Colombian presidential elections will change the course of the country

Ahead of the presidential elections in Colombia on May 29, we spoke to Carlos Ramírez of the Congreso de los Pueblos, to understand what the victory of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez means for the social and popular movements in the country

May 25, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
Campaign closing ceremony of the Historic Pact ticket. Photo: Gustavo Petro

Colombia is on the brink of a historic moment. On May 29, over 38 million Colombians will go to the polls to elect the country’s next president and vice-president for the period 2022-2026. The upcoming presidential elections will offer Colombians an opportunity to achieve the long-delayed social changes that they have been aspiring for decades.

In March, Colombians elected 168 members of the House of Representatives and 108 members of the Senate. For the first time in the country’s modern history, a large number of citizens voted for left-wing, center-left and centrist representatives. Meanwhile, the right-wing and center-right parties lost scores of seats in both houses, narrowly retaining the majority. Sunday’s vote provides Colombians with another chance to choose candidates who advocate for social justice.

A total of eight candidates are contesting in the presidential race, along with their running mates on the same ticket. A candidate needs over 50% of the vote to win outright in the first round. If no candidate receives a simple majority, a run-off will be held between the two leading candidates on June 19. The new president and vice-president will take office on August 7.

According to various opinion polls, the candidates who are leading the voting intention include Gustavo Petro of the left-wing Historic Pact coalition, Federico Gutiérrez of the right-wing Team for Colombia coalition, independent Rodolfo Hernández of the League of Anti-Corruption Governors movement and Sergio Fajardo of the centrist Hope Center coalition. The majority of polls suggest that the decision will be taken in the second round with a contest between progressive Petro and conservative Gutiérrez.

The last opinion poll conducted by the Latin American Strategic Center for Geopolitics (CELAG) shows that Gustavo Petro of the Historic Pact presidential ticket with Francia Márquez, is leading with 48% of votes. He is followed by Hernández with 21.8%, Gutiérrez with 21.4%, and Fajardo with 5.1% of the votes.

61-year-old Petro is a renowned progressive leader and has served the country from various positions. This is Petro’s third bid to become president. In 2010, he won the primary elections as the Alternative Democratic Pole candidate and finished fourth in the race. In 2018, he narrowly lost the run-off election to outgoing President Iván Duque. This time, he is in a better position than he was in 2018. He is running with 40-year-old Afro-descendant environmental activist and lawyer, Francia Márquez. According to political experts, Márquez strengthens Petro’s prospects of winning the presidency as she represents the forgotten marginalized Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities and brings the proposals of social movements to the fore.

To understand the current political situation of Colombia and what the victory of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez means for the social and popular movements in the country, we spoke to Carlos Ramírez, an activist and communications coordinator of the Congreso de los Pueblos (People’s Congress), a social and political movement launched in 2010.

Peoples Dispatch: How do you see the upcoming elections in light of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez leading the voting intention?

Carlos Ramírez: As a movement, we have been developing different scenarios of discussion, dialogue and analysis of the current political moment in which the presidential elections are being held, including the parliamentary elections that we had recently. In this sense, it is important to analyze and review not only the electoral process itself, but to see it in the context of a process of mobilization and advancement of social and popular struggles, demanding basic rights.

In this regard, we consider this to be a historic moment. Seldom the country has had the possibility of having a president and a vice-president who do not directly represent the interests of the great power of national and transnational capital. Given the fact, without a doubt, this is a historic moment in which we are also taking part with great vigor.

PD: Do you think that with the assumption of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez to power, it will be possible to bring about the much-needed structural changes in the country?

CR: We understand that the possibility of structural changes to happen does not exist because there will only be a change of the president. The country’s economic, political and military powers are deeply anchored to the powers of the national and transnational right-wing. Colombia’s dependence in terms of trade agreements; political, economic and military relationships with NATO for example, with the United States mainly; the ideological similarities with them; and the power structures in Colombia make a structural change impossible to contemplate at this moment. We insist that it is not because Petro and Francia do not have the will, but because there are no favorable conditions or capacity or correlation of force that allows structural changes.

PD: How do you see Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez as presidential and vice-presidential candidates, respectively?

CR: It is paramount to remember and insist that Gustavo Petro is not a leftist. He himself constantly makes it clear that he is not a left-wing person. He is certainly an alternative person, a leader who defends what is outlined in the constitution with respect to social rights. This is a major progress in Colombia, but he is not a left-wing person. We understand that as I said earlier that the correlation of force in many aspects is not favorable, but it is also essential to recognize Gustavo Petro’s achievements in terms of transformations of the capitalist, patriarchal, neoliberal, and colonial system that continues to operate in Colombia and in the region.

