Colombia’s upcoming presidential election is history in the making as former mayor of Bogota Gustavo Petro, the first leftist to be a serious contender for the country’s presidency since 1948, faces off against conservative former Senator Iván Duque. In a country where 40 percent of total earnings go to the top 10 percent of households, Petro’s platform tackling inequality and corruption has drawn hundreds of thousands of Colombians to his campaign.
Petro’s popular message earned him 25 percent of the vote in the first runoff on May 27th, while frontrunner Duque secured a lead with almost 40 percent of the vote. A second runoff between Duque and Petro is set to occur on June 17th since none of the five candidates in the first round were able to secure more than 50 percent of the vote.
Petro’s campaign is centered on building a government fit for an era of peace through leftist social and economic policy. Petro maintains that healthcare is a right and calls for free public college for all. These ideas are examples of his divergence from the Colombian mainstream, especially when coupled with his proposal to increase government spending on public services.
Inequality is “the core generator of problems in Colombia,” Petro told Reuters in April. His proposed economic reforms tackle the economic divide head on through diversification of exports, a shift to renewable energy and a land redistribution program. Petro argues that these proposals are “fundamental reforms — reforms that have to do with education, health care, with how the Colombian people can access the conditions that would allow them to build wealth through land, water, and clean energy.”
Petro’s progressive tax plan takes quite a different direction from Duque’s pro-business, free market ideas. Duque has proposed cutting corporate taxes from the current rate of 37 percent to under 30 percent and cracking down on tax evasion. Petro, on the other hand, calls for closing tax loopholes that allow exemptions for large investors and raising duties on foreign profits and corporate dividends.
The candidates also have opposing views on how to handle the VAT, a value added tax on most commercial goods in Colombia, which was hiked up from 16 percent to 19 percent last year. The VAT affects the poor the most, as it is added to everyday products like groceries. While Petro supports returning the tax to 16 percent, Duque has proposed keeping it at 19 percent and having a six-day tax holiday without the VAT.
Beyond his tax measures, improving the quality of life of the rural poor is a central goal of Petro’s platform. More than 50 percent of Colombians in rural areas are living in poverty due, in part, to the unequal ownership of land. Petro says he aims to “democratize” the land, which is mostly held by elites in large estates, in order to boost agricultural production. He has proposed a rural property tax on large, unproductive estates to encourage owners to sell the land to the government, who will then pass it on to peasant farmers. The funds collected from this tax would be invested right back into the rural economy to provide public goods and develop social programs.
The land reforms are also part of Petro’s plan to convert Colombia’s economy from an extractive to a productive one. Petro has long been vocal about his concerns regarding Colombia’s dependency on oil and coal, which make up more than half the country’s exports. His platform calls for a diversification of exports through investment in agriculture and a shift to a green, sustainable economy. One of his major proposals to jumpstart this shift is moving Ecopetrol, the state-run energy company, towards renewable energy. He has also called for a carbon tax to reduce emissions and an end to fracking and deforestation in the country.
Petro’s opponents have questioned the efficacy of these reforms and raise concerns about where the funding for these programs will come from. This criticism doesn’t appear to be sticking as Petro’s poll numbers have increased by more than 15 points in the last few weeks, putting him only 5.5 percentage points behind Duque.
Petro’s unlikely candidacy has been nothing short of controversial given his past as a member of the M-19 rebel group during his youth. Colombia’s long history of guerrilla violence has come to a turning point in recent years, especially since the government secured a peace treaty in 2016 with the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, the leftist rebel group better known as FARC.
Win or lose, Petro has undeniably garnered public support for leftist policies that have long been unpalatable to the Colombian electorate. His popularity proves that, perhaps, Colombia is ready for a new leftist movement after all.