BOGOTÁ, Colombia — In a packed bullring in Bogotá on Sunday, amid a burst of confetti and beneath a sign that read “Colombia has won,” Gustavo Petro celebrated his victory as Colombia’s first leftist ever elected president.
“The government of hope has arrived,” the former rebel and former lawmaker said to a cascade of cheers.
Colombia has been one of the most conservative countries in Latin America for decades, where the left has long been associated with a violent insurgency and past left-wing presidential candidates have been murdered during the campaign.
Against that backdrop, Mr Petro’s victory was historic, reflecting voters’ frustration at a right-wing establishment that many said had failed to address generations of poverty and inequality that have only gotten worse during the pandemic.
Petro’s choice of running mate, Francia Márquez, an environmentalist who will become the country’s first black vice president, made the win all the more exceptional. Some of the highest turnout rates were recorded in some of the poorest and most neglected parts of the country, suggesting that many people identified with her prominent and repeated calls for inclusion, social justice and environmental protection.
As a candidate, Mr. Petro to reshape some of the most important sectors of Colombian society into a nation that is among the most unequal in Latin America.
But now that he will occupy the presidential palace, he will soon have to put those promises – which some critics call radical – into action.
“This is a program of very deep transformations,” said Yann Basset, a professor of political science at Rosario University in Bogotá. “He will need significant support from Congress on all of these issues, which promises to be quite difficult.”
Petro has vowed to massively expand social programs, provide significant subsidies to single mothers, guarantee employment and wages to the unemployed, strengthen access to higher education, increase food aid, transfer the country to a government-controlled health care system and the pension system.
He will pay for this in part, he says, by raising taxes on the 4,000 richest families, eliminating some corporate tax benefits, raising some import tariffs and cracking down on tax evaders.
A key part of his platform is a plan to move from what he calls Colombia’s “old extractive economy,” based on oil and coal, to one that focuses on other industries, in part to combat climate change.
Some of Petro’s policies could spark tensions with the United States, which has poured billions of dollars into Colombia over the past two decades to help governments halt cocaine production and exports, with little effect. Mr Petro has promised to review the country’s drug strategy, focusing on eradicating the coca crop, the commodity of cocaine, and putting greater emphasis on rural development.
Washington has already started moving toward prioritizing development, but Mr Petro could clash with US officials over exactly what this looks like.
Petro has also pledged to fully implement the 2016 peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and to end the destruction of the Colombian Amazon, where deforestation has risen to new heights in recent years. to slow down. †
One of the biggest challenges of Mr. Petro will be to pay for his ambitious agenda, which is to find new revenues to make up for lost oil and coal money while expanding social programs.
Two other leftists, Gabriel Boric in Chile and Pedro Castillo in Peru, recently took office with ambitious promises to expand social programs, but their popularity plummeted due to rising inflation, among other things.
Colombia collects fewer taxes as a percentage of its gross domestic product compared to almost every other country in the region.
The country already has a high deficit and last year, when the current president, Iván Duque, tried to devise a tax plan to help lower it, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest.
“The budget figures just don’t add up,” James Bosworth, the founder of Hxagon, a Bogotá political risk consultancy, wrote in a newsletter Monday. “The costs of Petro’s proposed social programs are likely to burn through the budget, leaving a rapidly growing deficit.”
“By two or three years into his reign,” Mr Bosworth continued, “he will have to make tough choices because of financial constraints and that will eventually anger part of the coalition that elected him.”
Mauricio Cárdenas, a former finance minister, said the first step Mr. Petro should take is to announce an experienced Treasury Secretary who can calm the fears of the market and investors by assuring the public that he will not engage in runaway spending or excessive government intervention.
Another major challenge could be working with Congress. Petro’s coalition, called the Historic Pact, has the largest number of lawmakers in the legislature. But he doesn’t have a majority, which he will have to push through his agenda. He has already reached out to political leaders outside his coalition, but it’s unclear how much support he will get — and whether forming new alliances will force him to give up some of his proposals.
“I think he will have to leave certain parts of this program,” said Mr Basset. “In any case, I believe that he does not have a majority to carry out everything he has promised.”
mr. Petro will also inherit a deeply polarized society, divided by class, race, region and ethnicity and scarred by years of violence and war.
For decades the Colombian government fought the FARC and the war grew into a complex struggle between left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and the military, all of whom were accused of human rights abuses.
Despite the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, many of the conflict’s rifts remain, fueled by social media, fueling rumors and misinformation.
Pre-election polls showed growing mistrust in almost all major institutions.
“This election, in my opinion, is by far the most polarized we’ve seen in Colombia in many years,” said Arlene B. Tickner, a political scientist at Rosario University. “So just calming the waters and especially talking to those voters and those sectors of Colombian society that didn’t elect him and who have a great fear of a Petro presidency, I think this is going to be a major challenge.”
One of Mr Petro’s most difficult tasks could be tackling violence in rural areas.
Despite the peace agreement, armed groups have continued to thrive, especially in rural areas, feeding on drug trafficking, the livestock industry, human trafficking and other activities.
Murders, massacres and killings of social leaders have all increased in recent years, and internal displacement remains high, with 147,000 people forced to flee their homes last year, according to government data.
Many people affected by this violence voted for Mr Petro and Ms Márquez, born in Cauca, one of the hardest hit areas of Colombia.
Petro’s plan to tackle the violence includes land reform that would discourage the ownership of large parcels through taxes and give land titles to poor people whose lack of resources often hires them from armed groups.
But land reform has stymied president after president, and Mr. Petro admitted in an interview this year that it may be the “hardest” part of his campaign promises to deliver.
“Because it is this subject that has caused the wars in Colombia,” he said.
Megan Janetsky contributed to the report.