Colombia rejects Petro in territorial elections turned plebiscite

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Carlos Fernando Galán delivers his victory speech in Bogotá after winning the mayoral race. Photo: Nuevo Liberalismo

In a historic display of civic sentiment, Colombians took to the polls on Sunday, stoically rejecting President Gustavo Petro in a slate of mayoral elections that have been characterized as a de facto plebiscite against his administration. The elections held in Bogotá, the nation’s capital, saw the emergence of centrist leader Carlos Fernando Galán as the dominant victor, signaling a profound shift away from previous progressive administrations.

The sweeping electoral rebuke of President Petro, who assumed office just 15 months ago, manifested itself as centrist and right-wing candidates clinched victories in Colombia’s major cities, including Cali, Medellín, Barranquilla, and Bucaramanga. In Medellín, former presidential candidate Federico Gutiérrez and staunch anti-Petro politician won a landslide vote with 73% compared to the pro-government candidate Juan Carlos Upegui (10%).

The southwestern capital of Valle del Cauca – Cali – elected the conservative businessman Alejandro Eder with 40% over the pro-government, leftist candidate Roberto Ortiz (28%), and in Barranquilla, Alejandro Char also swept an impressive 73% of all votes cast in the capital of Atlántico.

Petro’s defeat in the 2023 territorial elections can be attributed to a confluence of factors, including his low popularity, his pro-Palestine stance that has impacted Colombia – Israel relations, and his proposed reforms that threatened the country’s healthcare, labor, and pension systems.

President Petro lost a crucial political stronghold in Bogotá, where voters bestowed Carlos Fernando Galán with an unequivocal mandate, awarding him 49.2% of the total votes cast, equivalent to an impressive 1.49 million ballots.

Carlos Fernando Galán, a 46-year-old politician, has battled personal introspection and his father’s enduring legacy. He overcame inherent shyness as the youngest of three children, developing a keen political acumen which was highly regarded by his father, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán.

Tragedy struck the family when his father was assassinated by the Medellín cartel in 1989, and when Carlos was just 12 years old, forcing the family’s relocation to France. It was in Paris that Galán honed his character, and completed his high school education in a foreign language. At Georgetown University he specialized in Foreign Service with a focus on International Economics, and further solidified his commitment to returning to Colombia, a nation scarred by narco violence that claimed his father’s life.

In his victory address in Bogotá on Sunday, hours after he clinched the second-most important political seat in the country, Galán emphasized the weight of his responsibilities, both due to his father’s legacy and the trust reposed in him by the people of Bogotá.

During his acceptance speech, Galán demonstrated an attitude of respect towards his electoral rivals and underscored the importance of democratic competition in serving the citizens of Bogotá. He acknowledged the caliber of his opponents, lauding their contributions to the electoral campaign, and emphasizing the need for collaboration in the future leadership of the city.

Galán’s speech was marked by a tone of unity and gratitude, which extended to all those who had partaken in the electoral race. He paid homage to each of his competitors, commending their proposals and recognizing their respective strengths, fostering a message of cooperation and dedication in his forthcoming governance.

“We won, and our responsibility to the people is enormous. Personally, I feel a heavy burden on my shoulders, but I am ready and willing to carry that weight to a better destination,” he expressed. “I won’t be a mayor who battles with the press; I will be the one who promotes it. I ask the press to watch over us and help us identify what’s going wrong so we can take action. We’ve arrived; it’s our responsibility now. Let’s work with humility, let’s focus on producing results,” he declared.

Leftist candidate Gustavo Bolívar of the Pacto Histórico party who got 18.7% of the vote, conceded defeat gracefully and acknowledged Galán’s first-round victory. “I acknowledge the victory of Carlos Fernando Galán and, for the sake of Bogotá, I wish him the best of luck in his administration. To my 570,000 voters and my team, I offer my heartfelt gratitude. We did politics with integrity. This leaves us at peace. The struggle will continue,” he stated.

Galán secured a significant victory margin over his fellow candidates, including Juan Daniel Oviedo who came second with 20%; Rodrigo Lara (2.2%), Diego Molano (2.1%); Jorge Enrique Robledo (1.1%); and General (ret.) Jorge Luis Vargas (1%).

Carlos Fernando Galán pledged in his government plan for Bogotá to focus on five guiding principles for the nation’s capital: a permanent government presence on the streets, governance of everyday life, the ability to create agreements, modernizing the way of governing, and putting the city’s interests first. “We didn’t promise anything just to win a few votes. Thank you, thank you to the citizens of Bogotá. With their votes, they made their voices heard, and they made it clear that they chose to believe, that they preferred someone who works for them and not for themselves or another leader. They made it clear that we need to recognize others’ successes and build upon them, because what matters is not who cuts the ribbon or whose name appears on the plaque, but how many lives can be improved with a project,” stated Galán in an auditorium filled with supporters.

One key issue that loomed large in the election was the future of the overland Line 1 of the Bogotá Metro, and that has seen important progress in construction during the tenure of outgoing Mayor Claudia López. Galán emphasized that this crucial mobility project will be determined by the capital itself, rather than the discretion of President Gustavo Petro. “For the first time, Bogotá has a contracted, financed, and ongoing metro. We must protect it. With all due respect, the President of the Republic does not define the Metro of Bogotá. Bogotá and its residents determine it, not President Petro, not the President of China,” warned the Nuevo Liberalismo leader.

As mayor-elect, Galán stressed the urgency of advancing this transformative project that will benefit millions of citizens in the capital. “I want us to, for the first time, in the most genuine way possible, work together to move the Metro forward and finally put an end to a discussion that has plagued Bogotá for more than seven decades. It’s truly outrageous to waste time every day in any form of transportation,” he emphasized.

From taking on everyday issues that will affect the quality of life in the Colombian capital, Galán recognized with humility that the challenges ahead “are enormous”, and that “if we don’t support each other, tolerate each other, and value each other, it will be very difficult to emerge unscathed from an imminent storm.”

In an emotive speech in the company of his mother, Gloria Pachón de Galán, and elder brother Juan Manuel, Carlos Fernando stated that reaching the mayoralty of Bogotá has been his dream. “I have spent 17 years falling and getting back up, preparing and waiting to reach this point, and it demands that I make the most of every second as mayor to transform the city. This clear and resounding mandate imposes an inalienable task on us: to work day and night, on the streets and with the people, to solve the daily problems that are currently stealing our happiness,” he concluded.