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Colombia’s Battle of Populisms

Neither candidate in the presidential runoff in June wants to talk about hard choices. Everything will be fixed with a large dose of fiscal populism or, alternatively, by a successful businessman’s magic touch.

BOGOTÁ – Colombians will have to wait a little longer to elect a new president. With none of the candidates receiving more than 50% of the vote in the first round, a runoff will be held on June 19 between two anti-system candidates, Gustavo Petro, who won 40.3% of the first-round vote, and Rodolfo Hernández, who won 28.2%. Federico Gutiérrez, supported by the right-wing parties that have governed Colombia during the last four years, who was expected to make it to the runoff, finished third with 23.9%. After conceding defeat, he endorsed Hernández.

This is an unusual outcome for Colombia. Neither Petro nor Hernández is supported by the traditional parties that have ruled the country for over two centuries. Both are running on platforms that emphasize change, capturing the enormous discontent that brought people into the streets first in 2019 and then a year ago, in one of Colombia’s most violent protests on record. There are some similarities with the recent presidential election in Chile, which was also a clash of populisms. If the outcome there serves as a guide, the winner will be the candidate able to capture more moderate votes.

The overwhelming support for anti-system candidates is partly the result of the pandemic: The poverty rate rose to 39.3% in 2021, compared to 35.7% in 2019, and the decrease in inequality of the last decade was reversed. Some estimates indicate that students lost an entire year of schooling. In April, inflation climbed to 9.2% and the unemployment rate was above 11%. Ordinary Colombians are dissatisfied, and support for the government stands at just 27%.