Colombians Head to the Polls Today to Chose a New President in First Election After the End of FARC Conflict
Colombians across the country head to the polls today to elect the new president who will replace President Juan Manuel Santos and lead the country as it grapples with the future of an historic peace process that ended more than a half-century of conflict.
There are five major candidates, with rightwing frontrunner Iván Duque, the protege of former President Álvaro Uribe, leading in the last major poll conducted before the election.
Duque received 41.5% of the support in the Invamer poll published a week before today’s election and conducted by a group of leading media outlets including Semana, Caracol Televión, and Blu Radio.
He garnered a significantly higher percentage than the leftwing favorite, ex-Bogotá mayor and former M19 guerrilla member Gustavo Petro, who received 29.5%. Both held large edges over their three rivals: former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo (16.3%), former vice president Germán Vargas Lleras (6.6%), and lead peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle (1.9%).
Though polls in Colombia have proven to be unreliable in the past, no candidate is expected to win the 50% majority needed to win the election today. If none do hit the 50% threshold, the top two vote-getters will go to a two-person run-off vote on June 17.
Each of the last two presidential elections have gone to a second-round run-off, both of which were won by sitting Santos. The 2014 first round election, with Santos seeking re-election against Óscar Iván Zuluaga and others, was marked by low turnout of around 40.1%, a drop of more than 49.2% in 2010. The 2006 and 2002 elections, both won by Uribe with a first-round majority, featured turnout of 45.1% and 46.5%, respectively.
Santos said today that, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this election has seen “much higher” participation by Colombian voters living abroad who have sent in their ballot than in both the 2014 election and the congressional elections held in March.
Polls close today at 4 pm.
Regardless of today’s outcome, Santos will be exiting office in August after completing two terms, the maximum permitted under Colombian law.
He will leave after an eight-year tenure in office that has seen highs and lows, with the 2016 peace accord signed to end a half-century of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) standing out as the most landmark event.
As he had pledged to do, following four years of formal peace negotiations, Santos held a referendum after the deal was finalized in 2016 for Colombians to accept or reject it with a one-question “Yes” or “No” plebiscite. The “No” side won amid low turnout by the slimmest of margins — tens of thousands of votes among millions cast — forcing Santos back to the table to re-start negotiations that would alter the accord.
Though some changes were made in a renegotiated second “Final Agreement,” critics chastised them as largely insignificant, and Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, opted to not put the amended version to a public vote. Instead, in the final days of November, a Congress controlled by a coalition led by the president’s party passed the revised deal into law less than two months after the public rejected the original accord in the October 2 referendum.
The other largest cause of turmoil for the Santos presidency came from events outside the government’s control when the price of oil began to plummet in 2014. The price of Brent crude fell from a high of $114 USD per barrel in mid-2014 to below $50 USD in the first weeks of 2015, eventually hitting a low of $31 USD in early 2016.
With crude making up the majority of Colombian exports, and state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol being far and away the nation’s largest producer, the resulting fall in government revenue placed major strains on the federal budget that remain to this day.
With the nation facing increased pressure to its credit rating and operating budget, the Santos administration pushed through a tax reform in late 2016 that, among other changes, increased the value-added tax placed on goods and services from 16% to 19%.
While this did ease the medium-term fiscal challenges and has so far protected the nation’s credit rating, which remains above junk status according to each of the big three rating agencies, the reform was highly unpopular among Colombians. The fact that the tax hike was passed less than a month after the controversial peace deal became law only added to the outrage felt by many in the country and cost Santos even further in terms of his ability to enact significant policies or easily implement the peace deal during his final 18 months in office.
The combination of peace process tension and much slower economic growth, amid a wave of corruption scandals and the impact of other polarizing issues, has placed large strains on virtually all segments of a society that has become largely divided in recent years. It is under this macro lens of the last four years that citizens go to the polls today to cast their ballot.
The future of the peace process, as well as ongoing peace negotiations with the smaller ELN guerrilla group, could hinge on who is elected.
While Duque comes from the “No” camp led by his mentor Uribe and has been hostile to the implementation of the 300-page agreement that has dozens of key provisions, it remains unclear exactly how much he would, or even legally could, do to dismantle the agreement. But he has pledged to try to alter key aspects, and experts have said he is likely to at the very least obstruct implementation, which is already well behind schedule as even proponents struggle to enact provisions.
Former vice president Vergas Lleras is less hardline than Duque, but he too has broken with his former boss, Santos, and indicated that he would not place a priority on furthering implementation. Fajardo sits more in the center, while Petro, a former Marxist guerrilla, and De la Calle, who personally led the negotiations with FARC, are the two candidates who support the peace process in full.
The conflict formally ended when the accord was passed into law. In practice, it came to a conclusion when the FARC guerrillas demobilized, handed over their weapons to the United Nations, and reimagined their organization as a political party in mid-2017.
But though it is far from the only issue determining how people will cast their ballots today, the legacy of conflict remains at the center of everything in Colombia, including this election.