Colombians Want Change. They’ll Get It No Matter Who Wins the Presidential Election

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There’s nothing new about populist outsiders who challenge for national power. Donald Trump, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and other political novices break through by channeling deep public anger at a well-entrenched political elite. They win by presenting themselves as credible agents of “change vs. more of the same.”

That’s what’s stunning about this weekend’s presidential showdown in Colombia. Its political establishment has already been shoved to the side. On Sunday, two populist firebrands—Rodolfo Hernández and Gustavo Petro—both promising a political earthquake, will go head to head to become Colombia’s next president. Both represent an emphatic rejection of the right-wing political clique that has governed that country for decades. Both vow to wage war on corruption, endemic inequality, and growing violence for a people long plagued by poverty and social tensions. The pandemic has made bad situations much worse.
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Colombians want change, and no matter who wins on Sunday, they’re going to get it. But these two men and their plans would take this country in very different directions.

The candidates

The firebrand from the right, Rodolfo Hernández, is a newcomer to national politics. He’s a bottom-line oriented 77-year-old construction baron and a former mayor with a carefully maintained tan, a profane speaking style, a penchant for tantrums, a spectrum-spanning range of anti-establishment campaign promises, and a highly effective communications strategy, boosted by social media, TikTok in particular. Not surprisingly, comparisons to Donald Trump have defined international coverage of his campaign, but the former U.S. president has never called Adolf Hitler a “great German thinker.” (Hernández later insisted he meant Albert Einstein, not Hitler—surely easy to confuse the two.)

He’s known as a builder of affordable housing in a country that badly needs it, though some charge that he has failed to deliver on many of his most grandiose construction promises. Supporters counter that, as mayor of Bucaramanga (population 581,000), he fought graft in the award of city contracts by sharply increasing the number of companies allowed to bid on public works projects and eliminated the city’s debt.

Hernández presents himself as a libertarian. He has called for “total austerity,” a plan to cut deeply into tax rates, the number of government bureaucrats, lawmakers’ salaries, the country’s tax rates, and the regulatory code for business. His emphasis on individual freedom also extends to what most Americans would consider progressive social policies: He supports adoption by same-sex couples and wants to legalize narcotics, including cocaine, which in Columbia you can buy local.

He pledges to tackle corruption by granting himself emergency powers on his first day in office that critics warn might lead him to try to dissolve Congress and create a form of presidential dictatorship. Hernández himself is scheduled to appear in court on July 21 to face corruption charges, and it’s not clear that an election victory on Sunday would protect him from prosecution. If he wins, his case would pass to a special Congressional committee that could theoretically remove him from office, making his vice president, Marelen Castillo, an academic, the new chief executive.

Hernández also has personal reasons for bitterly denouncing the country’s left. In 2004, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist guerilla group, kidnapped his daughter. The already wealthy businessman refused to pay ransom, and his daughter hasn’t been seen since.

His opponent, once the heavy favorite to win, Gustavo Petro is by far the better-known figure. He’s already lost two presidential elections. But in many ways, a victory for Petro might provoke an even bigger overhaul of Colombia’s politics. In a country long ruled by a military-minded right-wing establishment, the 62-year-old former Bogotá mayor was once a member of the M-19 movement, a now-defunct left-wing rebel group that years ago disarmed and went into politics.

The charismatic Petro has served for years as the determined face of Colombia’s opposition, and his candidacy is fueled in part by an historically remarkable number of young voters who consider his third bid for the presidency more a crusade than a campaign. He has sometimes taken an openly confrontational approach in criticism of Colombia’s military, raising fears for the resilience of the country’s democracy.

Petro promises to raise taxes on the wealthy to lift millions out of poverty, expand public access to schools and quality healthcare, give the unemployed government jobs, and end the U.S.-funded “war on drugs” to invest in rehab projects. Petro would finance these ambitious plans in part by sharply raising taxes on his country’s wealthiest people. He also pledges to halt Colombia’s oil and gas exploration projects to promote environmental protection and diversify Colombia’s economy. (Oil is Colombia’s top export.)

The two candidates have one politically striking thing in common: Both have chosen Afro-Colombian women as their running mates, a first in Colombian politics.

What should we expect?

In the election’s first round, Petro won 40% of the vote to just 28% for Hernández, but Sunday’s runoff may be agonizingly close. Tensions are high, because each candidate speaks of his opponent as a danger to the nation. Hernández insists Petro will turn Colombia into Venezuela, a country with an economy run into the ground by years of recklessly doctrinaire socialist policies imposed in the name of populist revolution. Petro says that a Hernández victory would be “suicide” for Colombia. The country is braced for violence when results are announced. Tens of thousands of soldiers and police will be on the streets to try to maintain order over the weekend.

We can also expect intense political infighting between Colombia’s new president and its lawmakers. Colombia’s next chief executive, no matter who wins, will face a Congress that includes far more rivals and enemies than friends and allies. Hernández’s political movement, known as the Anti-Corruption League, holds just two of the 172 seats in the lower house of congress. Even the most cynical of lawmakers might refuse to shrug off his frequent charge that politicians are liars and thieves, and it won’t help that he wants to cut their salaries. Petro would be the first leftist president in Colombia’s history, and the country’s right-wing political establishment, well represented in Congress, will oppose his nearly every move.

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