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Colombians will choose a new president in a first-round vote this coming Sunday. Gustavo Petro, the candidate of a coalition of left parties, has a good chance of making it to the run-off, but the obstacles to the presidency are still very large, 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.

Just as Venezuela and Mexico are in the midst of presidential campaigns at the moment, so is Colombia. Colombia will hold its first round vote for president on May 27. This election is one of Colombia’s most historic for two reasons. First, it is the first time in decades that a serious candidate from the left, Gustavo Petro, has a real chance of winning the presidency. Second, it is the first presidential campaign following the signing of a groundbreaking peace agreement with Colombia’s largest rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro held his final campaign rally last week with as many as 60000 supporters; perhaps one of the largest such rallies in recent Colombian history. Here’s a clip from Petro’s speech.

GUSTAVO PETRO: On this very beautiful land, in this very place, a democracy can exist. Social justice can exist. Educated people. It becomes a society of knowledge that can build a fair and peaceful society. It is possible we made the decision, you make the decision, on May 27, the day we change the history of Colombia.

GREG WILPERT: The other major candidates also held their final rallies a week before the election, because campaigning is outlawed in Colombia in the week before the vote. Joining me now to take a closer look at Colombia’s presidential race is Mario Murillo. Mario is professor of communications and Latin American Caribbean studies at Hofstra University, and he’s the author of the book “Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Civilization.” Thanks again for joining us, Mario.

MARIO MURILLO: It’s great to be with you, Greg. Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So this campaign started last March with 11 candidates, but many have dropped out since then, and now five remain, among them the far-right candidate Ivan Duque, who is leading in the polls with about 35-38 percent support, and the progressive or left candidate Gustavo Petro, who has around 26 percent support, according to the last opinion polls. Everything now indicates that these two will head towards the runoff vote, which would be held on June 17. Tell us briefly about who these candidates are, and what policy positions and constituencies the two represent.

MARIO MURILLO: Yeah, indeed, it’s one of the most, I would say, widespread rainbow, if you wish, of candidates that are running here in this first round of the elections for the 27th of May. And as you pointed out before, it’s the first time I could remember that a candidate, a serious candidate from the left or the left-leaning political spectrum of Colombia, actually has a serious chance, perhaps maybe not of necessarily winning the election, but certainly making it into the second round and creating a very interesting dynamic as they go into the second round.

The two leading candidates, as you pointed out, one is Ivan Duque. He’s leading the polls, according to the polls, and he usually has most of the support. The political punditry, the coverage in the media is generally favorable towards Duque, and you see some of that media analysis has been coming out in the buildup and during the campaign showing how generally there’s a more favorable presentation of Ivan Duque’s candidacy. He represents the party of the former president and now current senator, and perhaps the most vocal critic of the left, of the, of the political peace process that you referred to earlier, former President Alvaro Uribe, of the so-called Democratic Center, a party that’s neither centrist, and certainly some people would say perhaps not even democratic. And sort of the hard line kind of going back to, to the past in many ways, talking about security, talking about getting rid of impunity, and in many ways rolling back some of the very small gains that have been made as a result of the peace accord that were signed back in 2016.

The other candidate, as you pointed out, Gustavo Petro, ironically in that last closing campaign rally that he had in Bogota right there near the Palace of Justice, the Palace of Justice known in 1985 for the M19 guerrilla takeover of the palace, in which about 100 people were killed when the state security forces went in there, take it, to take it out. Although Petro wasn’t directly involved with that, he was a member of the M19. And so to have a candidate of the former guerrillas and a former mayor of Colombia, of Bogota, I should say, being in high contention with this candidate of the right, some people would say the paramilitary kind of experiment of Colombia represented by the right, as the two leading candidates is a pretty stark difference that we’ve seen in recent campaigns of the past. The other three candidates generally kind of hovering around the center to the right. You have Sergio Fajardo, the former mayor who has been really pushing his agenda around the issue of corruption and expanding education, but really not generating the kind of energy and support that somebody like Gustavo Petro has gotten.

And then the other two candidates, German Vargas Lleras of the Radical Change Party, centrist, to the right. Very, so a lot of people concerned about his position as a very conservative politician. And Humberto de la Calle, a liberal who is in charge of the peace negotiations with the FARC. But those people haven’t really generated much of the energy that Petro has, and it looks like, as you pointed out, there will be a second round with those two candidates, which a lot of people fear. But a lot of people say it’s almost inevitable, given the way the campaign has run up to now.

