narcotics production and trafficking—albeit with some backsliding in recent years—a free trade partner, and now one of the regional leaders in ramping up pressure on the odious regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, the U.S. couldn’t hope for a better friend south of its border.
But in his own country, Duque is the most unpopular president in decades—and this after fewer than seven months in office. Worse, his low popularity ratings are matched only by former President Andres Pastrana after he had clung to a wildly misguided attempt to jump-start a peace process with the FARC by ceding a Switzerland-sized chunk of the country to the narco-traffickers/guerrillas.
Yes, Duque has had missteps, including questionable appointments to high level positions to the judiciary and a general sense that he may be out of his league on policy. And yes, the country faces the prospect of more than 1.1 million Venezuelan refugees—with over 1,000 more crossing the border every day—that the government has humanely and courageously welcomed; but the policy is having a political and economic cost. Then there’s the issue of Duque’s mentor/political godfather, the irrepressible, scandal-plagued former President Álvaro Uribe, who never seems more than a tweet away from embarrassing his political mentee.
Despite these political liabilities, Duque, and indeed Colombia’s political system, face a more daunting problem: a party system that is in deep flux if not collapse. The signs were evident in the first round of the president elections on May 27, 2018. In that contest, the traditional party system of Liberals and Conservatives that had effectively dominated not just Colombia’s political life but also its social orientations effectively evaporated. Neither of the two top vote getters, Duque of the Grand Alliance for Colombia or Gustavo Petro of the List for Decency, headed either Liberal or Conservative tickets. Though Duque was backed by the remnants of the Conservative party, the cobbled-together movement was more a personalistic creation of his mentor Uribe than a political party in the traditional sense.
Combined, the two candidates accounted for just a little over 54 percent of the vote. In fact, the only candidate in the race that could be said to have represented Colombia’s fading bi-party system was Humberto de la Calle, under the Colombian Liberal Party. He received only 2 percent of the vote. To put that in context, de la Calle’s total was just over half of the invalid and blank votes cast; he received just under 400,000 out of 19,336,134 total votes cast (which included 341,087 blank ballots and 300,080 invalid votes).
Round two’s stark options
Duque won the June 17 second round voting decisively with almost 54 percent of the votes against the leftist Petro, who received 41.8 percent. Most striking was the political space that divided these two candidates and their coalitions. While Duque’s movement flew the banner of the Democratic Center, it was clearly more tied to conservative and even right-wing elements of the political spectrum, and ran against the FARC peace agreement negotiated by former president Juan Manuel Santos. On the other side, Petro’s List of Decency (I think this falls somewhere between Santa Claus’ naughty and nice lists) grew out of a leftist political movement, the Democratic Pole, that groups labor leaders, leftist social movements and leaders of the former guerrilla group M19.
In short, the collapse of Colombia’s party system may have marked the collapse of the center. And with Colombian voters now unmoored from their traditional centrist parties, politics just became a lot more fluid. These are the structural reasons for Duque’s dive in public approval, which, according to a survey by local firm Datexco in December, had him down to a 22 percent approval rating. Other firms had him mostly in the low 30s, still not good for any president not even halfway into his or her term.
The structural reasons are not hard to find. Trust in political parties among Colombians is one of the lowest in Latin America, according to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). In its 2016-2017 wave of surveys, LAPOP found that only 10 percent of Colombians trusted their country’s political parties—among the lowest in the hemisphere. Below them was Brazil (9 percent), Chile (8.5 percent), and Peru (7.5 percent). Correspondingly, in the same surveys only 22.6 percent of Colombians claimed to belong to a political party; the lowest levels of partisan affiliation in South America are in Chile (12.3 percent) with the highest in Uruguay (44.4 percent). Perhaps most troubling is Colombian youth, who are the least likely to belong to political party, spelling trouble not just for Duque’s remaining time in power but for party politicians in the future.
Viva la candidata independiente!
The problems against this political backdrop are that this not only favors independent, outsider candidates (which doesn’t necessarily spell trouble), but that it creates electoral fluidity and uncertainty and tends to breed polarized politics.
Here Peru is a useful comparison. In the fellow Andean country, since the collapse of the party system in 1989, each election brings a new wave of concerns about the democratic bona fides of at least one candidate—Ollanta Humala, Keiko Fujimori, the list goes on. In all these cases the choices are stark and polarizing. So far, in each case, Peru’s democracy has dodged a bullet in selecting the more democratically oriented of the choices.
But even once elected, these presidents’ popularity rests on weak foundations. Without stable party organizations and affiliations to anchor votes, popularity becomes fickle. As I like to say, from former President Alejandro Toledo to Humala, these presidents finished their terms with popularity ratings just above the country’s impressive rates of economic growth—often between 5 and 7 percent (GDP growth not approval ratings).
Could Duque’s early popularity plunge signal the same phenomenon? Even with questions about his leadership, more stable party systems and affiliations would likely have reduced these wide swings of popularity. More, the divisive second-round choice between a center/right candidate and a leftist may portend more polarized politics ahead. And should Colombia’s fickle voters tire of Duque, having tried his brand of conservative policymaker, will they then move on to Petro or to another untried leftist politician? That is essentially the way Peru’s party-less political system has limped along for almost two decades now, so far avoiding a system spoiler. But how long can that last without the existence of enduring, stable parties?
For the United States, there is one potential source of comfort. Colombia remains one of the most pro-U.S. countries in the region, even in the Trump era. According to Pew, in 2017 51 percent of Colombians had favorable opinions of the United States. While this had declined from 64 percent three years earlier, in 2014, it still better than much of the region. But again the same could be said of Peru where in the same survey the same number 51 percent had favorable opinions of the Colossus to the North.
These are strong numbers especially when compared to Chile at 39 percent and Mexico at 30 percent. This may speak to a certain degree of pragmatism of Colombian (and Peruvian) voters when it comes to outsider candidates bringing a message of anti-imperialism and a rejection of the market economy. But then again, at one time, even during the early years of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelans had some of the highest favorability ratings toward the United States.