Duque's victory leaves Colombia polarized

Duque's victory leaves Colombia polarized

Nicola Bilotta | IAI
Petro and Duque are the expression of a political dichotomy that is also reflected in the contrasting feelings the Colombian people have regarding the peace process with FARC-EP. For this reason also, the new President's government will face plenty of challenges

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Ivàn Duque, leader of the righting Democratic Center party and heir of the uberismo, will be Colombia's next President. On Sunday 17th June, Gustavo Petro's dream of becoming the first left wing President in Colombia's history was shattered at the ballot, when Duque beat him 54 to 41.8 per cent. No surprise there, in the end, Colombia did not betray its conservative spirit.

Petro and Duque, a divided Colombia

The ferocious campaign, however, leaves the new President with a very polarized country, where the historical socio-economic divisions that characterize Colombia as one of the most unequal countries in Latin America have clearly resurfaced. In 2017, 26.9 percent of the Colombian population lived in poverty and 7.4 percent in extreme poverty. But an even deeper social divide dominates the country: the gap between rural and urban Colombia. Still in 2017, 36 percent of Colombia's rural population was poor and 15.4 percent extremely poor.

Petro's following cannot be simply explained by his populist rhetoric, but rather in the deep malaise experienced by millions of Colombians, whose demands for greater social justice and a change in the status quo have been long ignored by traditional Colombian politics.

Petro and Duque are the expression of a political dichotomy that is also reflected in the contrasting feelings the Colombian people have regarding the controversial peace process with Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). Since the very beginning, the Democratic Center has been the political force most strongly opposed to the Havana peace treaty, and, during the campaign, Duque stated that he wants to change some of the clauses in the pillars of the peace progress - amnesty for former FARC guerrillas and the terms of the Reforma Rural Integral (RRI) agricultural reform.

Despite these positions rewarding Duque at the ballot, these political choices could undermine not only the demobilization of the former FARC guerrillas, but also the negotiations with other rebel groups, including the Ejercito de Liberaciòn Naciònal (ELN).

The peace challenge

The first issue facing the new Colombian President will be the implementation of the Havana peace treaty. In particular, understanding how Duque will decide to change the RRI, if indeed he will, will be the crucial point. The social and economic underdevelopment of the rural areas is in fact connected to the country's historical instability and the persistence of the illegal cocaine economy. Implementing the peace treaty provides Colombia with a historical opportunity to really change the rural structure that has kept the country's rural areas so poor.

The RRI's overall design aims to mitigate the poor condition of the rural areas through a complex agrarian reform which should reduce rural poverty by 50 percent in the next ten to fifteen years.

The agrarian reform is not just a political challenge, but an economic one. According to official figures, implementing the RRI is expected to cost $148.4 billion dollars between 2017 and 2031, with funds to distribute land among rural owners, small and destitute farmers, and investments to develop infrastructures and social services in rural areas. The RRI also includes plans to provide financial support to those who voluntary replace coca farming with legal crops. Since 2012, coca farming and cocaine production has been on the increase, reaching levels that had not been seen since 2000. Estimates from 2016 show that the country produced approximately 866 tonnes of cocaine, compared to 649 tonnes in 2015, thus nullifying the results that followed implementation of the 2001 'Plan Colombia' – the bilateral plan signed with the United States to contrast illegal coca farming and implemented in Colombia between 2001 and 2008.

The need to unite

Despite his victory, Duque will not have an easy time governing the country. For the first time in ages, Colombia will have a left wing leader at the opposition, who can use the strength of his votes to contrast the governing majority and prepare for the 2022 presidential campaign. Secondly, Duque could face difficulties in modifying the peace treaty, as he will need a parliamentary majority to support his proposals and he may also face the opposition of the Colombian Constitutional Court. If Duque, as he stated in his victory speech, wants to be a President that unites all Colombians, he will not be able to ignore that nearly half of the population wants to consolidate the peace process with FARC and the process of national reconciliation.