Colombia has chosen Iván Duque, a conservative neophyte, to be its next president after a long and divisive campaign that often centred on a controversial peace process with leftist rebels the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).
Duque, who opposes the peace deal, won in a second round runoff election on Sunday with 53.9% of the vote. His vanquished opponent, Bogotá’s former mayor Gustavo Petro – once a leftist militant himself – defends the peace process.
Despite being the first leftist in the conservative country’s history to come so close to the presidency, he lost on the night, taking 41.8% of the vote.
Many now worry about the fate of the fragile peace deal signed with the Farc in 2016, which formally ended 52 years of civil war that left 220,000 dead and seven million displaced.
That deal initially failed to pass a referendum with voters outraged by its guarantees of softer sentencing for rebel leaders and guaranteed seats in congress. It was later amended and ratified by lawmakers, a move some viewed as undemocratic. Sunday gave them another chance to voice their disquiet.
Farc’s wartime leader, Rodrigo Londoño, tweeted after the result: “We have lived the quietest elections of the last decades, the peace process bears fruit. It is a moment of greatness and reconciliation, we respect the decision of the majorities and we congratulate the new president. Now to work, the roads of hope are open.”
Duque promised on the campaign trail to modify the deal’s most contentious components, something that resonated with voters.
On a clear Sunday morning in Bogotá’s central Ciudad Jardín neighbourhood, voters filed into a school repurposed as a voting station when polls opened at 8am. “I am voting for Ívan Duque,” said Marcelo Rodríguez, dressed in a Colombian football shirt. “I want peace but we can’t have it without justice.”
Others at the poll station were less convinced. “Amending a deal is the same as tearing it up,” said Andrea Gómez, a student. “Some people in Colombia won’t be happy without war.”
Duque – who will turn 42 just before taking office on 8 August – will be Colombia’s youngest ever president, though his party, Democratic Center, has a coalition in Congress. He also has the backing of several industry leaders and, perhaps most importantly, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, still an immensely powerful – if divisive – figure in Colombian politics.
Uribe, who dealt severe military blows to the Farc during his tenure from 2002 to 2010, led the campaign against the peace deal in 2016’s referendum. He was Duque’s earliest champion for president, having persuaded his protege to leave a job at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington DC to fill a party senate seat in 2014.
Duque’s opponents say is little more to than Uribe’s puppet, a charge particularly worrying given the hardline svengali’s authoritarian tendencies.
While president, a state intelligence agency was shut down after Uribe used it to spy on the opposition, journalists and members of the supreme court. His military campaign against the rebels was marked by grave human rights abuses: thousands of civilians were murdered in order to falsely inflate combat statistics.
Both men denied the charge, and accused Petro of being the real threat to democracy. Uribe, after voting in Bogotá’s historic Plaza de Bolívar, said that Duque was the only bulwark against Petro’s “destructive socialism” – the same force he said has mired neighbouring Venezuela in economic and political turmoil.
Petro was reluctant on the campaign trail to distance himself from Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez, and with 1 million Venezuelans having fled to Colombia, many here worry that Petro could bring a similar fate.
Duque’s market-friendly economic policies appealed to voters near the Venezuelan border, though younger and more moderate voters worry about his conservative social policies from drug policy and crime to abortion.
The campaign was long and ugly, with stark polarisation revealed in the first round when Duque and Petro eliminated a handful of more moderate rivals. Now, Duque’s job will be build bridges between Colombians divided on ideology and the peace process, with the worst outcome being another flare up of civil war.
“Polarisation is common in politics around the world,” Pedro Piedrahita Bustamente, a political science professor at the University of Medellín previously told the Hlcarpenter.com. “But here, where there is a history of internal armed conflict, it could be a dangerous thing.”