Colombia elections: Political coalition builders and breakers

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As Colombia’s May 29 Presidential election looms, coalitions are as easily being forged as they are breaking, leaving the left-wing progressive candidate Gustavo Petro of Colombia Humana cementing his loyal base and leading in voting intention. With 17 candidates on the slate, representing traditional parties, movements, and new coalitions, four months is a narrow time frame to get very diverse messages out there, convince apathetic voters to head to the polls on election day, and reach large audiences on social media, radio shows and televised debates. In what is turning out to be a highly contested race, and one of the most critical in recent history, given that Petro has maintained a lead long before the race officially began, the players in this Ides of March have entered stage left.

But, while the former Mayor of Bogotá, Senator and now, two-time Presidential candidate headlines debates as the front runner most likely to enter a second round of voting on June 19, the right-wing coalition Equipo Colombia (Team Colombia), with candidates Federico Gutiérrez, Alejandro Char and Enrique Peñalosa at the helm, are on a fast-track to face-off with the contentious left-wing leader on election night, and coalition that has earned the reputation as the “people’s coalition.” After turning down right-wing candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga of the Centro Democrático party to join forces, and move that ideologically puts them in favor with center-right voters, Zuluaga’s loyal base will inevitably find political common ground with Equipo Colombia.

The other coalition that acts as a counter-balance to Equipo Colombia is Coalición Centro Esperanza (Coalition Center Hope), with candidates from the center-left, as well as New Liberal, Green and independents. The most recent candidate to join this alliance of moderates is Ingrid Betancourt, but her stay was short-lived after she accused coalition partner Alejandro Gaviria of striking deals with the country’s “political machines.” After a series of “ultimatums” which fell on deaf ears, the former FARC hostage threw in the towel and will now go it alone, not unlike her 2002 presidential bid that ended in her kidnapping while out on the campaign trail in southeastern Colombia.

Betancourt, who recently returned to Colombia to announce her candidacy, believes the coalition “will pay a very high cost for being complacent with corruption and political machinery,” and other affirmations that could further divide a deeply fractured political non-starter. This leaves the 65-year-old former governor of Antioquia and mathematician Sergio Fajardo as the “consensus builder,” with an important track record in public service and regarded as someone who avoids confrontational politics. Fajardo voters cross generational lines, and if given a choice between a candidate from Team Colombia or Petro’s Pacto Histórico, a large majority would vote for the socialist agenda of the current front runner, rather than former mayors Peñalosa, Char and Gutiérrez.

If the political center in Colombia cannot hold, a wild card in these elections, Rodolfo Hernández, may hold the key the presidency, even though his chances of entering Palacio Nariño are distant given the fact that as an independent with a no-corruption narrative, his political legacy does not transcend his native department of Santander.  As a successful business leader from Bucaramanga, departmental capital of Santander, Hernández would most likely push his voters ahead of the second round to join those of Zuluaga and Team Colombia.

The 2022 election race will most likely split the electorate between Uribistas and anti-Uribistas, with the key battlegrounds being the Colombian coast, Medellín, Santander and Bogotá. The coast, base to the Char clan and where Petro has been building support ever since he lost the 2018 race to President Iván Duque, has one more player, who until now, remains out and on the sidelines: Germán Vargas Lleras. Vargas Lleras’ Cambio Radical party is also well positioned in capitals Riohacha, Barranquilla and Cartagena to stump Petro’s advance, and should the liberal Senator and former vice President to Juan Manuel Santos join the race, the coast could determine the final outcome of the elections.

The “everyone against Petro” scenario has not yet played out in a campaign, that so far, is still in alliance-forming stages, rather than large public venues, and in many ways, a repeat of the 2018 elections when Duque was a distant player compared to Petro, Humberto de la Calle and Fajardo. Even though four months may not seem like an open window of opportunities, Colombian politicians seem convinced that time is on their side, especially at this historical juncture when so much is at stake.