Colombia may see rise of left-wing populism

Colombia may see rise of left-wing populism

Colombia could see the rise of a firebrand leftist leader, much like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. The country has all the fundamentals: a political spectrum leaning strongly to the right, high income inequality, and an unravelling party system. And paradoxically, peace with the FARC guerrilla group will only bolster left-wing populism.

Any colour, as long as it is black

Voters in the 2014 Colombian elections could choose any political colour they wanted, as long as it was right-wing. During the run-off campaign between right-wing president Juan Manuel Santos and his even more right-wing contender Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Zuluaga’s party was bold enough to accuse Santos of being a ‘castro-chavista’. The remark illustrated a nagging problem in Colombian politics over the past five decades: the complete absence of a viable, popular left-wing party.

In 1948, left-wing leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was shot in Bogotá, ushering in a ten-year civil war known simply as La Violencia. At the end of the civil war, the two major parties in Colombia, the Conservatives and the Liberals, agreed on a political pact in which they would share power, despite regular elections. This pact, the Frente Nacional, made Colombian democracy withstand the upheavals of the 70s and 80s, when many Latin American countries succumbed to dictatorship.

But this came at a price: the political landscape became heavily slanted towards the right, as the two parties prevented other entrants from entering the political marketplace. As a result, a host of left-wing armed movements came into being, including the FARC.

In effect, the political left became associated with violence, while the right maintained its monopoly on democratic politics. Even though most of the left has since long abandoned arms, it is still nigh impossible for left-wing parties to capture the vote. Colombia has not seen a single left-wing president in its history.


In a democracy, wherever there is political demand, there will eventually be supply. Latin America’s left-wing strongmen often feed on the local elite’s tendency to monopolize democratic power, sweeping the political spectrum as they capture the vote of disillusioned citizens. Colombia’s neighbour, Venezuela, provides a compelling example of how this can pan out.

In Venezuela, the political spectrum was for many decades dominated by two parties, AD and COPEI, who had coalesced under a pact much like Colombia’s Frente Nacional. In effect, the political centre and right dominated democratic politics.

In the 1990s, this system unraveled, with splinter parties surging and an insider providing a ‘populist’ alternative to the status quo. It took until 1999, however, for a demagogue outsider called Hugo Chávez to chop down the system with a fell swoop. With a biased political spectrum, an unequal distribution of wealth, and the traditional parties falling apart, it was easy for Chávez to harness voters’ disgruntlement.

The black hole on the left

Colombia is not Venezuela. And perhaps the Colombian electorate simply leans more to the right than its neighbour’s. But the drivers behind Chávez’s success are as present now in Colombia as they were in 1999 Venezuela.

In 2013, the country had a Gini coefficient of 0.54, a measure of income inequality, scoring even higher than Brazil. Although income inequality has fallen over the past five years, it has only done so marginally. And Colombia’s tax system is still far from redistributive, despite a recent wealth tax reform.

Over 70 percent of Colombians has said the government should actively reduce inequality, according to a 2010 survey. Income and wealth inequality are correlated with a host of potentially destabilizing events, such as coups d’état, political violence, protests, and of course the rise of populists.

Colombia has seen upheaval in its political party system. After president Álvaro Uribe, who rose to power through the Liberal Party, founded his own party in 2005, the genie was out of the bottle. The old bargain between the Liberals and the Conservatives fell apart, and a plethora of new parties came about. The entry costs of entering the political arena has dropped substantially.

Slow to move

So why has no populist stood up yet to claim the victory of the vote? It can take quite a while for political supply and demand to match. Hugo Chávez first tried a coup d’état in 1992. Bolivia’s Evo Morales failed in his first attempt to run for president.

Moreover, in some cases more moderate left-wing contenders enter the scene, like Lula did in Brazil in 2002. President Santos has moved to the political centre, in a bid to lure the average voter. But it is hard to call Santos a left-wing politician.

To some extent, the left side of Colombian politics is occupied by the country’s guerrillas, the FARC and the ELN. Any association with them can spell the end of a politician’s career, and it is easy for right-wingers to play the guerrilla card on every left-wing opponent.

The threat of violence against left-wing politicians by right-wing armed groups also remains. But if the current peace negotiations with the FARC succeed, and especially if the ELN were to disband as well, this permanent disadvantage for the left could disappear.

Two pathways

There are two plausible scenarios: a radical left-wing populist could come to power, or a moderate left-winger could capture the vote.

A radical populist is likely to be successful if the moderate left does not provide a credible, charismatic competitor, or if it simply does not provide much of what voters expect it to.

One of the most viable moderate left-wingers, for example, is Clara López, who played a key role in the 2014 elections. However, she lacks the appeal and charisma of Chávez, Lula or even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, for that matter. As a scion of an established political family, she may not be able to capture the popular vote, clearing the way for a hardline populist.

In the same way, Antanas Mockus, the left’s presidential candidate in 2010, lacked the connection with labour-class and rural Colombians that was necessary to get out the vote.

These issues are likely to play out as the 2018 presidential elections approach. A potential peace agreement will most likely lead to a reboot of the political scene.

If this plays into the hands of a radical demagogue, it could well lead to severe political instability in Colombia. If, on the other hand, a viable democratic left were to grow in Colombia, a peace accord could lead to a more balanced political system.

It is therefore essential to keep an eye on what will happen in Colombia’s left over the coming four years.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Sjoerd ten Wolde

Sjoerd has worked as a political analyst and journalist in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, with a focus on oil and gas. He is currently pursuing a Master's degree in quantitative political science at the London School of Economics and holds a Master’s degree in Economics. He speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese.