Fiesta Democrática

Forrest Hylton

Despite the rain, a massive street party to celebrate democracy started in Colombia on Sunday evening and lasted through the night. Though the hangover is likely to be severe, cities erupted with joy and relief. Most final polls, taken a week before yesterday’s election, showed Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández more or less even, but Petro won by 50.44 to 47.3, with 11.28 million votes, nearly three million more than he got in the first round on 29 May. Hernández, who got 10.57 million votes, over five million more than in the first round, conceded immediately and quietly, from his home in Bucaramanga, Santander. President Iván Duque announced he would begin to work with Petro’s team to handover power on 7 August. Petro invited the Colombian people to celebrate their victory.

On inauguration day twenty years ago, 7 August 2002, less than a year into the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld global war on terror, a group of criminals hired by the Farc guerrillas hit the Colombian Congress with missiles. This played into the counter-insurgent hands of the newly elected president, Álvaro Uribe, who came to power pledging not to negotiate with terrorists but, with the help of the US, to defeat them militarily.

Uribe – who is currently on trial for bribery and witness tampering – has defined the shape of Colombia ever since. After serving two terms as president, Uribe led the opposition to the peace process between his successor and former minister of defence, Juan Manuel Santos, and the Farc until the two parties signed an agreement in November 2016. In 2018, Uribe got Duque, who had been an anonymous functionary in Washington for most of his adult life, elected on a far-right ticket.

Duque has been a lame duck who inspired general strikes and popular uprisings against his programme of austerity, regressive taxation and privatisation. Uribe is the most detested politician in the country. Last night’s election was a dramatic rejection of Uribe and his destructive legacy, especially in Antioquia, the stronghold of uribismo, where Hernández took 1.82 million votes and Petro 942,000.

An unknown number of Uribe’s supporters, who voted for Federico Gutiérrez in the first round, chose to stay home rather than vote for Hernández. Others may have cast blank votes, which came to 500,000 nationwide. Petro, meanwhile, increased his votes in Antioquia by more than 250,000.

Nothing remotely comparable has ever happened before. Perhaps the closest analogy would be the Liberal victory in 1848, which consolidated the bi-partisan system that lasted until 2002. Property and literacy qualifications for voting were abolished, opening the way to mass participation by former slaves. But that revolution was confined to the southwest, and turned out to be a prelude to half a century of Conservative Catholic centralist reaction, against a backdrop of rising coffee exports to the US. Voting restrictions were restored, and Colombia remained massively rural and illiterate through the middle of the twentieth century.

Now Colombia is largely urban, and Petro’s margin of victory in Bogotá alone was enough to account for his victory over Hernández. The country lacked an urban left throughout the Cold War. The escalating war in the countryside between (Leninist) Farc or ELN insurgents and military/paramilitary counter-insurgents left little room for politics in the public squares of Colombia’s cities. Three presidential candidates were murdered by the far right during the 1990 elections. This was when Gustavo Petro and his comrades in the nationalist urban guerrilla group M-19 laid down their arms to come in from the cold and take part in public life. Most of them were subsequently murdered, but Petro survived, and went on to expose Uribe and the paramilitarism of the Colombian senate. He ran for president in 2010 but didn’t get far. Petroleum, gas, coal, gold and cocaine exports accelerated.

He served as mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015 – with a brief hiatus when his mandate was revoked and he was barred from public life, until the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights got him restored – and as an opposition senator in 2018, after winning 42 per cent of the vote in the second round of presidential elections. No previous candidate from the left had reached double digits. Many people, especially younger voters, see Petro as part of the political establishment. He wasn’t a leader in the general strike of late 2019 or the national popular uprising of mid-2021.

His running mate Francia Márquez, however, an Afro-Colombian environmental activist and human rights lawyer who has worked as a domestic servant – and, like Petro, survived credible death threats – did speak for the people seeking to assert their democratic rights and grassroots sovereignty, especially in 2021, when politicians lost contact with what was happening on the ground, as young frontline militants battled police nightly for over two months.

Yesterday, Márquez rallied her base in the streets and barrios of eastern Cali; the largely Black and Indigenous mountains, valleys and Pacific lowlands of Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño; Chocó (overwhelmingly Afro-Colombian); the Amazonian departments of Putumayo and Amazonas; and the Caribbean Coast from Córdoba to La Guajira – all of which Petro took handily. The margins of victory in the densely settled southwest especially made a difference: Valle, Cauca and Nariño add up to well over a million more votes for Petro. Márquez pledged to move the vice-presidency from Bogotá to Medellín, where her campaign headquarters and staunchest feminist supporters – the nascent electoral movement Estamos Listas – are located.

The electoral map is nearly identical to the first round in terms of the departments Petro carried, and they overlap closely with those Juan Manuel Santos won in 2014. Yesterday’s result represents the persistence and tenacity of movements dedicated to ending Colombia’s multiple wars and implementing a new agenda for the country.

Petro’s invitation to everyone to celebrate his victory isn’t garden-variety demagoguery: it’s a recognition of, and expression of gratitude for, the way he came to power in the first place. It’s also a pledge to keep the priorities of his base front and centre as he struggles with a hostile and obstructive oligarchy, Congress, police and armed forces (not to mention the US).

Should Petro and Márquez succeed in shifting government priorities towards meeting the needs and demands of those who fought Duque in the streets in 2019 and 2021 – for justice, peace and a new, more democratic and ecologically sustainable politico-economic centre of gravity – there will be more celebrations to come. In any case, the road leads straight uphill, as always. But Petro and Márquez are used to it. As are the more than eleven million Colombians who voted for them.