Stakes High for Colombia’s Presidential Novice

Iván Duque must stimulate Colombia’s economy and hold together a fragile peace the FARC at the same time.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos greets his successor, Iván Duque, in Bogotá, June 21
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos greets his successor, Iván Duque, in Bogotá, June 21 (Facebook)

Last month, 41-year old Iván Duque was elected as Colombia’s youngest president ever with the largest vote in the country’s history.

Turnout, at 53 percent, was the highest since 1998. The elections came on the heels of an historic peace deal with the far-left Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending half a century of conflict.

A country divided

The country remains split. The peace deal, negotiated by Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, was narrowly rejected in a referendum and only ratified with congressional approval following revisions.

Duque, a political newcomer, represents the right-wing Democratic Center party founded by former president Álvaro Uribe in 2013. Uribe, who preceded Santos in office, was the biggest opponent of the peace deal and remains the most popular politician in the country. His endorsement gave Duque the top job.

Presidential politics in Colombia were long dominated by the Liberal and Conservative Parties. That has changed. Peace with the FARC and a pushback against corruption have opened new fault lines.

Two outsiders

Duque’s rival was not only a supporter of the peace deal, he is also a leftist. Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogota and former member of M-19 — once a guerrilla group, now a political movement — won eight million votes against Duque’s ten million. Unprecedented for a left-wing candidate, this would have been enough to win the 2014 election.

Both candidates were able to distance themselves from mistrusted political elites, but it was Duque who appealed more successfully to the center. Petro’s sympathies for the socialist government in Venezuela, whose economic mismanagement has brought more than one million refugees to Colombia in the last fifteen months, made him an unviable option for many supporters of the peace agreement.

Economy

Duque focused his campaign not on the peace deal, but on the economy.

Santos, although well regarded internationally, was blamed at home for neglecting growth in favor of a lasting peace.

Duque has vowed to cut corporation tax to attract more foreign investment. However, social spending commitments made in the deal with the FARC and a relatively small tax base mean there is little room for maneuver.

He will also have to balance plans to invest in large infrastructure projects, such as offshore oil extraction, with a growing environmental opposition.

Peace deal

Duque did call for a revision of the peace deal. He wants tougher punishments for the FARC’s drug trafficking and illegal mining activities.

There is little he can do, though. Many of the deal’s provisions have already passed through Congress. Other elements, such as land reform, are stalled. But the peace is meant to last for at least three presidential terms.

The demobilization of the FARC has left large swathes of the country unoccupied. This vacuum has resulted in increased cocaine production, now at an all-time high. What Duque can, and likely will, change is the drug policy of crop substitution as prescribed by Santos to a more hardline crop eradication program favored by the United States.

Stop-start talks with Colombia’s remaining guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), will likely be discarded.

Stimulating the economy, cracking down on corruption and holding a fragile peace deal together will not come easily. Should Duque fail, Petro will be waiting in the wings, but a great opportunity to take the country in a new direction will also have been lost.