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For the first time in decades a leftist candidate, Gustavo Petro, has made it to the run-off with a real chance of winning the presidency, if other centrist parties agree to support Petro, says Prof. Mario Murillo

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.

Colombia held its first round presidential election last Sunday, and the conservative candidate Ivan Duque came in first, with 39 percent of the vote. However, since Colombia requires an absolute majority to win the presidency, there will be a runoff vote on June 17, with the runner-up of this election, the leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who won 25 percent of the vote. This is the first time in modern Colombian history that a left candidate has come this close to competing for the presidency. At stake is Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC rebel group, among many other things. Here’s what Ivan Duque, the conservative candidate, had to say about his win and the peace agreement after Sunday’s election results were announced.

IVAN DUQUE: We need to guarantee that those responsible for crimes are really committed to the country, and they don’t fall back to their ways.

GREG WILPERT: And here’s what leftist candidate Gustavo Petro had to say.

GUSTAVO PETRO: We have given it our all. We are not playing with fire, so as to have a Colombia that is in peace.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss Sunday’s election result in Columbia is Mario Murillo. Mario is a professor of communications and Latin American Caribbean studies at Hofstra University, and he is the author of the book “Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization.” Thanks for joining us again, Mario.

MARIO MURILLO: Great to be with you, Greg. Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: Let’s start with the election result. Given that most of the opinion polls predicted this result, more or less, I guess there were no real surprises here, or were there? What would you say?

MARIO MURILLO: There was a few developments that I think are relevant. One, yes, you laid out the winners and perhaps losers in the numbers themselves. Ivan Duque was, more or less, projected in the many public opinion polls leading up to the vote to have about 38-39 percent of the vote, and that’s pretty much what he ended up with. Ivan Duque being, of course, the right-wing candidate of the Centro Democratico, who represents the party of the former president, Alvaro Uribe. And that it was look, it was already projected prior to the elections that Gustavo Petro, the former mayor of Bogota, the former M-19 guerrilla leader, was going to come in second. The left-wing, kind of independent candidate from the left.

And so more or less that’s what’s happened. One of the most interesting developments out of this election was the abstention and the concerns that Colombia’s electorate has always been pretty much disinterested, or have not participated in the way they should. If we go back to the 1990s, it’s only since the 1990s, only one election, national presidential election had more than 50 percent of participation in the vote. That was in 1998 when Andres Pastana was elected president back then. But leading up to this vote there was curiosity as to whether or not the intensity of this campaign, the distinctions in the two primary candidates was going to lead to a larger number of voters. And so it turns out that almost 54 percent of the voters in Colombia this time did turn out, which, again, it doesn’t seem like too much, but it’s a big change from the last several years. We’re talking 46-47 percent abstention.

And what is also, another interesting factor related to that, is that the left and center-left, and the center of Colombian politics really won this first round of the election. Even though it’s been talked about about how the right won 39 percent of the vote, if you consider the vote of Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellin, as well as the candidacy of de la Calle, who was the peace negotiator with the FARC during the peace negotiations in Havana, Liberal Party candidate, combined they got, received almost 9.8 million votes, and we can say over 51 percent of the vote, combined. So that’s an indication, one, with the numbers, the increased numbers of voters that participated, most likely you’re looking at some of the exit numbers, that a lot of the youth that were galvanized, extremely galvanized by Petro’s public campaign in the plazas of, all around the country. There was a call for a new direction and a rejection, in many ways, of Ivan Duque, Alvaro Uribe conservatism and militarism that we’ve seen for so many years in Colombia.

So that’s something that we can take away. Now the question is what’s going to happen now over the next three weeks as we lead up to the second round, in which Petro and Duque do face off one-on-one.

GREG WILPERT: Before we get to that, what about the fairness and transparency of this election, this last one? Colombia’s electoral transparency agency URIEL reported over 1000 irregularities in this vote. From what you’ve heard, how clean was this election? Was that an issue or a problem?

MARIO MURILLO: It depends on where are, where you’re getting the reports from, in what part of the country. In the main urban areas we didn’t see as much, but in some of the rural areas there was reports of of irregularities. I think there was concern, and Gustavo Petro was raising these issues leading up to the vote, the elections the other day. Some of the CNE, the National Council Electoral council, were writing off his concerns, saying that all the issues are being worked out. And that’s still being, that’s still being discussed. I think in any case, in any election in Colombia, there’s always going to be concerns about irregularities. And I think the bigger issue right now is, is the political stakes that are at hand, and whether or not Gustavo Petro as a left-wing, the first real serious viable candidate from the left in Colombia, can build a coalition, kind of like a frente amplio, a broad front of the political center and left in Colombia, sort of like what we saw in Uruguay, sort of what we saw in Chile after the dictatorships, in which he can bring these people together and say we have to do everything we can to stop Uribismo and a return to the kind of extreme-right militarism of the last several years, certainly bfore Santos peace accords.

