Gustavo Petro, a former guerilla, who fought against the Colombian government in the past, will now lead the South American country.
Colombia has never had a left-wing president in its history, but Gustavo Petro emerged as the winner of Sunday’s presidential election.
Petro, who espouses democratic socialism, will now lead the South American nation, which has survived deadly armed rebellions and corrupt governments for decades.
What makes Petro's election to the top post so striking is his past: he was a guerrilla fighter associated with the M-19 armed group. Now an obscure group with little following after its demobilisation in the early 1990s, the M-19 supported a left-wing nationalist ideology and fought against the Colombian government.
Sunday's election presented a stark choice for Colombia, an ally of the US, which has long suffered from corrupt politicians, increasing inequality, drug cartels and armed rebellion. Petro, an anti-establishment figure, defeated his right-wing rival, Rodolfo Hernandez, who is one of the country’s richest men, by a small margin of 700,000 votes.
“It is the first time that Colombia has had a left-wing president and he will have a very strong opposition from the privileged, but it is likely that he will achieve majorities in Congress with which he will be able to advance the reforms of his government plan,” says Luz Piedad Caicedo, deputy director of Corporacion Humanas, a Colombian human rights group.
“There is a significant number of senators from his movement, Historic Pact for Colombia,” which can help him to implement some of his promises regarding his ambitious welfare program, Caicedo tells TRT World. Historic Pact for Colombia is a large left-wing platform including various groups ranging from centre-left to far-left.
Petro’s running mate, Francia Marquez, is an activist, who will also be the country’s first black woman vice-president. Petro called his election win "victory for God and for the people".
A fierce critic of neo-liberalism
Despite his guerrilla background, Petro is not one of those leftist firebrands who aim to dismantle the entire political establishment and build a new one from scratch. Petro hasn't made any radical policy changes yet, although he has made a strong pledge to improve the living conditions of the country’s poor and fight neo-liberal policies of the Western capitalist system.
He wants to raise taxes on the richest Colombians, who have been closely linked with both the country’s political establishment and the West’s neo-liberal policies, which Petro believes will “destroy” his country.
“His movement is not attached to world social democracy, but it could be described as such democratic socialism,” says Caicedo.
Petro promised to establish the ministry of equality during the presidential campaign by showing his commitment to improving the country's widespread poverty problem. Poverty levels have reached nearly 40 percent, making Colombia one of the poorest Latin American countries.
While Colombian voters have long been tired of both pro-government right-wing paramilitary movements and anti-government left-wing armed groups, which have fought against Bogota for decades, the country’s worsening economic conditions have made many citizens sympatised with Petro’s anti-poverty message.
Petro is also a defender of normalising relations with Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro government with which relations were frozen under the Ivan Duque presidency.
From M-19 to politics
At the age of 17, the 62-year-old President-elect Petro joined the M-19 group, which was the second biggest armed organisation after the FARC. Petro, a son of Colombian farmers of Italian descent, was also arrested in 1985 on charges of possessing illegal arms.
But in the early 1990s, Petro moved into legal politics after his M-19 armed group was largely demobilised, being one of the leading figures of the M-19 Democratic Alliance, a legal party participating in Colombian elections.
Petro has slowly risen in Colombia's turbulent political arena, where armed groups like Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a communist group, have fought the central government. The war between the FARC and the Colombian state lasted more than five decades, killing 260,000 people and leaving millions of civilians displaced.
In 2002, he reached a crucial milestone in his political career, being elected as a parliamentarian representing the country’s capital, signalling his popularity in Bogota’s working-class neighbourhoods. During his parliamentarian tenure, he showed a commitment to fight corruption and his opposition to paramilitary groups.
His hard-working attitude aligned with the interests of the country’s working class led his colleagues and Colombian media to name him the Best Congressman. In 2006, backed by both allied leftist platforms like Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), a left-wing coalition co-formed by Petro, and the poverty-ridden voters, he became a senator, rallying one of the country’s highest voter turnouts.
During his senator term, Petro was also very active, strongly challenging then-president Alvaro Uribe’s political conduct. Petro and his colleagues like PDA’s Clara Lopez Obregon were anti-corruption fighters in the Congress, being instrumental in revealing the country’s infamous Parapolitics scandal with which the Uribe administration officials had alleged ties.
The Parapolitics scandal refers to a secret contract between several Congressmen and paramilitary groups, which are accused of being responsible for thousands of Colombian civilian deaths. The contract aimed to “re-founding the country” in accordance with the desires of its signatories. Several Congressmen have been indicted for their involvement with paramilitary groups.
During his time in the Senate, Petro’s verbal debates with Uribe and his opposition to the president’s alleged ties with paramilitary groups made him a national figure. Petro is a strong defender of the country’s peace process with the FARC. “With him it will be possible to fully implement the peace agreement,” says Caicedo, referring to the 2016 deal between Bogota and the FARC.
Path to the presidency
In 2010, he competed in the presidential elections as the PDA candidate, coming fourth in the race. In 2012, Petro was elected to the mayoralty of Bogota, a training ground for politicians seeking the top post of the country. During his term, he was credited to reduce the city’s homicide rate by administering measures like the prohibition of carrying guns.
But his management style frustrated some, according to Caicedo. “He is a stubborn person and when he was mayor of Bogotá, people close to him resigned due to difficulties with his style. It seems that Petro today is more capable of listening and putting together teams,” says Caicedo.
After the failed bids of 2014 and 2018 elections, in which Petro was a presidential candidate, on Sunday he finally succeeded in being the country’s next president.
Petro promises to make a large agrarian reform in which he wants to increase taxes on landowners with low productivity levels. He also wants to change the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, switching to renewable energy resources. But his plan to end all new oil exploration efforts has been heavily criticised on the grounds that oil revenues are one of the country’s main incomes.