Photo: El País Colombia
Colombia’s electoral season is better understood as a relay with four different legs, as opposed to a single event ending in a runoff election on June 19, 2022. As candidates are trying to build a narrative and develop strategies to defeat their primary opponents, ideological differences and positions become hard to define— particularly among centrists. Outsiders should not expect to have a clear picture of winning trends until late in the game as domestic and foreign circumstances are likely to influence the electoral outcome.
There are over sixty—that’s right, 60—candidates competing to become Colombia’s president for the period from 2022 to 2026. Clearly not all of them are going to make it to the final ballot, and many of our clients looking at the elections from abroad are understandably confused. This article is meant to give readers a sense of the election timing. It is not an article about the candidates or their policies. Think of it, instead, as a structural explainer for the election’s timeline, internal struggles within the different congressional coalitions, and events that are likely to significantly alter the election’s outlook ahead.
First leg: Now until December 13, 2021
Political parties have until December 13 to determine who will be a part of their Congressional lists. Parties that are legally recognized are entitled to present candidates for the House and Senate. The make-up and order of that list will strongly influence candidates’ chances to run successfully for Congress. In that sense, presidential candidacies are often useful starting points for successful Senate campaigns. Candidates who have participated in the presidential race have the advantage of facetime with the electorate months ahead of the official start of the campaign season. They will also earn recognition for their contributions (or gaffes) during the campaign trail and will share the stage as equals and sparring partners with potential presidential frontrunners. Their endorsement of another candidate is also likely to speak volumes about their influence within the party and committee assignments once elected. Expect the list of candidates to be cut in half—if not by two thirds—by December 13.
Second leg: December 13, 2021, to March 13, 2022
On March 2022, congressional elections and primaries will take place. It is likely there will be a number of party primaries to take place between three groups: Far Right to Center Right, Center to Center Left, and Left to Far Left. Many candidates belonging to traditional political parties are aware they don’t stand a chance of winning a party primary and instead are campaigning for an improved position for their party in the congressional elections, a cabinet position in the event the winner of their primary becomes president, or a chance of becoming the party nominee for a subsequent run for Mayor or Governor. Expect the number of official presidential contenders to fall further on this date to a number between seven and ten.
Third Leg: From March 13 to May 29, 2022
The first round in the presidential election happens on May 29. By then, the makeup of Congress will be clear, and political parties will have bargaining opportunities to throw their support behind any given presidential campaign—contingent on their ideological affinity and their proven ability to turn out voters. At this moment it is likely that disdained party leaders, such as the Centro Democrático’s Álvaro Uribe, the Alianza Verde’s Carlos Ramón González, the Liberal Party’s César Gaviria, the Conservative Party’s Andrés Pastrana, and Cambio Radical’s Germán Vargas Lleras will become the coveted kingmakers. Their support will play a major role ahead of the first round of presidential elections, where the top two candidates will advance to a runoff. It will be extremely unlikely for a candidate to win outright in the first round, given the fragmented nature of Colombia’s body politic, the country’s level of polarization, and the lack of party cohesion. At the same time, fringe bids by extremist, populist candidates are likely to split the vote on the right or left, so last-minute drop-outs could also influence the vote.
Fourth Leg: May 29 to June 19, 2022
The runoff election between the top two candidates will take place on June 19, only three weeks after the first-round vote. The most recent polls suggest Gustavo Petro is a favored contender in a potential runoff election against a right-wing uribista candidate, whom polls suggest he would defeat handily. However, Petro’s chances of winning the presidency diminish should he face a centrist candidate.
Triggers for changes in scenarios
There are four things that are likely to throw the race off balance and make our jobs as analysts more difficult. They include, in no particular order, new protests, political violence, foreign intervention, and fraud allegations.
The protests that took place in April, May, and June have largely subsided, but not as a result of any compromise or agreement brokered between the protesters and the government. Discontent with the government, economic malaise, and police brutality remain high, and protests ahead of the elections should not be discounted—especially because they are likely to hurt the current government and other incumbents. This will be largely contingent on the way the national and local governments handle the protests (spoiler alert: they will most likely violently repress protests, which will make them larger in size and scope).
Political violence continues to be an unfortunately common occurrence in Colombia, and it is on the rise. According to the Misión de Observación Electoral, an elections watchdog, in 2021 there were 103 acts of violence against political leaders and politicians, a 15.7 percent increase from 2020. Alarmingly, murders and attacks increased by 106 percent over the same time period. Observers expect political violence and attacks against congressional candidates or other political leaders to increase in 2022—a sad development considering that the country’s 2018 elections were hailed as Colombia’s most peaceful in 50 years.
Undue foreign influence in Colombia’s election is likely. The ruling Centro Democrático Party and members of the government coalition have wrongly interfered in the electoral processes of Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. This makes it more likely for foreign officials, party operatives, and political players to cash in and interfere in the Colombian elections. Moreover, social media and the internet have made foreign meddling in elections easier and more commonplace. Investigators have linked actors associated with the Russian government to bots on various social networks to spread misinformation, affecting elections from Brexit to the US presidential election and the 2014 Brazilian election. It would not be out of character for Russia to covertly aim to derail elections in Colombia, the United States’ most important military and political ally in the hemisphere and the principal geopolitical rival of Russia’s closest ally, Venezuela.
Finally, the different legs of the election are likely to be rife with accusations of electoral fraud. If Gustavo Petro loses the election, he will most likely allege fraud and will refer to corruption scandals and vote buying as principal culprits of his loss. For their part, if members of the right wing lose in a runoff, they would likely resort to Donald Trump and Keiko Fujimori’s strategy of attempting to disqualify electoral authorities and demanding a recount. The most important question is not whether the loser of the 2022 elections will allege fraud, but rather how to reinforce the integrity of the electoral authorities to ensure that when an allegation is made, institutions can withstand a media onslaught or protests that cast doubt on the election’s integrity.
Altogether it is still too early to call the race at this point, but it should be examined as a race with four different legs, with distinct elements at play and opportunities for negotiation among seasoned politicos who have played the game before. At the same time, there will likely be events that throw off the predictions, calculations, or negotiations of the savviest political operatives and analysts around.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.