Regional Elections in Colombia: A Referendum on President Petro?

Regional Elections in Colombia: A Referendum on President Petro?

By Valeria Marulanda

Senior Advisor at Opportunitas Advisors

October 26, 2023

On October 29th, regional elections will be held in Colombia for governors, mayors, regional assemblies, and local councils. These will be the first large scale elections in the country since President Gustavo Petro took office, raising the question of whether the electoral process will become a referendum for President Petro’s government, and the impact of the results on his ability to influence Congress in approving his proposed reforms.

Traditionally, regional elections in Colombia have been largely independent of national politics, meaning the popularity of the president and their government typically has not affected local electoral outcomes. Often, the regional electoral map has been dominated by the election of opposition party candidates, even when the national government is highly popular. Regional elections instead, are more influenced by local political bosses and electoral machinery, and in urban areas, by candidates’ ability to propose solutions to local issues.

 

Current national government support for local candidates has not been very noticeable, except in some particular cases, and according to polls, these candidates have a low chance of winning their elections. This indicates a weakness in the ruling party and reveals the current divisions within the left.

In major cities, it is expected that candidates not aligned with the government will win, but, in general, they have not positioned themselves as strong opponents of the government. Two notable exceptions are Federico Gutiérrez, the candidate for the mayorship of Medellín and a former presidential candidate against Petro, and to a lesser extent, Alex Char, the candidate for the mayorship of Barranquilla and a former presidential candidate.

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Gustavo Bolívar, who is running to become Bogotá’s next mayor, is perhaps the candidate with the most direct support from the national government. However, according to polls, he is currently in second place, trailing Carlos Fernando Galán by at least 10 points. However, in Bogotá, there will most likely be a runoff election for the first time if none of the candidates receive 40% of the votes in the first round. Surveys show that even in a runoff, Galán would likely win. But, because winning Bogotá is of such importance to Petro’s government, they may make additional efforts and pour significant resources try to achieve victory in the nation’s capital. Galán, for his part, will try to win in the first round and may attract many of the swing votes that would prefer to vote for him rather than risk a Bolívar victory in a runoff.

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As things stand today, it is likely there won’t be a predominant shift to the left in local administrations or in the legislative bodies, nor will the opposition claim widespread victory in the regional elections.

 

It is worth noting that once elected, governors and mayors will need to establish relationships with the central government. Despite the decentralization process, regions in Colombia still heavily depend on the resources from the national government, and thus the president will have influence over these newly elected officials.

Regarding the ramifications in Congress, currently there are two interpretations. The first is that unfavorable election results for the government, may push members of the Colombian congress to take a harder line against government backed legislation as they may believe that the political cost of supporting the government and its reforms may harm their own re-election prospects. However, it should be noted that the central government retains significant power, controls resources and bureaucracy, and therefore has tools to continue persuading congress members to support its reforms. Nonetheless, it will be more challenging for the government to negotiate with congress members whose political allies have won in the regional elections, as they will have more access and effective control over local bureaucracies and less need for the central government.

 

The second interpretation is that members of the Colombia congress whose regional candidates lose may be tempted to align themselves with the government. Since they won’t have access to local bureaucracy and budgets, they will require more central government support to bolster their re-election chances.

 

In summary, the upcoming regional elections are unlikely to be a referendum on the government. If polls are accurate the local results will portray a complex national picture were neither the ideological left nor the political opposition from the right, will be able to claim a clear-cut shift in the country’s politics. Nevertheless, the results could impact the government’s ability to advance its agenda and reveal the erosion the government has experienced.

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