Colombia: Gustavo Petro wins first round of the presidential election

Just as all of the polls predicted over the last three months, Gustavo Petro led the first round of voting for the Colombian presidential election with an astonishing 8.5 million votes (40 percent). Sadly, despite Petro’s own prediction, he did not manage to win the election outright in the first round by gaining a majority of 50 percent or more. And despite the predictions of many, Rodolfo Hernández, the right-wing demagogue who has used social networks as his main means of campaigning, managed to surpass Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, the capitalist establishment’s candidate who was backed by the bosses and the right.

[Read the original in Spanish here]

For candidates regarding themselves as “on the left”, Petro and Francia Marquez’s results are historic. Regardless of the fact that Gustavo Petro attempted to moderate his programme and incorporated all sorts of bourgeois elements in his coalition, the truth is that for millions of workers, peasants and youth, voting for Petro represents a profound desire for radical change and an open rejection of the capitalist oligarchy and their masters in Washington. The profound discrediting of Uribismo that these results represent was cemented during the heroic Paro Nacional (national stoppage) of last year.

Three long weeks now loom for those fighting for change in Colombia. Hernández’s comeback has changed the equation and introduced new variables. For a start, Hernández is the only candidate who ties with Petro in the opinion polls for the second round. He has demagogically positioned himself as an anti-establishment figure like Petro, regardless of his ties to the right and to the inner circle of Álvaro Uribe Velez (the former president of Colombia with links to right-wing death squads and drug cartels who is the current head of Centro Democrático, the party of the incumbent Iván Duque). All of this brings uncertainty to a campaign that Pacto Histórico’s leaders were presenting as an inevitable victory procession.

Fico Gutierrez’s fall and Hernández’s rise

The burst in support for “engineer” Hernández has its precedent. After all, Hernández started his presidential campaign through social networks (mainly TikTok) where he was the most followed presidential candidate for a long time (although he is now behind Petro). However, his rise was followed by a decline in March on account of his disinterest in participating in the primaries that month (which required joining a coalition with other parties) and his inability to propose a list for the legislative elections. Analysts saw this as Hernández plateauing.

But the findings of one poll that Hernández would tie with Petro in a second round, gave momentum to his campaign. This poll effectively put an end to Federico “Fico” Gutierrez’s campaign, who had not demonstrated that he could beat Petro and who was largely dependent on the brazen support of the media and the oligarchy (he was the candidate with most air time and he exceeded the legal limit of billboards without any real consequences for his campaign). A section of the ruling class decided that the only way to beat Petro in the second round was to back Hernández, rather than Fico.

Rodolfo Hernández Image Programas Telemedellín Wikimedia CommonsRight-wing demagogue Rodolfo Hernández managed to surpass Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, the capitalist establishment’s candidate / Image: Programas Telemedellín, Wikimedia Commons

Gutierrez’s failure, alongside Centro Democrático’s losses in the legislative elections, are effectively another sign of Uribismo’s death knell. It is rather telling that Gutierrez never received a direct endorsement from Uribe and that he’s done everything he could to avoid being seen as a candidate who would continue Duque’s governance. However, his stance – that he is not the continuity candidate, but that he would continue what works – was enough to alienate a population looking for change and which has marched repeatedly for the last four years to get it.

It is important to understand where Hernández’s popularity comes from. He has positioned himself as the “anti-corruption” candidate. Regardless of the issue, his answer is to link it to the fight against corruption. He’s proposed things like regular press conferences where he can name and shame corrupt politicians, withdrawing their state funding as a punishment. In a period in which political institutions have lost their credibility, this is a recipe for political success. One doesn’t have to look further than Donald Trump in the United States to see this. Trump’s rise to the White House was propelled by his pugnacious demeanour against the elite, irrespective of his disgusting character and virulent bigotry. In both cases, it is clear that ultimately they serve the interests of the ruling class.

Despite his invective against the elites, Hernández can only represent the interests of the capitalist elites. His campaign has positioned itself in such a way as not to mobilise people, instead depending on his presence on social networks. As an example, it is notable that Hernández never made his stance known regarding the case of Karen Abudinen (the Technology and Communications Minister who effectively stole 70 billion pesos, equivalent to $18 million USD). His position on the Paro Nacional was to link it to corruption, rather than talk about the solutions to poverty, hunger and unemployment.

But behind these anti-corruption speeches stands a former mayor of Bucaramanga who is on personal terms with Tomás Uribe, son of Álvaro. This is not to mention the fact that he is the only candidate who is in an ongoing trial for corruption. But regardless of his proposals and his image as a staunch opponent of corruption, it’s clear that Hernández is profoundly tied to the very ruling class that he denounces. We need not look further than the support he is receiving from figures like María Fernanda Cabal of Uribe’s Centro Democrático party, to see which side Rodolfo Hernández is truly on.

