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Political alternation arrives in Colombia

Colombia has elected a new government to be led by Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez, who will take office on August 7. This unprecedented victory of the left represents an important achievement for Colombian democracy and constitutes a historic event with influence in Latin America.

Limitations of Colombian democracy

The ruling elites and certain media have insisted that Colombia has the most stable democracy in the region. This is due to the fact that the country did not have, unlike most Latin American countries, long periods of military dictatorship except for the 1953 military coup of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla that ruled until 1957.

However, in 212 years of republican history, the country has been ruled by a few family dynasties that during the 19th and 20th centuries held on to power through the Liberal and Conservative parties. Despite the fact that in the 21st century these parties lost importance due to the irruption of new political forces, they continued to be decisive in elections and continue to dominate political life in several regions of the country.

Therefore, Gustavo Petro is not only the first leftist president in Colombia, but he is also the first president who did not depend on the support of the traditional parties and whose triumph was largely due to the support of the social bases, especially young people, women and the population living in the periphery of the country, which has been the most affected by the armed conflict.

Until these elections, Colombian democracy had not had a true alternation of power, contrary to other Latin American countries where the change of political forces in power had already been achieved.

Undoubtedly, Petro’s victory is historic, considering that the left in Colombia did not have real possibilities of coming to power until a few years ago. Between 1987 and 1995, five presidential candidates were assassinated, four of them leftists. The Patriotic Union Party, a product of the 1985 peace agreement, was exterminated and more than 4,000 militants and politicians of this alternative party were assassinated, kidnapped, or disappeared.

Political violence has been used by armed groups, but also by political elites to prevent the arrival of alternative forces to power. For this reason, the Peace Agreement signed in 2016 made progress in discussing guarantees, not only for the political participation of the guerrillas but also of other political forces historically excluded, as well as the role of the opposition.

Francia Márquez factor and the importance of peripheries

Secondly, the ruling elites in Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, have excluded, since the formation of the Republic, the indigenous and black peoples. Except for some public positions, such as specific ministries, the indigenous and Afro-Colombian population has not been part of the leadership of the State. Moreover, institutional and institutionalized racism is not dissociated from the machismo that has dominated politics in the country.

Therefore, although in the 2018 elections Colombia had for the first time in its history a woman in the position of vice president, Martha Lucía Ramírez, the fact that this time the position will be assumed by an Afro-Colombian woman, Francia Márquez, is a historical fact. Márquez, unlike Ramírez, does not belong to the country’s political and economic elite, as she comes from a mining town and entered politics by reason of her social and environmental activism in her territory.

In addition, the vice-president-elect, unlike the outgoing one, has recognized herself as a feminist and has defended women’s rights. For this reason, many Colombian women who are part of excluded groups feel represented in the figure of Márquez. The vice-president-elect also represents various excluded social sectors that, to quote Eduardo Galeano’s poem, are part of “los nadies” (the nobodies). That is, poor women, Afro-descendants, indigenous people, peasants, LGTBIQ+ population, among others.

In past elections, the figure of the vice-presidency had not been so important. Neither did it have such importance in the other current vice-presidential formulas. Therefore, much of Petro’s victory is due to the figure of Márquez who has confronted the male, white and urban elite that has governed the country, which opens spaces for the participation of women excluded from politics, not only in Colombia but in Latin America.

Third, political and economic centralism has restricted democracy in large part of the national territory. The difference between the big cities and the periphery is often overwhelming in terms of the guarantee of rights and access to basic services.

The Colombian departments where Petro won correspond to the periphery of the national territory. Most of them are border departments, except for those bordering Venezuela where the opponent Rodolfo Hernández came from. Even, Petro’s voters in several of these territories are the same that voted yes to the peace plebiscite in 2016, where, by a small difference won the no, led by Uribism.

In that sense, a large part of Colombia that has not been taken into account in the country’s decision-making and where democracy does not work the same as in the center was decisive for Petro’s triumph. However, it will not be an easy task to implement a government program aimed at social and environmental justice, energy transition, and the search for the reduction of social inequality, taking into account that the country’s political and economic elite will have to give up certain privileges.

Therefore, it is to be expected that governance problems will arise due to such sectors’ opposition, the same that happened with Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. However, Petro has called for a great national agreement and, so far, has managed to summon several political forces to dialogue.

Colombia is getting to know for the first time what real alternation in power is and this process implies an important step in rethinking its democracy. But this change will also affect the agenda of other Latin American countries, which also have the need to expand spaces of participation to “the nobodies”, the excluded groups, those who have historically been considered unable to lead the State.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Profesor de la Escuela Superior de Administración Pública - ESAP (Bogotá). Doctor en Ciencia Política por el Instituto de Estudios Sociales y Políticos de la Universidad del Estado de Rio de Janeiro (IESP/UERJ).


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