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The crossroads of change in Gustavo Petro’s first year in office

While at the beginning of the 21st century the vast majority of countries in the region were making the shift to the left, in Colombia it was not until almost two decades later that Gustavo Petro was elected as the first leftist president in the country’s history. Petro promised to carry out wide-ranging reforms in various fields, such as political reform, labor, the pension system, health and education. However, the obstacles he has faced during his first year in office are not few.

Petro’s victory was not a landslide, as he obtained 50.44% of the votes against 47.31% of his opponent, the outsider and controversial candidate Rodolfo Hernández. Likewise, the legislative elections did not give a considerable majority to the governing party, Historic Pact, as opposition parties such as the Democratic Center, maintained several seats in Congress. This forced the government to form coalitions with traditional parties such as the Liberal Party and the Partido de la U, and even with the Conservative Party, in exchange for political favors. 

Unlike right-wing governments, coalitions of progressive governments tend to be fragile and respond to very specific and circumstantial objectives, which leads to governance crises, as happened with Dilma Rousseff in Brazil or Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. In the case of Petro, the coalition with the traditional parties entered into crisis in April 2023, due to differences in the health reform which, in addition, generated the first cabinet change and the departure of some ministers supported by traditional parties.

The first reform that failed in March was the political reform intended to change the Colombian electoral system, but which throughout the debates lost support and ended up distancing itself from the original proposal. The labor reform collapsed in June, while in the new legislature that began in July, the health reform continues, which became one of the main bets of the government, although it has difficulties being approved due to the lack of legislative support. Similarly, the pension reform is being processed in Congress amidst criticism from large trade and business associations.

The government faces a great challenge in negotiating with party leaders and congresspersons from other political forces in order to move forward with several of the proposed reforms. In practice, these may not be as deep and broad and must be agreed with several political sectors, which may end up reducing their scope.

On the other hand, it is essential to consider that Petro’s government, in addition to the legislative opposition, has had greater scrutiny from the traditional media, which have historically been allies of the political and economic elites in the country. In fact, the media opposition to Petro dates back to when he was mayor of Bogotá. Examples of this media opposition are the extensive coverage given to the crises of the current government and the insistent denunciations of the actions of its officials, absent in previous governments, as with the cases of abuse of the use of force during social mobilizations in the government of Iván Duque.

On a third front, there is the opposition of control entities such as the Attorney General’s Office, headed by Francisco Barbosa, who was Presidential Advisor for Human Rights and International Affairs during the Duque administration, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, led by Margarita Cabello, former Minister of Justice also in the previous administration. In the case of the Attorney General’s Office, the speed with which this government has acted in the face of the scandals of the so-called “chuzadas” or illegal interceptions that involved the then Chief of Staff, Laura Sarabia, and the former ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, is striking. Likewise, the Attorney General’s Office quickly advanced with the investigation against Nicolás Petro, son of the President, who accepted the entry of illicit money into the campaign and whose ceilings would have exceeded what is allowed by law.

In contrast, little progress has been made in investigations such as Odebrecht’s, since only a few months ago Óscar Iván Zuluaga, presidential candidate of Uribism in 2014 and former president of the Democratic Center was charged by the Attorney General’s Office for receiving foreign financing in his campaign, despite the fact that Colombian law prohibits it.

Thus, legislative and media opposition and the increased control of public agencies have placed the new government at a clear disadvantage to carry out the reforms it promised in its campaign.

However, there are policies in which there is greater room for maneuver, due to the lower veto power of the opposition. For example, Total Peace, which was proclaimed as a law a few months after the government took office and which has had recent advances with the ceasefire with the National Liberation Army, an armed group with which previous governments had made little progress in the negotiation process. Nonetheless, with other groups, such as the Clan del Golfo, there has been little progress and negotiations have even been paralyzed.

Regarding foreign policy, there has also been greater room for maneuver and significant achievements stand out, such as the reestablishment of relations with Venezuela, after four years of rupture. Likewise, on the environmental issue, the government has managed to transcend the low profile that has characterized Colombian foreign policy, seeking leadership in regional and global spaces.

In conclusion, it has been a great challenge for the Petro government to move away from the discourse of political activism, which placed it in the role of opposition, to the role of ruler. From a more pessimistic point of view, this first year has demonstrated the difficulty for leftist governments to govern and advance with their reforms, placing them more in the role of administrators of state functions than protagonists of great social transformations. From a more optimistic point of view, it could be said that this has been a year of learning that has demonstrated the fragility of political coalitions with traditional parties and leaders, which allowed Petro to come to power, but at the same time has been a source of crisis. In any case, the remaining three years represent a great challenge that demands ample negotiation capacity with diverse political forces.


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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