However, it is quite significant that Francia Márquez has managed to position herself as a vice-presidential candidate. It was not a gift, it was not a donation, it was her conquest and of a large part of the social and popular movement that she represents as a Black woman, linked to or coming from popular sectors, territorial defense struggles, the struggles in defense of the rights of the Indigenous peoples, in defense of mother earth. In this sense, her arrival to power, the position that France Marquez has achieved as an ideological, emotional, and spiritual representative, has been remarkable. We certainly see it as part of this historic moment.

PD: How do you see the potential arrival of Petro and Márquez in office for the region and the country?

CR: The possible arrival in government of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez would undoubtedly be vital to provide fresh air for the region, for relations with Venezuela, with Cuba, that we consider beneficial.

It will also, without a doubt, in some way, allow us to deintensify the situation of violence in the country. We believe that it may be a propitious moment to strengthen the mechanisms of protest and mobilization, which we believe are fundamental and not to be abandoned, but deepened and radicalized increasingly. It must also be a moment to strengthen a popular organization and building of sovereign, popular governments in the territories. We believe that it is crucial to deepen people’s sovereignty in the territories. We understand it is key to transformation. This leg in the government and many others in the streets is our main way in this scenario.

PD: Do you think that the deteriorating situation of violence in Colombia will alleviate to some extent under the Petro-Márquez government?

CR: We understand that this political period, not just the current situation, is marked by an increase in violence. We believe that in a scenario of the Petro-Márquez government or in a scenario of another government of the candidates of the right who are currently contesting the presidency, with one or the other, violence will increase. That’s because a large part of the powers that defend violence, drug trafficking, and paramilitarism in the territories, the national armed forces, do not really depend on whether there is a left-wing president or right-wing president.

In this sense, we prepare ourselves for an increase in violence that involves criminalization, assassination of social leaders, forced displacement, increase in drug trafficking, this political model of control in favor of the right in the country. Given this, we believe that whether Petro wins or not, in our immediate future, in the next two, three, five years, we must work to contain this violence and simultaneously strengthen people’s organization in the territories.

PD: Is there anything that you would like to add?

CR: I would like to raise some alerts that we have identified in the dialogue, discussion, reflection processes that we are developing. The number one is that in the case of a socialist government like that of Petro and Márquez, we have seen and learned it from the experience of governments in sister nations, that the social movements and popular struggles part of a leadership sometimes risk getting trapped in institutionality and lose their popular character. Undoubtedly, we believe that we must participate, work, and dispute in institutional and electoral spaces, but without losing the strategic character of popular struggle.

The second alarm is that when a progressive government in power, the intensity of social discontent, the capacity to mobilize, is reduced because we assume that the government is an ally, an alternative. The decrease in mobilization and social pressure serves as a soft hand to allow governments to continue introducing neoliberal measures, extractivist models and colonial and imperialist policies, which continue to run Colombia. We insist that whether Petro wants it or not, whether Francia wants it or not, the correlation of force in this country, in this region is still in favor of an imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal, and colonial model.

The third warning is that the Historic Pact government plans to go ahead with the reform that seeks to restrict social protests, and uses the same reason as the right-wing to justify it, which is that the crisis the country faces is the fault of the radical, left-wing, “Castro-Chavismo” sectors that do not work anywhere in the world. The issue is that this argument serves as an excuse to reinforce another right-wing government in the next presidential elections.

We understand that we must continue fighting so that it becomes a good government and works toward improving life in concrete terms, such as food security, education, health, pensions for the elderly, and guaranteeing minimum basic measures that can alleviate the situation in the country. and also progressively try to bring about some structural changes, for example, the issue of extractivism, the issue of the economic model as a whole.

It should consider ways out of the conflict, not only social, economic, but also the armed conflict, the military conflict that Colombia has been enduring for too many decades. At this time, there are still very important insurgencies such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), the group of the former FARC combatants that have taken up arms again, there are other more powerful paramilitary and drug trafficking groups. In the face of this scenario of structural armed conflict, military conflict, we must seek solutions through dialogue and negotiations, so that it allows us to advance toward a sovereign Colombia, a Colombia with higher levels of dignity and equity, not only for Colombians, but for the region, for our America.