All of this reflects the fact that corruption is not simply a question of the character of those in charge of the state. Corruption is a product of the capitalist system in general. The Pandora Papers effectively revealed how deeply corruption runs throughout international capitalism. There’s a reason that Britain, the United States and Canada have all seen corruption scandals that go to the very top of their governments over the last few years. The only solution is a break with the system that produces the conditions for corruption: capitalism.

A close second round

It looks like the second round will be a genuine challenge for Pacto Histórico, but the outcome is not decided in advance. Petro finished the first round with 40%, well above all of his rivals. The great task of Pacto Histórico’s leadership will be preventing Hernández from closing the 10 point difference between the two. This could be complicated as Hernández presents himself as an option for change, while at the same time he can count on Fico’s votes as the candidate who can stop Petro becoming president. Fico and Hernández have 11 million votes between the two of them to Petro’s 8.5 million.

Many will say that the task in these three weeks is for Petro to water down his programme in order to win over the centrist voters, as he disastrously did in the second round in 2018, when he lost against Iván Duque. This would be a capitulation. Sergio Fajardo (the centrist candidate) didn’t even manage to get above 5 percent. With less than a million votes, Fajardo adds compared to the 17 million who abstained. Furthermore, a move to the right by Petro would only erode his base of support and offer a perfect opening for Hernández to attack him as part of the establishment. Some senior individuals in Pacto Historico are already inclined in such a direction. It doesn’t help that Petro has allied himself with former key figures from the parties of Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos (Uribe’s successor as president, who fundamentally applied the same capitalist policies, regardless of the fall out between the two).

It is not impossible for Pacto Histórico to win in this second round, and the discrediting of Uribismo could be an enormous help to the coalition’s ability to govern in the first few months. But it will only win so long as it recognises that its great strength lies is not in recruiting figures from the status quo to its leadership, but in mobilising the millions of Colombian workers, peasants and youth who are willing to fight for change, including those who have abstained from voting in the first round. It is essential to come back to the main lesson of the Paro Nacional: Colombian workers can only count on our own strength.

Vote for Petro, fight for socialism

Throughout these three weeks, the task of the Marxists will be to make clear that our support for Petro is not for the man himself, but support for the masses who have gathered under the banner of Pacto Histórico to struggle for an end to economic backwardness and for a dignified life. It is imperative that we instil them with a long-term perspective and help them understand that regardless of the results on 19 June, the struggle continues. The best elements are looking for an organisation that can realise Petro’s programme, and they recognise that change will not come through the electoral route.

Even with a Petro presidency, and regardless of the fact that his coalition has the highest number of senators and the second highest number of representatives, Pacto Histórico won’t be able to pass any law that it wishes as it cannot form a majority in congress. It will only be on the basis of mass mobilisation with militant tactics (strikes, blockades, massive protests and trade union organisation) that Petro’s moderate programme of reforms can be implemented.

vota pacto historico Image Pacto Historico FacebookThe task of the Marxists is now to make clear that our support for Petro is not for the man himself, but support for the masses who have gathered under the banner of Pacto Histórico to struggle for an end to economic backwardness and for a dignified life / Image: Pacto Historico, Facebook

The causes of the social explosions of the last five years (inequality, poverty and hunger) have not been resolved. It is impossible to predict when the next one will come, but it is clear that Rodolfo Hernández doesn’t have a real solution to these problems. If we’re honest, by himself, Petro doesn’t either. But Petro’s victory would fuel the organisation of a whole layer of youth and workers who have been confronted with repression in a country where more than 79 social activists have been murdered so far in 2022.

We cannot present Petro and his programme as a panacea to our problems. Within the limits of capitalism in crisis, even Petro’s moderate reforms clash with the interests of the ruling class. It is in this struggle for reforms that the peasantry, the youth and the working class will learn exactly where their strength lies and that they cannot trust an organisation that is run by those who wish to defend this system. The full recognition of this fact would be the formation of a much-needed workers’ party – a party operated by the workers, independently of the ruling class, in open confrontation against their parties in a struggle for power.

This is the effective link between our two slogans: only insofar as we win over the best elements of Pacto Histórico will we be able to create a revolutionary tendency for a workers’ party, fusing the struggle for peace, land, bread, healthcare, shelter and education to the struggle to put an end to the system that denies us those things, and imposes backwardness and violence upon our lives.