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Colombia – Leftist Unlikely to Survive Run-off

With controversy still swirling around the peace agreement with the FARC, and President Juan Manuel Santos pursuing the rather quixotic goal of concluding a separate deal with the ELN, it seemed safe to assume that this year’s presidential election would once again be a referendum on the incumbent administration’s peace initiatives. However, with no pro-peace candidate emerging from within the ranks of Santos’ center-right coalition and the bloc of parties running in opposition to the peace effort yet to decide on a standard-bearer, two left-leaning challengers have quite unexpectedly emerged as the early front-runners for the presidency.
Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín who more recently served as governor of Antioquia, is an independent who is generally viewed as a moderate leftist. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who served one term as mayor of Bogotá, is a stridently leftist figure whose populism has prompted comparisons to Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez.
It seems likely that voters will eventually rally behind one or the other as the favored candidate of the left. Although Fajardo would seem to be in a stronger position to build the broad base of support that will be necessary to win a run-off election, he is alleged to have adopted a strategy of peaceful coexistence with local drug kingpins during his tenure as mayor and governor, and some of his close political allies from his home state have recently been implicated in corruption scandals.
As such, there is a strong possibility that the anti-corruption mantle could be seized by Petro, whose far-left populism will no doubt appeal to poor Colombians, but is unlikely to resonate with voters who are not already disposed to backing a leftist candidate. The longer Petro remains near the front of the pack, the greater the probability that various center-right and centrist factions, united by the shared goal of preventing him from advancing to a run-off election, will team up to prevent that from happening.
However, an electoral alliance formed to ensure the defeat of a common enemy will not necessarily be sustainable on an ongoing basis. Consequently, there is a high probability that the next president will struggle to obtain the reliable backing of a majority coalition in the Congress. And with recent economic developments indicating that fiscal austerity is likely to be one of the top items on the legislative agenda, the political challenges may be especially pronounced in the early going.
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