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‘Rude Awakening’: Elections Seen as Rebuke to Colombia’s Gustavo Petro

What a difference a year makes for Gustavo Petro. Just 14 months after his historic election win, Colombia’s first-ever leftist president is struggling.

His ambitious, wide-ranging reform proposals have lagged in Congress. His administration has faced a campaign finance scandal. And just last Sunday, on October 29, he was dealt a sobering defeat in Colombia’s local and regional elections.

Voters in the country’s major cities turned their backs on Petro’s candidates, voting instead for critics of his administration, particularly from the right and centre. Petro’s coalition Pacto Historico won governorships in just two of Colombia’s 32 departments.

Following the election results, Petro said it was his duty “to respect the voice of the people”.

But he has since tried to cast the results as a win for his administration, saying that many of the winning candidates were part of the coalition that brought him to power in the first place. Those candidates, however, largely ran independently in the local elections.

Experts say Petro’s spin on the elections is a way to see the glass half full. But there is little doubt that the poor results portend a difficult road ahead for the president — and his personality-driven political movement.

“Unlike with the other parties, his coalition is very personalistic,” Sandra Borda, a political analyst and professor at the University of the Andes, told Al Jazeera.

“Petro has not done the task of building a strong party, so while everything remains focused on him and him alone, it is very possible that elections will continue to go wrong [for him].”

One of the greatest defeats for Petro came in the capital Bogota, where one of his closest allies, Gustavo Bolivar, was running for mayor.

A youthful 58-year-old, Bolivar is a well-known writer of soap operas and a former senator. Yet, he placed third in the race, behind an independent candidate and a contender from the New Liberalism Party, who ultimately won the vote.

His defeat was stark. Whereas two million people in the city voted for Petro a year ago in the presidential election, only about 570,000 voted for Bolivar in the mayoral race.

In a telephone interview with Al Jazeera, Bolivar said he felt voters were punishing the president for a lack of results during his first year in office.

“It is undeniable,” Bolivar said. “There is a lot of disappointment, partly because people had the wrong expectations about change. Many people are disappointed because they thought that just by winning, Petro was going to change things. And that is not the case. It will take time.”

Bolivar pointed to several key successes Petro achieved during his inaugural year.

In November 2022, just three months into his term, Petro successfully spearheaded a tax reform bill that would increase taxes on high earners, single-use plastics and oil. Then, in May, Congress approved his four-year national development plan, which focused on addressing poverty.

“Just consider: We spent one semester managing the tax reform and the second semester preparing the national development plan,” Bolivar said. “Only now do we have the money and the tools to get started.”

Petro’s triumph a year ago was the result of an almost unprecedented wave of protests in one of the most unequal countries in the world.

The World Bank estimates that the national poverty level hovers around 39.3 percent. It warned the wide gulf between the wealthiest Colombians and the poorest would continue to prevent social mobility.

Petro rode a crest of discontent, arriving at a time when a wave of leftist leaders were winning presidential elections across Latin America: from Gabriel Boric in Chile to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil.

But Petro’s flagship policies have proven polarising. His “Total Peace” initiative, for instance, was positioned as a solution to Colombia’s six-decade-long internal conflict: The government would set out to strike peace deals with armed groups to stop the fighting.

Critics, however, have pointed out that security issues have actually worsened in remote regions since Petro took power.

Petro also faced outcry for a decision to end gasoline subsidies that he said cost the government $11bn a year. The rollback of the subsidies, however, drove up gas prices and led to accusations that Petro was anti-business.

There were also signs of instability within Petro’s own coalition. In April, he fired almost a third of his cabinet and dissolved his coalition in Congress after he faced internal opposition to his healthcare reforms.

And in July, his son Nicolas Petro, a former politician, was arrested on money-laundering charges connected to his father’s presidential race.

All of this has translated into a quick dip in support. Petro’s popularity fell to just 32 percent, down from a high of 60 percent when he first took office, according to an October poll from the firm Invamer.

Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political consultancy firm, believes the October regional elections are yet another wake-up call for Petro.

“I think the government would do well looking at these election results with more humility and openness to change,” he told Al Jazeera.

However, Guzman said some of the president’s allies are interpreting the poll results as evidence that “corruption won” or that the “traditional elites won”. He feels that perspective glosses over the wider backlash Petro faces.

“They are really not understanding the anxiety that their own intentions have produced on the economy, on investors, on the business sector, on security. And they will be in for a rude awakening,” Guzman said.

Borda, the political analyst, also said that the latest election results will embolden Petro’s critics to take advantage of the anti-incumbent fervour many voters feel.

“Now we will see the traditional parties being encouraged by the results to defy the president further,” Borda said. “This will harden their position towards the government.”

She added that Petro’s government would do well to take a more moderate approach moving forward.

“If they want to pass their reforms, the government will need to make more concessions. It was already going to be difficult before the elections. Now it becomes even harder,” Borda explained.

As for Bolivar, the defeated mayoral candidate, he believes time is on Petro’s side. The president still has three years left in office — plenty of time, Bolivar said, to win back voter faith.

“The coming years will involve a lot of investment and transformation. We now have the money, a large budget,” Bolivar said, crediting Petro’s tax reforms.

“Education and agriculture budgets are going to make giant leaps. And people will see where the government is heading.”

Source: Aljazeera