Colombia’s president-elect inherits a polarized country

Colombia’s president-elect inherits a polarized country

As the youngest president in Colombia’s history, Iván Duque’s fresh-faced and scandal-free image may prove useful in uniting Colombia in support of his administration. However, several formidable challenges have the potential to derail his administration.

Taking the podium after his electoral victory was announced, Colombia’s president-elect Iván Duque pledged to “turn the page on the politics of polarization” after a bitter and highly divisive presidential campaign. However, he again voiced his intention to renegotiate the historic peace deal that brought an end to the long and bloody conflict between the Colombian government and the guerilla group FARC. Notably, former FARC leader and proponent of the peace deal Rodrigo Londoño congratulated the president-elect over Twitter, adding that there is much work to be done and “the roads of hope are open”.

Though Duque’s victory over his leftist opponent Gustavo Petro was comfortable, with Duque receiving 54 percent of votes as opposed to Petro’s 42 percent, he will need much more than supportive tweets from ideological adversaries if he is to succeed in peaceably renegotiating the FARC deal as well as leading Colombia through the challenges that have bedeviled it for decades.

The polarization of a peace deal

Signed in 2016, the peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC brought an end to a 50-year conflict in which an estimated 220,000 people were killed. Though Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos received a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in securing the agreement, it remains a highly contentious topic and will likely prove the most divisive and destabilizing element of Duque’s presidency for several reasons. Firstly, for the millions of affected Colombians this political issue is also a deeply personal one, as it is a common refrain in Colombia that not a single family has avoided scars from the conflict. Secondly, a month after a previous version of the peace deal failed in a referendum by a mere 0.5 percent, the final peace deal was controversially signed without being offered for referendum. Furthermore, referendum results highlighted a class divide, as Colombians in highly-affected rural areas voted in favor of the peace deal while those in urban areas that were more insulated from the conflict voted against it.

By consistently promising to renegotiate the deal during his campaign, Duque has put himself in a difficult position. In order to appease his support base, as well as his mentor Álvaro Uribe (the former president who remains a powerful senator), he will be compelled to enter some form of renegotiation with FARC. However, by advocating renegotiation he runs the risk of not only alienating those who support the peace deal, but also re-igniting the FARC conflict and damaging peace negotiations with ELN, another guerilla group. Duque has recently softened his criticism of the peace deal, proposing “corrections” rather than complete renegotiation, hinting that he is aware of the fine line that he must walk. The peace deal itself is in peril after former FARC leaders have come under fire for continuing to traffic narcotics, raising the possibility that a combination of pressures may compel Duque to call off the peace deal.

An economy in need of reforms

Despite losing the election, Petro’s radical economic platform of land redistribution and the termination of oil and coal exports proved remarkably popular in a country that has historically avoided left wing candidates. Duque is a much more business-friendly and orthodox option, promising to lower corporate taxes and cut regulations. However, if he is to meet the fiscal requirement to reduce the deficit from 3.6 percent to 1 percent by 2022, he has little room to maneuver. Though the Colombian economy is on the rise after a rebound in oil prices, it remains weak. Economic inequality is severe, corruption is rampant, and poverty remains a stubborn problem. If Duque simply offers more of the same and is unable to tackle these economic challenges, he may find a radical platform such as Petro’s much more difficult to beat in a few years.

High stakes for a new president

Given the looming risk of renewed conflict and the troubling prospect of a radical left wing presidency in Latin America’s fourth-largest economy, the stakes of the Duque presidency are high. In order to appease his support while avoiding a falling-out with FARC, Duque will need to carefully handle negotiations on the peace deal, the result of which will likely be merely cosmetic changes.

In order to limit the effectiveness of the left wing, he will need to enact policies that fight corruption and promote economic diversification and greater income equality. In order to pass legislation, he will need to pay special care to his relationship with his mentor Uribe, whose party holds a majority in congress. Succeeding in those, he will still face the challenges of surging cocaine production and spillover from the economic crisis in neighboring Venezuela. The Duque presidency holds great promise, but deft leadership will be necessary if it is to succeed.

Categories: Latin America, Politics

About Author

Arthur Williams

Arthur Williams is a Consultant in the Kuala Lumpur office of Kaiser Associates, a management consulting firm. Arthur has worked in several South American countries, including Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia, and prior to joining GRI he wrote for a Latin America-focused business risk publication. Arthur holds a degree in International Political Economy from Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.