Ivan Duque beats former guerrilla to win Colombia's presidential election

Gustavo Petro, right, Colombia Humana presidential candidate, shakes hands with supporters during a campaign rally in Bogotá, Colombia, on Friday, June 8, 2018. Petro will face Ivan Duque, presidential candidate for the Democratic Center, in a runoff election on Sunday, June 17.
Gustavo Petro, right, Colombia Humana presidential candidate, shakes hands with supporters during a campaign rally in Bogotá, Colombia, on Friday, June 8, 2018. Petro will face Ivan Duque, presidential candidate for the Democratic Center, in a runoff election on Sunday, June 17. AP

Ivan Duque, a 41-year-old political newcomer, won Colombia’s presidency Sunday promising to revitalize the country’s economy, overhaul a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and bring together a polarized nation.

A U.S.-educated lawyer, Duque worked at the International Development Bank in Washington, D.C., before becoming a senator in 2014. A virtual unknown just a few years ago, he rose to prominence thanks to the support of former President Alvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático political party.

Electoral authorities said Duque beat Gustavo Petro, the leftist former mayor Bogotá, by more than 2 million votes.

On the campaign trail, critics accused Duque of being Uribe’s “puppet” and wanting to destroy the fragile peace deal with FARC. Now, as president, he’ll have to assuage those fears and convince critics that Uribe — who is both popular and polarizing — will not have undue influence in the new administration.

During his acceptance speech, Duque said the vote represents a changing of the guard and the end to the nation's deep divisions.

"A new generation has come to govern with and for everyone," he told a cheering crowd. "I am going to give all of my energy to uniting this country…let’s believe in a country for everyone.”

With all ballots counted, Duque won 54 percent of the vote versus Petro's 42 percent, the government said.

Historic vote

Even before the results came in, Sunday’s election was a historic one. It marked the first time in more than half a century that voters in Colombia have chosen a president without the threat of the FARC — once the hemisphere’s largest and bloodiest guerrilla group — hanging over their heads.

The vote makes Duque the country's youngest president in modern history and his running mate, Marta Lucía Ramirez, the nation's first female vice president.

Despite some scattered problems, the government said Sunday's vote had been one of the safest and most transparent on record.

After casting his vote Sunday, current President Juan Manuel Santos — who has been in office since 2010 and was ineligible to run again — noted that both Duque and Petro have been vehement critics of his administration. That the opposition candidates, both from opposite ends of the political spectrum, were able to run without government interference was a testament to Colombia's democracy, he said.

“Colombia’s democracy is working and Colombia’s democracy is growing stronger every day,” he said.

Petro, 58, acknowledged his defeat Sunday, and said he would use his political capital to oppose any attempts by Duque to weaken the peace deal with the FARC, subvert the courts or pursue petroleum and mining policies that damage the environment.

Speaking to supporters, Petro called on his 8 million voters to defend their ideals and “not allow Colombia to move backward toward war…We are not going to allow the return of violence.”

Petro's solid turnout, including winning the capital, Bogotá, positions him to be a thorn in the side of the Duque administration.

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The new president will have to tackle some complex issues, while trying to unite a deeply polarized country. In particular, Duque will have to work to save and reinforce the FARC peace deal.

While the 2016 pact won Santos a Nobel Prize, and has helped bring down the number of homicides in Colombia, it’s far from perfect.

Duque and his mentor, Uribe, had campaigned against the peace pact — narrowly defeating it during a national referendum. By their account, the deal let FARC commanders avoid true justice by allowing them to participate in politics even before they’d served reduced sentences for their crimes. And while Duque says he won’t tear up the peace deal, he is a proponent of making deep changes.

“We want peace with justice,” Duque said on the campaign trail. “Victims who see that their victimizers have immunity are re-victimized. We need justice that is proportional.”

After his win on Sunday, he also reassured the nation that he's committed to guaranteeing peace.

“We’re not going to shred the peace deal," he said during his acceptance speech, "but we will make sure that there is peace for all Colombians.”

Tinkering with the deal could represent a political minefield. Not only might it test the willingness of some former guerillas to continue betting on peace, but it could put Duque at odds with the international community that has rallied around the pact.

Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla who went on to become a crusading senator and the capital’s mayor, had been a posterchild for reconciliation. He argued that the government needed to do more to live up to its end of the bargain, including move ahead with plans to provide financing and support to former guerrillas and the larger rural community. And — most critically, he said — the government needed to take measures to stop the ongoing murder of former combatants and rural social leaders.

On Sunday, former FARC commander Rodrigo “Tomochenko” Londoño, congratulated Duque on his win, and said that the smooth, violence-free election was a sign that “peace process is bearing fruit.”

Coca trade

Another test for the new president will be the nation’s ongoing war on drugs. Although the United States has poured billions of dollars into fighting Colombia’s coca crops — the raw ingredient of cocaine — the problem is as bad as ever.

The country has a record-breaking 695 square miles of its territory dedicated to coca production, the government announced this week. While Santos was hoping the peace deal with the FARC would also help contain the drug trade, it hasn't.

And the Trump administration has threatened to cut off drug aid if the country doesn’t start showing progress.

Duque is an advocate for a more traditional, militarized, approach. On the eve of the election, he reiterated that he will resume aerial spraying of coca crops and believes eradication should be mandatory, not voluntary, as laid out in the peace deal with the FARC.

Venezuela troubles

The new president will also have to deal with an unprecedented influx of Venezuelans, who have poured across the border escaping that nation’s economic, political and social troubles.

Colombia estimates that more than 800,000 Venezuelans have entered the country in the last 15 months, straining the healthcare and education systems. Colombia’s Venezuelan exiles actively campaigned against Petro — who they found too reminiscent of the socialist administration in Caracas.

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Duque also won points with the diaspora by being more adamant about the need to isolate Venezuela, and he’s more likely to follow Washington’s calls to crank up sanctions.

While peace, drugs and Venezuela may be priorities for Washington, polls show that they’re not the primary concerns for most Colombians. The issues of corruption, unemployment, healthcare, crime, and education topped lists of voter concerns.

Alvaro Enrique Muñoz, a 61-year-old retired civil engineer, said Santos had neglected the country’s needs as he focused on reaching the peace deal. And he said it seemed like a wasted effort because a faction of the former guerrillas are still running amok in the countryside and coca crops are booming.

“The peace process was a failure,” he said. “The whole deal was a lie.”

The disconnect between domestic and international priorities could make the coming years difficult, wrote Cynthia Arnson and Jamie Shenk with the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., think-tank.

“Domestically, he will have to navigate the disconnect between the central priority of U.S. policy — stemming illegal narcotics production and trafficking — and the issues for which he will be accountable in the eyes of the public,” they wrote in Americas Quarterly. “Similarly, in light of the conservative antipathy in the United States towards public spending on social welfare, Duque will have difficulty looking northward as he seeks to address Colombia’s deep social deficits and inequality.”