For many Colombians this will be the first time they've had more than one viable choice in an election – and that might just trigger a run-off next month.

Today, Colombians will head to the polls to vote for a new president. But while the international press coverage of the country in the past two years has largely focused on the peace deal between the Colombian government and the left-wing FARC guerrilla in 2016, the presidential campaign has mostly veered away from the topic.

Instead, candidates have been trying to upsell their own brand of change as the best way forward for Colombia. But with the possibility of a run-off looming largely over the horizon, it seems like the peace vote that bitterly divided the country two years ago will again take centre stage if the country has to head to the polls for a second time in June.

The contenders

Currently, different electoral polls return different results for the frontrunners, but they all agree on one thing: Ivan Duque, the candidate annointed by former president  and the main peace deal critic – and Alvaro Uribe to represent his right-wing Centro Democratico political movement, will obtain the largest share of the vote this Sunday. However, to be elected in the first round of voting in Colombia, a candidate must obtain at least 50 percent of the total vote, plus one vote. In the polls released last week, Duque ranges from 35 to 41 percent of intended votes, so a run-off looks likely.

In the runoff, the two candidates with the most votes will face off, but while Duque’s presence there seems to be a given, who would join him is still unclear.

All of last week’s polls have leftist former mayor of Bogota Gustavo Petro – who is running as the head of his Decentes political movement – in second place, ranging from 24 to 32 percent of intended votes. Somewhat behind is the centrist former mayor of Medellin and former Governor of Antioquia – running with Coalicion Colombia, a coalition between the centrist Partido Verde and the leftist Polo Democratico party – Sergio Fajardo (with polls putting him in the 14 to 18 percent range).

Also in with a chance is centre-right former senator, minister and vice president German Vargas Lleras (who polls between six and 16 percent). Vargas Lleras is officially running with a political movement called Mejor Con Vargas Lleras, but in reality he has the support of his controversial centre-right party Cambio Radical, which has featured many politicians imprisoned for corruption and even murder.

The Liberal Party candidate, Humberto de la Calle, who was the government’s chief negotiator with FARC, barely registers in polls, with something between two and four percent. FARC candidate Rodrigo Londoño (formerly known as commander “Timochenko”), meanwhile, retired from the race in March because of health issues. So it is clear that the protagonists of the peace negotiations will not be a factor in this first round of voting.

While both Fajardo and Vargas Lleras might seem far from second place, pollsters have been wrong before, most notably during the peace vote in November, 2016, when they predicted a resounding victory to the approval of the peace deal. However, the deal was rejected by barely 54,000 votes instead.

Changing course

Most analysts in the country expect some campaigns to benefit from their maquinaria, a Colombian colloquialism referring to the country-wide networks of local political barons who work tirelessly to get votes for a certain candidate – oftentimes engaging in illegal practices like buying votes, or forcing public officials to vote a certain way to keep their jobs – in exchange of public contracts or appointments to high-ranking jobs if their candidate wins.

Most likely, Vargas Lleras will be the candidate who will benefit the most from his maquinaria. And though maquinarias are a common sight in Colombian elections, there is something new this time around.

For the first time in many Colombians’ lives, more than two candidates seem to have a fighting chance. These are atypical elections, because they are the first to happen after having only two presidents in 16 years, and most likely the last we will have under these circumstances. 

After eight years each for Alvaro Uribe and his successor Juan Manuel Santos, voters seem desperate for a change. Santos’ approval rate is at 21 percent, a president so unpopular that candidates barely dare to mention his name in a positive light. Instead, all candidates are running on promoting their own kind of change.

Duque promises to switch back to the conservative and warring policies that made Uribe the most popular president in modern Colombian history (but also made him a controversial figure with various human rights scandals during his two terms).

Petro promises to completely flip the Colombian establishment on its head and implement on a national level the leftist progressive economic and social policies that made him both a popular and a controversial mayor of Bogota.

Fajardo promises to move past a “polarised,” corrupt country and to create a centrist coalition to change the mindset of many in the country who use politics to benefit personally, and not for the greater good.

Finally, Vargas Lleras promises to transform the country with infrastructure – which, as he often reminds voters, he already advanced both as the minister of housing and Santos’ vice president – and to bring a stop to corrupt political practices.

Of this field, Duque is the only candidate who has promised to dramatically alter the peace deal. Whoever faces him in the run-off will most likely receive the support of those voters who did not vote for Duque because they want to maintain the peace deal, or at least because they don’t want a return of Uribe’s policies.

But forming a coalition will not be easy.

Petro has a very high negative image, for example. Duque has been campaigning on the alleged perils of leftist policies, using as a point of reference the humanitarian crisis currently happening in neighboring Venezuela. Although Petro has maintained that his policies would be different from those enacted by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, many billboards and TV ads warning voters not to “turn Colombia into a new Venezuela” might have done the trick in many people’s heads to discredit Petro.

Who reaches the run-off will also have a further impact. The political reform that abolished presidential re-election also introduced a new rule for presidential elections: the candidate that loses the runoff will get a seat in the Senate. His vice presidential candidate will have a seat in the House of Representatives.

The run-off will be held in June 17, right in the middle of the World Cup, and two days before the debut of the Colombian national team, when many Colombians will be exhausted with political campaigns and more focused on football. So candidates are trying the best to make the most impact in the days still leading to the first round of voting.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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