After a hopeful start in 2022, Gustavo Petro’s leftist Colombian government has run into major obstacles from economic elites. But the powerful mobilizations that brought him to power, paired with parliamentary negotiating, may be able to turn that around.

President Gustavo Petro casts his vote during the Colombian regional elections in Bogotá, October 29, 2023. (Chepa Beltran / Long Visual Press / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“If the people are mobilized, this government will not be overthrown. The reforms will go ahead. The strategy is to mobilize, we want people to organize themselves.” This was Gustavo Petro’s explicit vow to the crowd gathered in Bogotá’s Plaza Bolívar on September 27.

The promise, made by the first left-wing government in Colombian history, sounded convincing. But the result of Colombia’s October 29 regional and local elections, which saw traditional parties score victories in the largest cities and most regional governments, has weakened Petro’s already under-fire government and hamstrung his ability to deliver progressive measures.

The executive, led by Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez, enjoyed notable achievements during their first year in office: peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, progressive tax reform, strong environmental policies. But recent polls show a drop in popular support for the president, and his key reforms have been blocked in a hostile parliament.

The initial difficulties aren’t entirely surprising: Petro was elected by a tight margin over the right-wing populist Rodolfo Hernández in June 2022, and even though it has the biggest parliamentary group, his Historic Pact ruling coalition lacks a majority in Parliament. Still, following Petro’s unprecedented victory, most centrist and conservative parties lent their support to the new government. That support greased the wheels for a National Development Plan and a tax reform that was key to financing the Historic Pact’s social agenda.

But the postelectoral honeymoon has not lasted long. Following months of rising tensions, Petro’s relationship with his liberal allies was jeopardized when they opposed his attempt to transform the health care system. That opposition led Petro to dismiss several centrist ministers — what amounted to a leftward turn in his cabinet that provoked the hostility of centrist MPs in Parliament. A series of scandals in Petro’s retinue — his son was charged for illegally financing his father’s campaign; the president’s former head of cabinet was accused of ordering unlawful wiretaps on a maid — triggered a drop in the president’s popularity.

The results of the October 29 regional and local elections have piled further misery onto the left-wing government. The Left won just nine of the thirty-two regional governments and none of the major cities. In Bogotá, former Historic Pact senator Gustavo Bolívar, popular among the youth who led the 2019 and 2021 anti-neoliberal protests, came in third, while center-right candidate Carlos Fernando Galán was elected mayor with a record 49 percent of the vote. In Medellín, the country’s second-largest city, former right-wing presidential candidate Federico Gutiérrez “Fico” achieved an even greater landslide, with 73 percent of the popular vote.

In Colombia, municipal and regional elections tend to reflect local rather than national dynamics. However, as Sandra Borda, a political scientist Universidad de los Andes, explained in an interview, the result will be interpreted as a stinging defeat for the ruling left government. Indeed, both opposition parties and the mainstream media rushed to claim that the Left’s electoral defeats marked a turning point in Petro’s presidency, and pressured the government to water down its reforms. It is still an open question whether the arrival of traditional politicians to regional and local governments will further undercut Petro’s ability to advance his program.

Confronted with this difficult position, Petro has turned to popular mobilization, the same force that led the Left to power in the first place, while simultaneously negotiating in Parliament. According to Alejandro Mantilla, a political scientist at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL), “the force of the 2019 and 2021 estallido social” was one of the key reasons for Petro’s victory.

The relations between the government and the country’s main social movements are still robust, according to Mantilla. More than fifty social organizations joined the government in calling for a “Carnival for Life” to be held on September 27. The series of marches that filled the streets of Colombia’s main cities were heavily criticized by the opposition and mainstream media, with some claiming the mobilization was partially funded by the state.

During the march, Bogotá received thousands of indigenous people from across the country, including numerous members of the unarmed Indigenous Guards, which protect their ancestral territories from the violence of illegal armed groups, particularly in the Pacific region. Senator Alberto Benavides, of the left-wing Democratic Pole party, expressed his hope that the marches “help to make the Congress approve the social reforms proposed by the government.”

Borda, however, believes that the marches have not been effective, particularly since traditional parties have no incentive to listen to the protests. Even if, as Mantilla notes, “there is a strong core of the indigenous and peasant movements backing the government,” the student movement was scarcely visible in Plaza Bolívar. This absence was especially troubling, Borda says, considering students were the leading force of the 2019 and 2021 anti-neoliberal protests and one of the major electoral supports of the Historical Pact.

Ending the nation’s armed conflict and enacting land redistribution are the two main areas where the government’s success will be measured. Colombia is the second most unequal country in Latin America, with the highest degree of land tenancy. The country has also suffered the longest armed conflict in the region — an issue closely related to long-standing inequality. After two hundred years of center and right-wing governments, Petro and Márquez are attempting to show that Colombia is capable of changing course.

Their main opposition is a Colombian economic establishment accustomed to pocketing favors from political elites like Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010) and his heir, Iván Duque (2018–2022). This oligarchic cohort’s preferred political vehicle gained traction in the last election, and the mass media has seized on recent scandals to damage Petro’s reputation.

Will popular mobilization and parliamentary dealmaking be enough to deliver on part of Petro’s ambitious electoral platform? If so, it would show that Colombia is not condemned to repeat the conservative and neoliberal policies that have plagued the country for most of its recent history.

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