Photo: Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro / Federico Rios / NYT
Now that the celebrations are over, Colombia’s new left-wing president faces a mountain of challenges. His biggest challenge will be delivering on his promises.
We first saw it in Peru, then again in Chile. Leftist outsiders were swept into power, and for many, a better future seemed on the horizon. But the honeymoon period didn’t last long, as Peruvian President Pedro Castillo and Chilean President Gabriel Boric over-promised and under-delivered. The approval ratings of both leaders plummeted as large swaths of the population began to realize they were unable to make good on their promises.
Colombia’s president-elect, Gustavo Petro, will soon find himself in a very similar set of circumstances when he is sworn in on August 7. How he responds to the country’s problems—as numerous as they are difficult—will come to define Petro’s presidency and faith in the Latin American left’s ability to govern.
Petro’s Historic Pact coalition of left-wing political parties holds 25 seats in the 188-seat lower house of Congress, and just 16 in the 108-seat Senate. To have a chance of pushing through some of his agenda items, Petro will have to court the lawmakers of centrist and center-right parties such as the Liberal Party, Radical Change, and the U Party.
That’s a tall order given that these establishment parties are unlikely to back some of Petro’s more radical policy objectives, like banning all new mining and oil exploration activity, and raising taxes on the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians.
“Anything that impedes oil and mining, or taxing the wealthy, will be an uphill fight,” Sergio Guzmán, director and co-founder of Colombia Risk Analysis, told Global Americans. “The wealthy have important sway over the politicians.”
Additionally, those parties will demand positions in government and other perks in exchange for their support in Congress. “These parties aren’t just going to roll on their backs without a fight, or without something in return. Petro should have learned that from [President Iván] Duque, who didn’t have dialogue with [opposition parties]. His first year in office was very unproductive,” Guzmán said.
Any political negotiations to get reforms passed could be made tougher by the Vice President-elect Francia Márquez, who is not keen on concessions or alliances with the traditional political parties, Guzmán noted.
Can Petro Rule by Decree?
Petro is not unaware that congressional gridlock threatens to derail his agenda. The president-elect said he would declare an “economic emergency” that would allow him to bypass Congress and govern by decree. He told the local radio station Blu Radio in March that widespread hunger and poverty in Colombia constitutes a “social catastrophe,” and this justifies the use of greater executive powers.
Whether hunger and poverty legally constitute an “economic emergency” is up for debate, and the Constitutional Court has the last word. But according to Colombia’s constitution, Petro wouldn’t need to wait for the court to issue its ruling; he needs only the signatures of all his cabinet ministers to begin governing by decree—for a period of no more than 90 days.
Pushing ahead with the move is a gamble. If the Constitutional Court ruled that poverty and hunger did not qualify as an “economic emergency,” all the policies implemented by decree would have to be revoked, according to Silvana Amaya, a senior analyst at Control Risks.
“The court has the power to later overturn the decrees after the fact … It’s one of those legal situations that would generate a lot of uncertainty,” Amaya told Global Americans.
According to Guzmán, the Constitutional Court has signaled that poverty and hunger do not meet the criteria of an economic emergency.
“The Constitutional Court has been clear that emergency powers proceed exclusively in circumstantial, transitory, and exceptional events,” he said. “Presidential decrees cannot be used to overcome normal functional and structural problems that can be addressed through Congress even if they are serious and disturb the public order.”
He added: “This suggests that Petro … can’t legally issue an emergency powers decree or a state of emergency to fight corruption or address hunger.”
The president-elect may decide to put aside his “change” agenda for the time being, as more pressing matters must first be tackled. Persistent inflation and the prospect of a global recession will hit government revenues hard, and they are likely to place more strain on ordinary Colombians, who have seen their purchasing power fall over the past two years.
“Petro inherits all of the problems, particularly low growth and high inflation, driven by factors well outside of Colombia’s control,” James Bosworth, founder of the political risk consulting firm Hxagon told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. “Whatever his policies, good or bad, he’s going to get hit by the current geopolitical wave of negative events that will make it very hard for him to be successful.”
The Numbers Don’t Add Up
While much of the gloomy fiscal forecast can be chalked up to global economic forces, some of it might be self-inflicted. Should Petro find a way to push through the suspension of oil and gas exploration, he would be doing away with one of Colombia’s main export revenue generators. This would make it all but impossible to pay for the social programs that Petro plans to use to address poverty and hunger, analysts say.
“[Petro’s] social agenda will cost between 60 and 120 trillion pesos ($15.3 billion to $30.7 billion USD), but this is unaffordable,” Amaya said.
“Even if Petro manages to present and approve a structural tax reform, his government will collect 25 trillion ($6.3 billion USD), which is insufficient to deliver on his social agenda,” Amaya said.
If the new administration prioritizes social spending in the short term, it is likely to see a ballooning budget deficit, making such spending unsustainable in the medium and long term.
“The costs on Petro’s proposed social programs are likely to burn through the budget and leave a rapidly widening deficit,” Bosworth stated in his Latin America Risk Report newsletter, distributed on Monday. “He’s going to have to make tough choices due to financial restrictions, and that will end up angering some portion of the coalition that elected him.
Such anger could bubble over and bring people into the streets. “The expectations [that Petro and his movement] have set are so high that this could cause disappointment among its followers, who in the absence of concrete reforms are likely to protest,” Amaya said.
Mark Kennedy is a Bogotá-based freelance writer.