GREG WILPERT: So it seems like we’ve said basically that one of the main issues of the campaign is the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC. What is it about the agreement that puts it at the center of this campaign? And are there any other major issues during this year’s presidential race?

MARIO MURILLO: I think it’s interesting, because this is being looked at as maybe another referendum on the peace accords, to see how the public feels right now about what happened in 2016 and how they have been implemented up to now, the accords between the FARC guerrillas who were waging an armed insurgency against the state for over 50 years, and the government of Juan Manuel Santos. But in the campaign what you’ve seen was less referencing of the peace accords themselves and more referencing the issues that are impacting people around the country. Issues of development, of economic possibility, of corruption, which I think everybody, it’s ironic that every one of the candidates kind of have a, have a kind of a franchise, an exclusive franchise to the discourse, anti-corruption discourse. But they’re all saying, you know, in many ways some of the same things to try to weed out corruption in the country.

That is not to say that the peace accords aren’t important. Now, there’s no question about it. One of the things that’s very concerning, I think, for anybody observing the elections and who are looking for the kind of progress in terms of the peace accords being implemented is the fact that the current government, Juan Manuel Santos government, who is now finishing his second term, and by the end of August he’ll be out, he was the one who pushed the accords. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He negotiated with the FARC, and he hasn’t been able to, under his administration, to implement and to put into practice many of the provisions of the six point accord that were signed with the FARC.

So if he was unable to do that, to think about somebody like Ivan Duque, if he was to win the election, if he were to win the election, whether it’s the first round or if he wins it in the second round, a person who’s been adamantly opposed to it, a party has been, has stopped at nothing to derail any kind of concessions to the FARC, to derail any kind of issues around justice and verification and land redistribution, and all the issues that are being discussed. You know, imagine what will happen once he’s in power, especially given that the Democratic Centre does control the Congress, in many ways. And then Gustavo Petro, if he were to win, again, this would be a big long shot, and probably the political surprise of Latin American history. I’m not being excessive there in saying that, considering that there’s never been a left candidate elected in Colombia. If he was to win, he would have so much opposition in the Congress, a Congress that has, has derailed just about every attempt to try to make progress, and try to implement the provisions of the accord. So it would be very surprising and very challenging.

So the election campaign has been, in some ways, a referendum on the peace accord. But in many ways it’s something totally different, and we’re kind of in a new phase in Colombian history right now. Not to say that it’s not important.

GREG WILPERT: Well, before we finish, one issue that has really come up, I think, recently, in the past week or so, is the possibility of fraud. Gustavo Petro, I saw, was warning about the possibility, and it is even estimated as many as half a million votes were stolen in the 2014 election. Are there any assurances or guarantees in place that this election will be cleaner than the last one?

MARIO MURILLO: The government continues arguing that there’s no evidence of any possibility of fraud. The Colombian National Electoral Commission came out with a report, I think it was yesterday, saying that the, on Wednesday, saying that the, that the claim that Petro was making about potential irregularities and possibilities of technical hacking, if you will, not necessarily hacking, but getting into some of the, some of the vote count during the course of the election. There’s no evidence of that, that they’ve rectified some of the problems that they’ve had in the past, and that there’s really no evidence.

But I think if you look at the track record, we have to also look at other ways in which fraudulent, or perhaps we can at least say, you know, not, not best practices in terms of democratic participation. For example, the idea of paying people to vote in the countryside a certain way, that, you know, those, those claims, those conversations and reports about how German Vargas Lleras actually bused people from all over the country or surrounding cities to his closing rally to make it appear that he was generating all this support. There was also claim that Ivan Duque was actually giving people tickets for free lunches to go to his last rally. And this is not uncommon in Colombia. This idea of really trying to give people who are in many places of the country, in many parts of the country, very marginalized, you know, poor and so, so the way to kind of generate the vote is to kind of give them the, you know, their little, the little, you know, ham sandwich, if you will.

And so that’s the concern. And especially given the fact that in Colombia perhaps the bigger problem than an actual direct electoral fraud is the issue of abstentionism. I mean, since the 1990s, since 1990, we’re talking almost 30 years of elections, only once have we seen over, over 50 percent of registered voters actually going out to vote and participate in the presidential elections. And every, and every election is so important. There are always references, very important election. And so when you have that kind of abstention, the temptation to bring people to the polls through corrupt means is very great. So that’s something that we have to look at and keep a close eye on.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’ll definitely be keeping a very close eye on the results, and hopefully we can come back to you once they’re in. 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.

MARIO MURILLO: Thank you for having me, it’s always great to be with you.

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.