Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro is facing the political fight of his life. Elected on October 30th 2011 with 723,000 votes representing 32 percent of the ballot cast, it’s been hardly a majority victory for this socialist mayor; and after a year and a half in power, he is increasingly acting like a politician in trouble.
The most recent event and most damaging to his future occurred late May when the nation’s Civil Registry announced it would accept 630,000 signatures collected on the streets of Bogotá by Representative Miguel Gómez Martínez, and validate 350,000 of them – enough to set the legal wheels in motion for a referendum on whether Petro should stay in office, or go.
But Petro will not go quietly. This week, the former M-19 guerrilla accepted an invitation from the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights for the organization to monitor the signature collection process when the referendum happens. The embattled politician also announced that he would move grassroots support by promoting a rally in his defense, in the Plaza Bolívar.
Bogotanos are familiar with Petro’s populist ways, such as when months after taking office, he stormed the headquarters of the water and sanitation company, Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarilla de Bogotá (EAAB), defending his government run garbage collection scheme. When the Petro government refused to renew private contracts, Bogotá found itself undergoing an improvised trash transition, with collection trucks caught up in customs and garbage pilling up on city streets.
From his days in opposition as a senator with a social message, to his combative stance as Mayor of Bogotá, Petro has tried to tackle the city’s big issues with mixed results. While he enforced a ban on firearms, crime in the capital remains high and continues to impact businesses and the international standing of the capital, such as when German news magazine ‘Bild’ recently entitled Bogotá as ‘crime capital of the world.’
As much as Petro has been applauded for banning bullfighting and the use of animals in circuses, his critics believe these humane measures are a drop in the bucket for a city which has lost a vision for a better future. From the mobility mess with broken roads and bridges, to selling the public a ‘Metro’ which would take decades to complete, and financed by even higher taxation, many referendum advocates believe that Petro’s promises have just gone too far. Colombia’s former Ambassador to Washington, Gabriel Silva Luján, stated in an opinion piece that the mayor oversees the “most catastrophic administration in the history of the city.”
Petro’s problems are also those of the left-wing Democratic Polo party, which is mired in scandal and which has governed the capital for three successive terms. Former mayor Samuel Moreno, who won with Polo in 2007, remains under arrest for massive corruption involving the TransMilenio expansion.
For many, Bogotá’s bright future as a city of public libraries, extensive bicycle paths, well-groomed parks, and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, eclipsed with Petro. A decade after the Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus terms, many believe in the well-intentioned signature collection of Gómez Martínez and the constitutional rights guaranteed by this referendum.
Yet, good intentions will not dent Petro’s resolve to move the crowds of his Bogotá ‘Humana’ and use the referendum as political foil. He has addressed the media in the past with a message that whoever is against him, is against the well-being of the peoples. He could use this tactic, again. He will also accuse critics of masterminding this smear campaign, rather than his dealing with the legitimate disapproval of his policies, by almost the same number of votes with which he won in 2011.
Whether friend or foe of Petro, a badly managed referendum could strengthen the populism of this beleaguered politician. And while the focus is on the ballot, the mayor knows, all too well, that a political future in Colombia does not end at the Lievano Palace.