Everything You Need to Know About First Colombian Presidential Elections After Peace Deal

Lead Photo: Photo by Andres Virviescas / EyeEm
Photo by Andres Virviescas / EyeEm
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This Sunday, Colombians head to the polls to decide the next president in the first presidential elections since the government signed a peace deal with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels in 2016. The election will be closely watched as the incoming administration is expected to settle pressing issues, such as the implementation of the peace deal, soaring coca production, relations with a Venezuela in crisis, deep-set corruption, and health and education reform.

A first round of presidential elections on May 27 concluded with none of the five contenders securing the 50 percent vote needed to outright win the executive branch position. As a result, the two leading candidates of the first round – right-winger Ivan Duque and leftist Gustavo Petro – will go head to head in a run-off vote on June 17. While initial polls following the May 27 elections showed Duque winning with a comfortable margin, the latest findings reveal a close race with Petro closing in on the frontrunner.

As the run-off election approaches, here’s a list of takeaways from the current state of Colombian politics that help explain the who, what, why, and how behind the next and definite round of presidential elections.


The Peace Process Is At Risk

On October 2, 2016, Colombia made headlines around the world for apparently rejecting the prospect of peace in a national plebiscite. The peace deal between the government and FARC rebels would eventually be modified and approved by Congress in November, but in that moment, the country appeared divided by opposing factions. This polarization between Colombians who support and oppose the peace deal became apparent again during the first round of presidential elections. The frontrunner Ivan Duque had promised his conservative base to change the peace accords, which could threaten the peace process entirely as the country enters almost a year and a half into the deal’s implementation.

With one candidate seeking to modify the peace deal and the other looking to strengthen it, some say the election could be considered a second plebiscite on the peace process. Data from the first round of election seems to support this claim. According to data analysis from the Washington Office on Latin America, areas where the “No” vote won in the 2016 referendum also overwhelmingly supported Duque whereas Petro won in areas where Colombians voted in favor of the peace deal.


The Peace Process Has Strengthened Colombia’s Democracy

Meanwhile, the peace process has had a real effect so far on Colombian democracy. The first round of elections were the safest in Colombian history, according to El Tiempo, with zero threats reported against voters or voting stations. Secure voting stations could also help explain why the first round brought out 53 percent of the electorate to cast a ballot, the highest voter turnout in a presidential election since 1998 and the highest in a first round of presidential elections since 1974. The May 27 vote also marked the first time demobilized FARC combatants cast a ballot to choose a president.


First Leftist Presidential Candidate in Modern Colombian History

Gustavo Petro, the former Bogotá mayor and ex-member of the M-19 guerrilla group, won second place in the first round of elections, taking in 25 percent of the vote. This is the first time a leftist candidate reaches the second round of elections in modern Colombian history. Previous candidates failed to arouse more support because of the armed conflict, said analysts interviewed by BBC Mundo. The Marxist FARC guerrilla’s role in the war discouraged voters from selecting an openly leftist candidate while guerrilla combatants’ earlier attempt to transition into civilian life and politics resulted in the assassination of thousands of leftist party members. Progressive, presidential candidates were also assassinated.


The Left Struggles to Reconcile

Despite the rise of Gustavo Petro, the first-round election and its aftermath revealed progressives split. While Petro won 25 percent of the vote, former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo, a center-left candidate, trailed closely behind with almost 24 percent. As Petro looks to build a coalition to secure the presidency, Fajardo has announced he will cast a blank ballot in the next round, encouraging his followers to make a decision on their own. Analysts considered this a blow to Petro, who relies on courting the majority of Fajardo’s votes to win. At the same time, the Liberal Party has thrown its support behind Duque despite their differing stances on the peace deal. Political analyst Emma Shaw Crane writes in NACLA that the Right’s insistence that Petro represents as a new era of Castro-Chavismo could be a reason for the Left’s division.


Voters are Rejecting Colombia’s Traditional Political Parties

The Liberal and Conservative parties have historically controlled Colombian politics, but in the first round of elections, candidates for both parties finished last. German Vargas Lleras of the Colombian Conservative Party and Humberto de la Calle of the Liberal Party won only 7 percent and 2 percent of the vote, respectively. Instead, Colombians are opting for politicians of emergent political movements who represent ideologies on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. While analysts warn of a growing polarization in the country, candidate Gustavo Petro of the Humane Colombia Party, founded in 2011, and his supporters argue that voters are choosing alternatives that are only now available in an increasingly, politically diverse country.


Next Vice President Will Be a Woman

While the candidates may have opposing views on most political matters, the presidential contenders coincide in having selected a woman as vice presidential candidates. This means the next vice president is guaranteed to be a woman, a first in Colombian history and a step forward in a country where only 20 percent of the newly elected Congress is female.


You can vote from the United States

For Colombian citizens in the US who registered to vote, you can cast your ballot on Sunday with your cedula. While registration ended March 27, Colombians who received an identity card for the first time, up to four months before the elections, are automatically registered and eligible to vote. To find your local voting station, check the National Registry’s website.