Colombia Elects Former Guerrilla Petro as First Progressive President

By Reuters
June 19, 2022Americas
Colombia Elects Former Guerrilla Petro as First Progressive President
Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro of Pacto Historico coalition waves before casting his vote at the polling station located at Colegio Marco Antonio Carreño Silva in Bogota, Colombia, on June 19, 2022. (Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

BOGOTA/BUCARAMANGA—Leftist Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement, who has vowed social and economic change, won Colombia’s presidency on Sunday, the first progressive to do so in the country’s history.

Petro, 62, beat construction magnate Rodolfo Hernandez with an unexpectedly wide margin of more than 700,000 votes.

Petro, a former mayor of capital Bogota and current senator, has pledged to fight inequality with free university education, pension reforms, and high taxes on unproductive land. He won 50.5 percent to Hernandez’s 47.3 percent.

Petro’s proposals—especially a ban on new oil projects—have startled some investors, though he has promised to respect current contracts.

His victory was likely to cause market jitters until his cabinet is announced, analysts told Reuters on Sunday.

“It is not a time for hate, this government, which will begin on Aug. 7, is a government of life,” Petro told supporters in Bogota’s concert arena.

This campaign was Petro’s third presidential bid and his victory adds the Andean nation to a list of Latin American countries that have elected progressives in recent years.

A fragmented congress, where a dozen parties have seats, will act as a check on Petro’s proposals.

“Even if he tries to pass radical reforms, he does not have the congressional support to implement them,” said Daniela Cuellar of FTI Consulting.

Petro’s running mate, Francia Marquez, a single mother and former housekeeper, will be the country’s first Afro-Colombian woman vice-president.

Petro has also pledged to fully implement a 2016 peace deal with FARC terrorists and seek talks with the still-active ELN guerrillas.

Gustavo Petro
Colombian left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro of the Historic Pact coalition shows his ballot before casting his vote at a polling station during the second round of the presidential election in Bogota, Colombia, on June 19, 2022. (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

Market Jitters

Analysts have said the proposed halt to oil development could send investment elsewhere at a time when Colombia is struggling with low credit ratings, a large trade deficit and national debt which has doubled to 72 percent of GDP over the last decade.

Oil accounts for nearly half of exports and close to 10 percent of national income, but Petro argues new projects should be barred for environmental reasons and to move Colombia away from dependence on the industry.

Petro has also promised to increase taxes and royalties on extractive industries and charge major landholders for unproductive land, raising some $5.2 billion. He also proposes to raise up to $3.9 billion by progressively taxing companies.

“We think on Tuesday both interest rates on TES bonds and the exchange rate will depreciate, but we need to see what type of rhetoric Petro gives us, what type of cabinet he’ll give us,” said Sergio Olarte, head economist for Colombia at Scotiabank.

Monday is a holiday in Colombia.

“The magnitude of movements in the coming trading sessions will depend on the economic line that the new president offers,” agreed David Cubides, head economist at Allianz brokerage, who said he expects local market volatility during the next week.

Current President Ivan Duque said on Twitter that he had called to congratulate Petro, and they have scheduled a meeting in coming days to ensure a harmonious transition.

Colombian presidents are limited to one term.

Some 22.6 million people voted, about 1.2 million more than in the first round. Some 2.3 percent of voters turned in protest votes, backing neither candidate.

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