And I think that’s the big question that we have to be watching over the next couple of days, really. There’s some indication that certain sectors of the Liberal Party, which in many ways, the Liberal and Conservative parties, the political establishment have been completely rejected. It’s, I think it’s fine. The final nail in the coffin in Colombia’s politics, now this old, this old generation of the two-party system is pretty much out of the way. But there are some sectors of the Liberal Party that are kind of hinting at approaching Duque. But I can’t see somebody like Sergio Fajardo and the people that have surrounded him, even though there were criticisms of Petro during the campaign, and they were distancing themselves extensively of the, of the campaign of Gustavo Petro, I can’t see them approaching Ivan Duque. And for them to take a position of we’re not voting, we’re not taking any sides, would be a political disaster.

If Fajardo and Petro could get together, and de la Calle, as the smallest vote but certainly representative of some of that traditional centrist party apparatus, and if they can come to some kind of coalition agreement, I think we might see for the first time a presidential victory from the, from the left and center. Again, that’s a steep hill to climb, given where we are today. But there’s still some optimism that that could, indeed, occur.

GREG WILPERT: I just want to ask you something about the kind of larger historical perspective, because historically, Columbia has always- or not always, but practically always- sided with the Conservatives and with the far-right, essentially. That is, I mean, in the elections. And I guess part of the reason has been Colombia’s civil war, and the delegitimation that this has caused towards the left. Now, of course with this peace agreement, do you think that the peace agreement is what is opening this path for Petro, and that this might represent because of this a historic opportunity for progressive or left forces in Colombia at the moment?

MARIO MURILLO: I think there’s a number of factors that, that lead to the-. I think people are tired of war. There’s no question. I’m not sure if we can necessarily be that optimistic, to think that the conflict in Colombia is totally over, regardless of who wins the election come June 17. I think there’s still so many problems, profound problems in the countryside. Attacks against social movement leaders. The issues of land restitution and the issues of justice in the wake of the peace accords in which, you know, that still has not been resolved in the Congress, and Colombia has still been, you know, slamming the brakes on different issues related to justice in the post-accord period.

But I think there is generally a feeling in the countryside, and this is something that I can say from anecdotal experience in my last 18 months of visiting a lot of different regions in the country, from the Caribbean coast, to the area of Cauca, to the northern part of Antioquia, areas that have always been at the brunt of the violence in the countryside. You get a sense that the people in the country do appreciate this end of direct confrontation between FARC and the, and the government, regardless of their concerns about some other specific aspects of the accord. And I think the ongoing discussion and denunciations and criticisms from the right of those peace accords perhaps have not had the traction that they were hoping.

Again, this is my, this is one take on it. The right wing does also have considerable support in the mass media in Colombia. You see a lot of benefit of the doubt given to somebody like Ivan Duque for some of the arguments that he would make around these issues. And so I think, you know, it’s still being somewhat optimistic. And as you pointed out, Colombia traditionally has voted conservatively over the years. And Albaro Uribe, notwithstanding his being implicated in drug trafficking, his connections with paramilitarism, his, his, you know, he’s had this incredible coat of Teflon that has always kept him from, from losing that base of support that is a pretty strong base, that is representative in Ivan Duque’s turnout in the elections on Sunday.

GREG WILPERT: OK. I guess we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but we’ll definitely come back to you as the campaign develops. I was speaking to Mario Murillo, professor of communications and Latin American Caribbean studies at Hofstra University. Thanks again, Mario, for having joined us today.


GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Mario A. Murillo is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Radio, Television, Film department at Hofstra University. He is also co-director of Hofstra's Center for Civic Engagement.

In 2008-2009, Mario spent six months in Colombia, as a Fulbright Scholar, working in the Communication Department of the Universidad Pontif'cia La Javeriana in Bogot', alongside its radio station Javeriana Estereo. His research work was carried out in close collaboration with the Communication Committee of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, and focused on the strategic uses of communication of the indigenous movement. He is currently finishing a book about ACIN's role in the broader indigenous movement of Colombia, which is expected to be published in 2012.

He is the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories, 2004), and Islands of Resistance: Puerto Rico, Vieques and U.S. Policy (Seven Stories, 2001). Mario has studied and written about community radio, both in the United States and Latin America for many years, his articles and essays published in academic journals and collected essays in the U.S. and abroad.