Although Iván Duque still has 14 months left in his term as President of Colombia, all indicators suggest that his post-presidential influence will be significantly diminished compared to that of other former presidents. Actions taken during his tenure—including his timid implementation of the peace agreement, the escalation of violence in rural areas, and the violent police crackdown on recent protests—have already begun to cloud assessments of his presidency. Is there still time for Duque to salvage his legacy?
On August 7, 2022, when he hands over the presidency to his newly elected successor, Duque will join the exclusive club of former Colombian presidents. Being only 46 years old, Duque will still be in a position to play a key role in Colombia’s political future for three or four more decades. Judging by the precedents established by other ex-presidents, Duque can be expected to maintain a semi-permanent role in the affairs of his political party, Congress, and—to a lesser extent—the State.
Nevertheless, Duque’s role as former president will be unique in the sense that he is not the visible leader of his own party, the Centro Democrático, which still revolves around former president Álvaro Uribe. Duque will be the only former president with a boss. Other former presidents who command their own political court include César Gaviria, who has been reelected as president of the Partido Liberal; Andrés Pastrana, ossified in command of the Conservative Party; and Ernesto Samper, an ex-president from the Liberal Party who still exerts influence over Colombia’s international affairs through his connections to UNASUR and other left-leaning organizations.
While it may be premature to speak of Duque’s ex-presidency when he still has 14 months left in office, policy circles already seem ready to turn the page on Colombia’s 41st president and focus their attention on the nascent race to replace him. (In theory, the electoral cycle begins in early 2022, but the campaign unofficially started months ago.) Uribe, Duque’s political mentor, is already considering potential right-wing successors, including former mayors, governors, and even his eldest son, Tomás. Uribe’s rivals on the left are attacking the sitting government on multiple fronts, including its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the implementation of the peace agreement, and the violent state response to recent outbreaks of social unrest. Meanwhile, the center of the political spectrum is adrift and lacking obvious political leadership.
And where is Duque in all of this? He appears to be suspended in the liminal space between the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the decades-long conflict with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and the political rebirth of Uribe, who will seek to perpetuate his grip on political power by proxy for as long as possible.
Although Duque assumed office with the aspiration of being an innovative president—introducing concepts like the Economía Naranja (Orange Economy) and seeking to position himself as a generational bridge between the country’s past and future—his ambitions have been truncated by an early lack of a legislative majority, an environment of intense political polarization, social unrest, and the COVID-19 crisis. As a public figure, Duque has not been a unifying leader, not even in the midst of the most serious economic and social crisis to have afflicted Colombia in decades.
Duque may enjoy a fruitful post-presidency public career, with appointments to multilateral organizations and boards of directors of multinational companies, lucrative writing deals, opportunities to direct an opinion program on radio or television, or even a position in academia. However, it is clear that, as a political operative, his place is behind Uribe. Duque will not have the authority to decide on the candidacies of his political party or to give continuity to his national vision without his mentor’s endorsement.
Despite having a stellar résumé, some of Duque’s actions in office will be difficult to overlook by his prospective future employers. At organizations like the United Nations, where Duque might aspire to serve as head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, his record on the peace agreement or social unrest may become problematic. The extent of his alienation from human rights campaigners and other social activists could also thwart his employment in the private sector, since some corporations may not desire Duque badly enough to justify the eventual backlash that would follow his hiring.
During his remaining time in office, Duque could demonstrate a veritable commitment to Colombia’s future by seeking to steer the country toward unity. The current president may possess the key to overcoming the disputes between Uribe and his enemies by promoting agreements on what remains, fundamentally, mutually agreed upon: the fight against corruption; post-pandemic economic reactivation based upon investments in infrastructure, environmental protections, and green economic growth; and the continued implementation of the peace agreement.
With little more than a year until the end of his presidency, Duque sits at a crossroads: he knows that he took office thanks to his loyalty to Uribe, but now recognizes that he continues to reside in Uribe’s enormous shadow. For Duque to play an influential role in the history of Colombia, it will be necessary for him to demonstrate that the purpose of his presidency was not only to be Uribe’s proxy executive, but rather to serve as a bridge to the Colombia of the future.
It is not too late for Duque to declare his independence from Uribismo by rallying Colombians around the cause of national unity and a common purpose, redefining his presidential legacy for decades to come. Otherwise, Duque runs the risk of going down in history overshadowed by the former presidents who determined the course of the country even while he occupied the presidency.
Sergio Guzmán is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy in Bogotá. His social networks are @ColombiaRisk and @SergioGuzmanE.