Gustavo Petro – Colombia’s first leftist President

Former Bogota mayor and ex-rebel fighter Gustavo Petro has become Colombia’s President on 19 June, after narrowly defeating real estate millionaire Rodolfo Hernández in the run-off election.

Former rebel fighter Gustavo Petro secured 50.5% of the vote in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election held on June 19, putting himself in line to become the first leftist President of the country. Petro’s victory underlines an ongoing shift of South American politics to the left, which has seen leftist leaders secure victories in Peru last July, and in Chile and Honduras this year.

In April last year, Colombia saw a series of anti-establishment protests against corruption, stagnancy, increased taxation during the pandemic, and a new health care reform.

A quarter of Colombia’s electorate is of age 28 or younger, and the empty promises of jobs, uncertain prospects for education, poverty and inequalities hit the younger sections of the population the hardest. Ahead of Petro’s historic victory, a poll by Invamer showed more than 68% support for him among voters aged 18-24.

Decades earlier, Petro was a part of the urban guerrilla outfit known as M-19. Established in 1970, the M-19 sought to gain power through violence following claims of fraud in that year’s elections. Petro, who spent time in jail for illegal arms possession, joined the urban military group at the age of 17, and was among the many university students and artists who fought against the government.

The M-19 was demobilised in 1990 in what is considered a historic success in Colombia’s long history of conflict. The group metamorphosed into a political party, and aided in the rewriting of the constitution.

For almost a half century from 1964, a violent Marxist-Leninist insurgency led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC in Spanish — raged in the country. The violence of groups like the FARC impacted Colombia’s relationship with leftist political ideology, and made it difficult for a legitimate political left to take shape and establish itself.

The elections of 2022 marked Petro’s third attempt at winning the presidency. He had been defeated by Duque Márquez in 2018. This time, both presidential candidates, Petro and Rodolfo Hernández, had pegged themselves as anti-establishment fighters against the monopoly of the ruling political class.

Colombia’s relations with the US

Colombia has been America’s most reliable ally and the largest beneficiary of US aid in Latin America. The new government under Petro could lead to significant changes in bilateral relations, especially if Petro follows through on his proposed policies on the war on drugs and the question of Venezuela.

The US has invested significantly to cease the production and export of cocaine in Colombia. Petro has been a critic of the current approach that focuses on eradicating the coca crop, and instead seeks to push developmental projects in rural Colombia and some form of drug legalisation. In addition, both presidential candidates called for a re-evaluation of trade agreements to ensure Colombia’s greater benefit.