The rift is fed by the conflicting visions for the country between former president Álvaro Uribe and his successor, Juan Manuel Santos.
The right-wing candidate is Iván Duque, whose only experience is as a one-term senator. He has been endorsed by Uribe, the most popular leader Colombia has had in decades. His support has been his biggest asset but also his biggest weakness. Duque’s youth and relative lack of experience make him a target, with rivals pushing the perception that Uribe will be the one holding the real power to reverse Santos’s peace accord.
The other candidate is Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla member and previously the mayor of Bogota. Many see him as a threat to the political status quo. Despite the fact that he had been considered a toxic candidate by the political elites, he has been rising in the polls and filling streets and city squares like no other candidate without a political machinery.
Petro brings hope to the young and those historically marginalized, promising free education for all, elimination of extraction industries and a significant reduction of the rampant inequality the country faces. He supports the peace deal and is popular even in some regions traditionally known as home to “Uribistas.” But many fear that his triumph will mean the beginning of a populist era, and his reputation as an inefficient manager makes foreign investment and national business leaders question the future stability of the country.
Colombia is still struggling to overcome decades of violence and hate. The arrival of a new government should bring optimism and hope for the years to come. But the two front-runners represent a more divided future for the country. If opinion polls are right, the second round will be Duque against Petro. Whoever wins will face a ferocious opposition, making it very difficult to have a functioning government.
During the referendum campaign in 2016 that sought citizen approval of the peace deal, fights during family dinners became the norm. That polarization persists. One glance at social media shows the downgraded tone of our current political atmosphere. Every campaign seems to have its own troll farm with the sole purpose of discrediting people with opposite views.
We need to elect a unifying leader. Let’s hope the polls are wrong. Colombia electoral law calls for a second round if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote this Sunday. If a more centrist candidate manages to pass to the second round, the country could rally around a healing and constructive political project.
The middle options are Humberto de la Calle, Germán Vargas Lleras and Sergio Fajardo.
De la Calle is the most experienced but has also been burnt by being the chief negotiator of the peace agreement. Vargas Lleras was Santos’s vice president, but he is seen as playing traditional politics supported by a well-oiled machinery. Fajardo, the former mayor of Medellin and governor of Antioquia, seems to have successfully claimed the centrist mantle in public opinion. The problem: He can come across as bland.
With Fajardo polling in third place with around 16 percent of the electorate, and the other two with support in the single digits, the chances of choosing a unifying candidate seem unlikely. We could be condemned to be divided for years to come.