Colombian President Gustavo Petro will likely pave the way for a far-right administration in the same way that Iván Duque paved the way for Petro’s own rise to power. He does not seem to know it yet, and Petro does not seem to be acting like a far-right candidacy is realistic right now. Petro ought to understand that both the short- and long-term future of Colombia’s left wing depends on his success. Nevertheless, the government seems intent on blaming any misstep or obstruction on political enemies, conspiracy theories of a soft coup, and elites refusing to concede privileges. While there is a measure of truth to some of these claims, the Petro administration needs to see the bigger picture.
The obstruction that the government is facing is not due to the public misunderstanding or not sharing Petro’s ambitious vision for change, but rather due to the fact that the system is designed for slow and steady change, has competing interests that are resistant to reform, and contains checks and balances that consider procedure as much as content. Many of the government’s reform projects face indefinite pauses and serious legal challenges. If the Petro administration seeks a better second legislative term and longer-term successes, its priority should be to take up the concerns of other parties and moderate their more radical proposals. It should see itself as one of many left-wing governments running a relay race, one that can allow subsequent administrations to pick up where Petro has left off. However, the government is in a hurry, it is running the 100-meter dash, and fosters little hope that future administrations or the elite will relinquish the opportunity to crush his once-in-a-lifetime reforms. For Petro, it is now or never. This has been used by traditional parties to extract a high price in terms of bureaucratic assignments and concessions from the government and beleaguer the reform process.
Petro is right in saying that the attorney general, the public prosecutor, and even some Central Bank board members appointed by his predecessor, Iván Duque, are politically motivated. He is right that Duque used his executive privilege to nominate close allies—often unqualified—to posts that would outlast his term. However, this does not mean that Petro should nominate equally unqualified and politically motivated candidates for government posts. Instead, he should use the opportunity to elevate the office of the presidency. However, this is exactly the type of opportunity that Petro will not waste. He will likely appoint an attorney general who uses the office to prosecute political enemies, a public prosecutor that opens investigations against adversaries, or a Central Bank composed of yes-men-and-women who will be more generous in evaluating President Petro’s unorthodox monetary policy proposals.
Colombians are increasingly pessimistic about the Petro administration. According to the latest Invamer Poll, 70 percent of voters believe the country is going in the wrong direction, 84 percent believe that security is getting worse, 84 percent believe that the cost of living is worsening, 79 percent think the economy is getting worse, 74 percent think corruption is getting worse, and 63 percent believe the fight against poverty is also getting worse. Petro has attributed low marks on previous’ governments, on free market capitalism, lack of patience for his “Total Peace” plan, and the inability to move his major reforms through Congress. For Petro, everyone is to blame—but himself. The litany of scandals—including those surrounding his son, Nicolás Petro, his former Chief of Staff Laura Sarabia, his Ambassador to Venezuela (who surprisingly remains in his post) Armando Benedetti—have exposed Petro’s political weakness, suggesting that his agenda of political change does not walk the talk. This has offered his adversaries on the far right and provided opportunities to pile on the president.
Gustavo Petro’s empowering of the right is not a good thing. Colombia’s far right is increasingly enamored with anti-institutional and authoritarian idealism as well as embracing radical Christianity and libertarian economic ideas. This follows other far-right candidates in Latin America who are looking to capitalize on the misgivings of the left, including Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, who subverted his country’s constitution’s non-reelection clause, Javier Millei in Argentina, who has promised to dollarize the debt-ridden country, and José Antonio Kast in Chile, whose party now has the majority of the constitutional re-write. Such a leader in Colombia would further stress the nation’s constitutional order, which has been heralded as progressive and delivered major victories for the rights of women, minorities, and the environment.
For Petro, a far-right contender could be a gift as Petro needs an enemy to direct his constituents against. People like Maria Fernanda Cabal, Juan Carlos Pinzón, Paloma Valencia or Viviane Morales may take the bait and campaign on a hard-right platform. However, if elected they will face the same governance challenges as Petro. Petro has demonstrated that some of his symbols, regarding diversity, redistribution, and peace have staying power. If those candidates do not understand why Petro won the presidency in the first place, we can expect not only a more polarized electoral cycle, but one that could tip the country into another violent political confrontation.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk. All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.