A TIME FOR UNITY

Colombia 2018 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW

The challenges for new president Iván Duque are immense, including the need to unite a nation in lasting peace and tackling the persistent social inequality applying the brakes to national progress.

Colombia has emerged from half a century of armed conflict and abuse at the hands of organized crime to become the third-largest Latin American economy. And today it continues the march toward greater social equality and inclusion, so grimly disrupted down the years. Its latest election, bearing the same hallmark of change, has prompted as many questions as the new president has promised answers. Indeed, like Colombia's very independence from Spain, celebrated annually on July 20, change comes neither easily, nor without challenge. Neither is it lost on political observers that national hero Bolívar, a rightist, like incoming president Iván Duque, championed strong-handed government.

Eye-catching elections

Observers have long noted a new climate of conservatism in the continent's political landscape; one clearly evinced by Colombia's latest presidential election. Former president Santos, who in 2005 had co-founded the Social Party of National Unity (Partido Social de Unidad Nacional), was unable under the constitution to run for a further term. And having led the field in May's first round of Colombia's first post-peace accord presidential elections on 39.1%, Duque went on to face former left-wing guerrilla Gustavo Petro, who trailed him on 25.1%, in the second. With virtually 100% of votes counted he had won that round with a solid 54%, his 10 million votes marking a historic high for the second round of any election. His sole opponent, Petro, had garnered 41.8%. We note a number of additional firsts at these elections; Duque will assume office in August as Colombia's youngest president in over a century, at 42. Additionally, his election running mate Martha Lucía Ramírez, becomes the nation's first female vice president.

The Pedigree...

In addition to 10 years as a lawyer in the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington under his belt, Duque has also worked in the commercial arena. He has a familial connection to politics, being the son of a former governor and energy minister. His own political career stretches to a modest four years as a senator, but its weight comes from him being championed by former president Álvaro Uribe, Colombia's figurehead of the political right. Duque had once been his international advisor, as well as an advisor to the Ministry of Finance. Few were surprised by his June victory at the polls. Uribe retains much respect among the electorate, and over the one-year run-up to the elections polls had indicated that one in five would vote for whichever presidential candidate he favored. Uribe will now head the Democratic Center party in parliament, which should spell a working majority, and calm policy sailing for Duque.

And the Politics...

Law and order is clearly a meat-and-potatoes issue for Colombia, but Duque will now need to address social inequality, characterized for one by stubbornly low participation in the formal economy among the poor, itself a missed growth opportunity for the nation of roughly 50 million. Therefore, Duque's pledge to target tax evasion presents somewhat of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Meanwhile, he is sympathetic to big businesses, favoring tax cuts to enliven investment, not least in key export industries of oil and coal. The foreign investor is also promised a navigable commercial and legal environment, and economic stability; his target is a return to annual GDP growth of 4.5% from the sluggish average of 1.9% since 2016. Indeed, growth is forecast to improve to 3% this year, fueled by increased productivity and infrastructure investment, in turn facilitated by accommodative fiscal policy and better oil prices, among other factors.

International Concerns Demand Global Reach

Duque inherits a nation recently welcomed into a wider diplomatic family, as Colombia this year became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It has also formally become the sole Latin American nation to sign a partnership agreement with the 29-nation NATO alliance. The Andean nation now ranks alongside partners ranging from Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, and Japan, to the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, and Pakistan. Colombia is reportedly keen to leverage its NATO partnership in tackling cyber-crime, as well as more workaday challenges like maritime security, terrorism, and organized crime.

Whither the Peace Accord?

Strutting the law and order platform, Duque has faulted outgoing President Santos' historic 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); one that had earned Santos the Nobel Prize for Peace, labeling it a “monument to impunity.” In fact, the hard-won peace deal was by no means assured of being struck. Readers may recall that back in October 2016, opposing conservatives managed to convince Colombians to reject the deal at a referendum. Fortunately, some months later a version perceived as more palatable was passed. Duque has called for further fine-tuning to consider the many silent victims, and to prevent former FARC members from becoming senators. Notably, the deal in place allows for FARC to transform into a legitimate political force, and noise may arise should this be challenged.

Ploughs from Guns

The divisive election trail has led many to interpret it as effectively a referendum on the peace process itself. Unquestionably, whatever the election rhetoric, the post-conflict era must be considered hand in glove with the root cause of conflict of inequality, in particular rural, that had fueled it. Duque has pledged to tackle this and now has a golden opportunity to display commitment to long-term peace and national unity. For one, his strong stance on coca production must take into account both the criminal element that has cultivated this cash crop, but also the impoverished peasant who opted to do so as an alternative to low earning legitimate produce. In short, the peace deal must be able to withstand any pressure towards resurgence.

Does History Repeat Itself?

A brief return to Colombia's history reveals that it has been characterized by the struggle between the egalitarian sensitivity of liberals and the more uncompromising stance of conservatives. This struggle was most visible in civil war, the so-called War of a Thousand Days. A hard line was taken against the rebels of that event, which cost upward of 130,000 lives. Between 1958 and 2013 five decades of conflict with FARC saw the death of 220,000 Colombians, 177,307 of whom were civilians. Time will now tell whether the peace accord will be cemented in a workable mold or subjected to the death of a thousand amendments.
With a fresh slate, so to speak, the new president will be called upon to address the nation's below par inequality indicators on one hand, while curbing labor market informality on the other, in order to spread the benefit of economic growth. The solution, simple in the saying, but less so in implementation, must cement an economic alternative to economic exclusion in rural Colombia, ultimately liberating it from the grinding inevitability of coca.