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Colombia’s new president aims to swing his country left. It won’t be easy.

Gustavo Petro will have to make alliances and deals with moderate parties, which may disappoint his supporters

On June 19, Colombia elected its first leftist president: Gustavo Petro, who promised structural changes to the nation’s economy, politics and foreign policy. But to accomplish any of this and protect Colombia’s democracy, Petro will have to cooperate with rival parties — and may disappoint his supporters.

A historic victory for the left

Gustavo Petro is the first candidate from a left-wing party to win a presidential election in Colombia. He came to power backed by Pacto Histórico, a coalition strongly tied to grass-roots and social movements, including Soy porque Somos, the Afro-Colombian and environmental movement of his vice president, Francia Márquezt.

In the 1980s and 1990s, progressive and left-wing politicians were systematically assassinated. But Petro has now been elected with a coalition of historically excluded groups and without rivals challenging the election after an acrimonious campaign.

Petro was formerly a guerrilla with the group M-19. His election shows that Colombia’s electoral pathway to power has opened to a broad set of people. It also suggests that the nation’s 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, a now-disbanded Marxist guerrilla movement that fought the government for almost 50 years, did remove the stigma on democratic left forces, enabling them to gain more political relevance. All this is good news for Colombia’s imperfect democracy.

Change will not come easily

Former presidential candidate Alejandro Gaviria said that Colombia is “sleeping on top of a volcano.” Colombia is the most unequal country in Latin America; more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Petro takes office amid an economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic, security difficulties with drug cartels and some disaffected former rebels, and the legacies of three years of intermittent protests between 2019 and 2021 over unpopular reforms, social spending cuts and police brutality, among other issues.

He has proposed a tax overhaul and reforms to the national health and pension systems, but passing those would require majorities in the Congress, which he lacks. His party, Pacto Histórico, has a sizable congressional caucus of approximately 20 senators (18.6 percent) and 31 representatives (16.6 percent).

Petro is working to get the support of more pragmatic and less ideological parties, but building this coalition will moderate some of his most radical reforms, disappointing some followers.

A delicate moment for Colombian democracy

Colombia’s democracy has shown signs of deterioration. In the past years, some leaders have shown decreased tolerance toward political opponents and used institutional power with little restraint — thus shedding two pillars of democracy identified by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zibblatt, mutual tolerance and forbearance.

For example, outgoing right-wing president Iván Duque resisted Supreme Court of Justice rulings that ordered the government to protect citizens’ rights to protest peacefully, openly questioning the decision. During the recent presidential election, he was accused of violating Colombian law — which forbids presidents from participating in the campaign — by systematically criticizing Petro’s proposals. When Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro accused Petro of corruption — a comment that violated a constitutional ban on active members of the armed forces participating in politics — Duque supported the general.

The incoming president’s leadership style also has some troubling and slightly antidemocratic tendencies. He claimed that the 2018 election results were fraudulent when they were not. He has attacked the press, accusing a TV network of being “neonazi,” during his presidential campaign. Petro has also described opponents as criminals, tying them with armed groups and accusing them of corruption, all without evidence.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to think Petro will not hinder democratic institutions. He has been a member of congress many times, a mayor of Bogotá, and has abided by judicial rulings. Even some of Petro’s critics recognize that he has changed his attitude toward democratic institutions since he was mayor, and expect him to respect Colombia’s democracy.

Colombia’s role in the region will change, but not dramatically

Petro will probably reframe Colombia’s foreign policy. Colombia has been the most consistent U.S. ally in Latin America, in a relationship marked by the war on drugs and U.S. support of Colombia’s security forces. Petro has signaled that he welcomes a more equal partnership; he hopes to shift the focus to human rights, climate change, implementing the 2016 peace agreement, and less punitive and prohibitionist approaches in drug policy. Changing the U.S. relationship with Colombia along these lines could more credibly signal the Biden administration’s commitment to a new partnership with the region.

Petro has also promised to reestablish diplomatic relations with Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela, a complete reversal of Duque’s isolationist stance. The move would suggest a pragmatic recognition that the Duque policy (which cut off ties with Maduro by recognizing his challenger, Juan Guaidó, as the legitimate president) failed to dislodge Maduro from power. Indeed, many issues facing the two countries, from migration to trade, cannot be addressed by ignoring Maduro’s government.

Petro will likely become more engaged with Latin America as a whole. He has promised to address climate change and to boost economic development in “knowledge-intensive” industries. That contrasts with the proposals and promises made by other left-wing leaders in Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil, which have focused instead on commodity-based growth.

Petro’s agenda aligns him (at least rhetorically) with a newer generation of left-wing presidents such as Gabriel Boric in Chile and Xiomara Castro in Honduras, who have proposed a transition to development models that rely less on exporting natural resources.

If Petro manages to navigate Colombia’s thorny socioeconomic and security issues while enacting some needed structural changes, his administration could be a model for the democratic left throughout the region. If the new government ends up mired in institutional deadlock or if Petro tries to enhance his powers and extend his time in office, as have other populist leaders in the region, Colombian democracy could suffer a major blow.

Juan Albarracin (@JuanAlbarracinD) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Chicago, specializing in criminal and political violence, as well as electoral politics.

Sandra Botero (@sboteroc) is associate professor of political science at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia, specializing in law and politics as well as electoral behavior in Latin America.

Laura Gamboa (@l_gamboag) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, specializing in democratic erosion, voting behavior, and political parties in Latin America.