How the Moderation of Petro Strengthens Colombian Democracy

Colombian Democracy
Petro and his running mate Ángela Robledo (far left) receiving endorsements from Antanas Mockus (third from left) and Claudia López Hernández (third from right) at an event in Bogotá, during the campaign for the second round, June 2018. Photo by Roboting (via Wikipedia).

by Jamie L. Shenk

Not so Progressive  

On August 9, 2022, many Colombians looked on with pride and hope as Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter and the country’s first Leftist leader, was sworn in as president. Standing together with his vice president, Francia Márquez—an internationally recognized environmental activist and the first Afro-Colombian to rise to that office—Petro seemed the embodiment of years of civil society advocacy and demand for change in Colombian politics.

Three months after that historic day, the political narrative in Colombia has shifted. Recent opinion polls show sinking approval ratings of the president and increasing skepticism that he will follow through on his campaign promises. Survey respondents may have reason for their doubt. After campaigning on a suite of progressive reforms, many of Petro’s initiatives have been stymied by his more traditional allies and conservative blocs in Congress.

What is abundantly clear is that Petro will not accomplish his full progressive agenda in his four years in office. This will anger some of his supporters, who may prefer that the president addresses Colombia’s entrenched, elitist political system by “moving fast and breaking things”. But this is actually good for Colombia’s democracy in the long term. Slow and steady progress has a better chance of achieving improvements without triggering the kind of backlash that has plagued earlier efforts of democratic reform.

Political Stability Amid Political Violence

Historically, Colombia has struggled with rapid democratic reforms. Analysts have long touted Colombia as an example of democratic stability in Latin America, comparing its relatively uninterrupted history of democratic elections to the dictatorships that have plagued its neighbors in South America. That stability, however, came at a price; until the 1980s, the country’s politics were dominated and dictated by a small group of elites who successfully thwarted the emergence of left-wing parties and challengers.

Attempts to open the political system in the 1980s and 1990s through reforms brought new problems. While the system ostensibly allowed for new parties to compete in national and local elections, candidates from the Left who threatened to challenge the status quo were systematically targeted for violence. Nearly 3,000 members of the socialist Unión Patriótica party, for example, were assassinated during this period.

This history is, in part, what made Petro’s victory in 2022 so historic. As a Colombian friend recently told me, it seemed like a miracle that a Leftist could not only run for the presidency, but win, without being killed. What it also means, however, is that there is no playbook for the Colombian left to follow as they move from the opposition to the task of governing the country.

 Navigating the Grassroots

Petro’s solution to the demands of the grassroots is to find a middle ground that recognizes calls for change while not pushing the status quo too quickly. This was first evident in his presidential campaign. While much has been made about his base of support among grassroots movements, historically marginalized groups, and social activists, his election also depended on support from traditional party elites.

The impact of those alliances is noticeable now. Ministerial positions have gone to key members in established parties. Petro has had to demonstrate a commitment to finding consensus among the broad coalition of parties that comprise his bloc in Congress. Most noticeably he has softened the authoritarian tendencies that marked his leadership style as mayor of Bogotá in the 2010s. Moreover, he has listened attentively to alternative viewpoints. Through this process of consensus-building Petro has tempered or in some cases even reversed his campaign promises.

 An Early Accomplishment

The slow pace of change in government might disillusion some of Petro’s supporters, but the president has already made important progress on his progressive agenda. At the end of October 2022, his plan for national peace and security—the so-called “Total Peace Law”—passed Colombia’s lower house with a 125-13 vote margin, clearing its way for Senate approval.

This win is a milestone for Colombia’s democracy for two reasons. First, the broad-based support for peace-focused legislation represents a significant shift in the political climate from previous administrations. That bodes well for Colombian democracy. From 2016, when the Colombian government signed a peace deal with the FARC—the country’s largest guerrilla group at the time—through the 2018 presidential elections, the politics of peace polarized the Colombian electorate and its government. In contrast, Petro’s alliances with representatives from all sides of the political spectrum green lighted the Total Peace Law.

Second, the content of the new law explicitly aims to build a robust civil society in Colombia–key to a functioning democracy and something that previous governments have not made a central priority. Petro’s new plan for peace emphasizes his government’s commitment to implementing programs from the 2016 accord that the previous administration abandoned and clears the way for negotiations with other armed actors.

Deepening and Expanding Colombian Democracy

Undergirding these plans is a radical change in how the Colombian government approaches the issue of security. The policy is written for a country at peace, rather than one at war. This shift is more than just rhetoric. The law, for example, introduces the option for citizens to complete “social service for peace” instead of compulsory military service. Options for service include work that promotes victims’ rights, protects the environment, or promotes digital literacy, with the explicit goal of deepening and expanding Colombia’s democracy. By rolling these programs into its national security plan, the Petro government is indicating that democracy and development are as central to peace as guns and bullets.   

This is not to say that progressives in Colombia should quietly accept Petro’s policy reversals and equivocations. Indeed, that is the role of civil society—to hold its elected officials to account on their promises and make noise when they do not. At the same time, it is worth keeping in mind how far Colombia has come already. After decades facing down exclusionary and/or right-wing presidents, Colombians may finally have a president committed to the right to protest. Who knows, he might even listen to them.

Jamie L. Shenk is a political sociologist interested in in the intersection of peace, conflict, and environmental politics with a regional focus on Latin America. She is currently a Democracy Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Latin American Studies from the same university. Her work is published or forthcoming in Comparative Politics and Journal of Peace Research.

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