Image:Source: Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images.
Gustavo Petro’s election arose from the Colombian people’s restlessness with the state of affairs and their desire for change. The incoming administration envisions expanded healthcare, technology, and infrastructure coverage; championing social justice as the backbone of their new vision for Colombia; and a Colombia that can hold its ground as a regional and international leader. But, problems abound in the country that Petro inherits, suggesting a rude awakening for the country’s first left-wing leader.
Prior to his inauguration on August 7, Gustavo Petro is keeping his cards close to his chest. The events, announcements, and appointments he has made since his electoral victory suggest that he understands the enormous challenge that lays before him. Petro’s success or failure in meeting his high expectations for his political movement will be subject to scrutiny from opponents, the press, and the private sector. In addition to Colombia’s seemingly unmendable ideological divides, Petro’s past behavior as mayor, an opposition congressman, and a former insurgent inspires mistrust among many. Further, the dire economic circumstances that afflict the country suggest worrisome vulnerability to negative external shocks.
Given the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world still reeling from the pandemic, and oil prices beginning to falter, Petro’s administration will be tasked with reigniting political dialogue and consensus in Colombia to advance reforms that equip the country to withstand external shocks. In addition, Petro is looking to advance peace negotiations with the ELN and other armed groups, rebuild relations with Colombia’s estranged neighbor Venezuela, bolster the energy transition and renewable sector, wean the country off the extractive sector, address unforeseen food insecurity and poverty, and promote rural development and interconnectivity.
Petro has proposed significant economic reforms such as ending oil exploration, accelerating the energy transition, significantly extending subsidies for low-income people, making the government the employer of last resort, enacting land reform, and printing currency. Petro’s unorthodox views are currently popular among the public, given the current economic duress and political polarization. However, it is improbable that some of his more radical views on the management of the economy will be passed by Colombia’s Congress, permitted by its courts, or implemented by its institutions.
It is unlikely that Petro will manage to succeed on all fronts a combination of political, economic, and social factors will limit the extent of his ambitions and force him to compromise or significantly cut down on his objectives—uncharted territory considering Petro’s political career as mayor of Bogotá and opposition politician. Petro’s governance style, Cabinet composition, and relationship with Congress will be influential, at times even determining how expansive Petro’s ambitions can realistically be. The private sector will also weigh in on these reforms, often exerting influence through political channels or the courts.
As Petro moves through his first 100 days and adjusts to his new role, he will be held accountable for his promise to transform the economy from an extractive model to a productive model. Although in his first 100 days, Petro will realistically only be able to tackle small aspects of this promise, we can expect Petro to continue pushing for reform through piecemeal policy proposals scattered throughout his four years as president, even while he confronts difficult contexts domestically and globally. This central promise is a fundamental axis of Petro’s program. Whether it successfully permeates Colombia’s body politic, including both his base and opposition, will determine its continuation in subsequent administrations.
The areas Petro will likely capitalize on to show his administration’s leadership amid turbulent geopolitical relations globally include the fight against climate change, the pursuit of total peace, and the debate on global drug trafficking. Foreign audiences will overlook Petro’s domestic security policies, institutional reform efforts, or attempts to enact rural reform, but these proposals remain central to the incoming administration’s pursuits. Instability within the first 100 days of the administration, although unsurprising according to our view, may catch foreign audiences by surprise. Petro will attempt to cast himself as Colombia’s last great hope to address some of its structural problems, but in reality, Petro will face significant constraints that will limit his ability to succeed.
Petro’s agenda for the first 100 days across sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, infrastructure, and foreign policy attempt to comprehensively attack Colombia’s deep structural problems with a multi-party approach. Although admirable in its ambition, Petro will likely realize quite early on in his 100 days that robust ideas must be followed by quick wins to earn praise and live up to expectations. At the outset of his presidency, Petro must appeal to pragmatism if he wants to see his ambitious vision implemented, albeit less ambitious than he originally conceived.
Petro’s governance will largely determine how his administration succeeds in navigating—or fails to navigate—polarizing policies central to his platform. He will have to be careful to be revolutionary enough to appease his core supporters to mitigate any threats of social unrest while moderating enough to avoid a congressional impasse fueled by his opposition, where his entire program stalls. This precarious relationship will be nearly impossible for Petro to maintain throughout his 100 days.
Although lately, Petro has toned down his rhetoric, openly welcomed dialogue with opponents, and has proposed broad collaborations with multiple sectors, it is almost certain that his tone will change later during his administration. This shift—or lack thereof—will reveal whether Petro has moved on from the unmanageable moods and impulsive personality that characterized his term as Mayor of Bogotá or if he can suppress these tendencies, as he did to win the election. Petro’s balancing act will begin in his first 100 days but will last throughout his entire presidency.
This article is part of a larger report that was published by Colombia Risk Analysis on August 5, 2022. You can access the full report here:
Sergio Guzmán is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.
Camille Farradas is a Risk Analysis Intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and is currently a graduate student at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy. Follow her on Twitter @CFarradas.