Colombia’s dysfunctional campaign maintains Petro lead

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With less than four months to go before millions of Colombians head to the polls on May 29 for the 2022 presidential elections, left-wing progressive candidate Gustavo Petro has been shoring up support on the campaign trail. With a message that he would end oil and gas exploration the day he takes office (August 7), expropriate unproductive land, raise import duties on clothes, leather items and agroindustrial products, the head of the Colombia Humana party appears unstoppable on the campaign trial compared to his rivals.

While the former Senator and Mayor of Bogotá’s lead is impressive at 27%, he still remains short of clinching election day victory with 50% plus one vote.

The most recent poll by Semana and CNE puts independents Rodolfo Hernández second (14%), and Ingrid Betancourt (7%), third. The hierarchy during this early stage of a campaign that is focusing more on personality traits than issues, shows the disarray of one coalition that could challenge Petro’s lead, yet the candidates are more embroiled in fighting amongst themselves rather than acting united, even if it is just that, acting.

The far-right is navigating the political doldrums, after the party of former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Centro Democrático, appointed during a convention in November, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, as their candidate. Zuluaga was also the party’s nominee in the 2014 elections against incumbent Juan Manuel Santos. The 62-year-old economist managed to upend Santos’ lead in the election race, but lost with 45% of the vote compared to the leader of the U Party’s 51%.

With Zuluaga trailing in the Semana poll at 4%, the Centro Democrático has morphed into a political appendage, and whose immediate future will depend on forging an alliance with independent Rodolfo Hernández and Equipo Colombia’s triumvirate Alex Char, Enrique Peñalosa and Federico Gutiérrez. However, Team Colombia’s Alex Char has shunned any rapprochement with the representative of the house Uribe built.

Even though Zuluaga remains on the sidelines of a campaign in which Petro is inundating his Twitter feed with images of packed outdoor plazas and himself dressed in the traditional garb of each region, including a woolly ruana during Sunday’s trip to Tunja, Boyacá, the 61-year-old former member of the M-19 guerrilla, is also running his campaign in Europe, where last Wednesday, February 2, he had a 45-minute audience at the Vatican with Pope Francis.

While the details of the meeting are shrouded in secrecy, except a Vatican order not to have photographs taken, one of Petro’s closest allies, Senator Gustavo Bolivar, released a picture of the candidate allegedly walking side-by-side with Pope Francis along a gilded corridor. The picture was quickly discredited by the French news agency AFP as a montage of a July 2019 visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Vatican.

The scandal trending on social media as #PetroShop has not dented the candidate’s popularity, given that the objective to portray Petro as a globe-trotting leader and devout Catholic, was achieved.

During a week in which Petro usurped Putin as “the man of the moment,” diplomatic relations between Colombia and Russia hit a low after the Embassy slammed the country’s Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, over statements accusing Russia of “foreign intervention” on the Venezuelan border. In the harshest terms, the Russian Embassy affirms Molano “in his tireless search for fictitious enemies,” cites, once again, some “intelligence data, without any verification.”

The communique reprimands Molano for “irresponsible statements by a senior member of the government,” in view of the “meeting between President Iván Duque and the heads of accredited Diplomatic Missions on the same day, where the Colombian president spoke out for the development of friendly ties in Bogotá.”

In a dysfunctional campaign fraught with disinformation, the lead protagonist, so far, is fake news, and one increasingly transcending Colombia’s geopolitical landscape. As the Coalición Centro Esperanza shows no hope in recovering terrain, and far-right exiled from the political narrative, Petro remains convinced he will clinch victory on the first round. And the way things are looking, he may be right, and there’s nothing fake about this.