Mr. Gustavo Petro still has a long way to go before he is elected. Things have a way of changing in the Colombian electoral processes, and the road is paved with losing candidates who were ahead in the polls just a month before an election.
But let us suppose that he would win the presidential race on May 29 or second round on June 19.
As the mayor of Bogotá, Petro proved to be a mediocre public administrator. He showed little regard for the law, and was a loner, as he quickly turned his back on his allies. He is not known for listening or building teams. This, along with a poor set of close confidants, would predict a very unsuccessful term in office. But, I strongly believe that the damage he could bring about would be limited, and, beneficial in the long run, as it could close the door on future populist experiments.
Mr. Petro is very far from becoming another Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s populist dictator, in terms of the magnitude of change to the economic model, and predicted demise of our democratic institutions. I will support this assessment with two arguments: these are very different times in terms of the economy, and Colombian institutions are strong and built to withstand the threats of populist governments.
The performance of any government is closely tied to the performance of the economy. In a globalized world, markets are interconnected in ways that are subject to global trends, positive or not.
When Hugo Chávez took office, at the turn of the century, the world was living an economic boom. Populist, democratic, autocratic, leftist, and right-wing governments all around the world, enjoyed the benefits of rising commodity prices, increase in global trade, and rising per capita incomes. Colombia and Venezuela both saw their economies soar during the first decade of the 21st Century, as did so many other countries depending on commodities (especially oil).
Both countries – at completely opposite sides of the political spectrum – presented a considerable decrease in poverty, a healthy investment rate and a growing middle class. Arguments would have supported the benefits of both political models, based on the splendid performance of both economies.
Times have changed. The lagging growth in population worldwide is going to keep the vigorous economic growth a thing of the past. Rebound from the COVID-19 crisis is proving to be short-lived, and the unusually high inflation rates seen globally will evolve into a challenging problem for the next administration, along with the looming fears of recession. Higher interest rates are no signal of expected continuous growth.
The next administration will have to weather a complicated economic outlook – be it hard-left or right-wing. Neither will have the benefits of the kind of growth seen during the first two decades of the millennia. No ambitious legislative agenda will come to life with a sluggish economy, inflation, unemployment, and high interest rates. Whoever wins is in for a bumpy ride.
If Mr.Petro wins the election, his honeymoon with his electors would be one of the briefest in modern history.
On the other hand, Colombia’s strong institutions and balance of power, will be able to withstand the expected attacks that could come from a populist regime with reduced regard for the rule of law.
Let’s start by stating a fundamental truth: Petro is running for president, not for king. This is true even if he claims that he will introduce radical changes in the country’s economic structure. This is true even if a great number of leaders are fearing that he might implement these old-fashioned, populist agenda of the 1960s.
The bulk of his proposals are not his to decide by himself. Colombia is a country of laws, congressmen and senators, judges and magistrates, prosecutors and attorney-generals, and overseers of the public doings. The current front runner cannot skip the legislative process to change the economic order. If he would want to grab the considerable resources of private pension funds, he would have to pass a law in a Congress where his Colombia Humana party has a minority. He would have a hard time passing bills with less than a quarter of seats in Congress to back him.
If the decided to try doing this via an Executive order, the different courts of the land would quickly react to prevent the implementation of these provisions.
Presidents with much more legislative support as Álvaro Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos and Iván Duque, have had their fair share of setbacks when trying to go too far, or being too aggressive in their aspirations, or somewhat unconstitutional in their proposals.
Furthermore, the president cannot call for a change of the Constitution without the support of Congress. With a minority in the Senate and the House of Representatives, I believe that Petro would not stand a chance trying to add a second term. Changing the Constitution to seek a re-election was an adventure where President Uribe failed despite strong majorities in the legislature. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court would be a serious obstacle, even if the change in the election rules should pass in Congress.
Finally, should Petro try to go for an openly illegal and anti-democratic option, such a shutting down Congress, pushing a massive electoral fraud, or disregarding the high courts, he would be still facing a strong military which could be just more than willing to step in and take over.
Remember, there is one more big difference between Colombia and Venezuela playing against the possibilities of an autocratic temptation. Chávez had the cash generated by PDVSA, the national and prosperous oil company. His grip on this strategic asset allowed him to call the shots on many fronts. He bankrolled the support of many leftist regimes in the region, and enrolled the senior officers of the Armed Forces in power-sharing and corruption schemes that compromised their impartiality to a point where they would not stand against any of the actions of the regime.
Of course, a Petro administration would be bad news for Colombia. A lousy administrator, with a poor track record in upholding the law, can hurt the economy. Nevertheless, if he is as unsuccessful in his government as could be expected, this would be limited to four years without a structural and long-term effect.
Four years away from power might help weak ruling coalitions to regroup. They could take the time to reflect on the mistakes of twenty years of right-wing short-sightedness, and the demise of mainstream political parties for the benefit of personality cults. They might assume some responsibility for the reality of our extreme social and economic inequality. They might leave behind the undemocratic trickery that led to this costly lack of leadership and open a door for a fresh and new generation of politicians to take back the future of the country, and one in which we may all prosper.
Jorge Ortiz is a consultant to management. He holds a degree in Law from Universidad del Rosario, and an MBA from Universidad de los Andes.