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OP-ED | 25-06-2022 00:01

Is Colombia’s run-off Argentina’s run-up?

We could do worse than take a closer look at Colombia and at last week’s presidential run-off in particular as the possible shape of things to come here.

Accustomed to primacy among the Spanish-speaking South American republics (with Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof expressing his own ideas on what “Spanish-speaking” means in the past week), not too many people in Argentina are aware that Colombia tops us in population (by around five million people) and has done so for the past three decades, if not in geographic size or in economic output until now. Even if that country is at the other end of the subcontinent, we could thus do worse than take a closer look at Colombia and at last week’s presidential run-off in particular as the possible shape of things to come here.

That run-off was a clash of extremes with ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro emerging as Colombia’s president-elect over the anti-system outsider Rodolfo Hernández. Once might be an accident, in the words of Oscar Wilde, but Chile’s run-off less than half a year ago likewise was a choice between two options outside the mainstream, with the former student protest leader Gabriel Boric triumphing over the winner in the first round, José Antonio Kast, who had previously been ejected from Chile’s traditional rightist alliance as too extreme. A pattern is starting to develop.

Colombia’s run-off last weekend resembles Argentina’s in 2015, not so much in the nature of the candidates (with both Mauricio Macri and Daniel Scioli relatively centrist and pro-market options amid their differences) as in the results – Petro notched a margin of 3.13 percent over Hernández last weekend while Macri edged Scioli by 2.68 percent in 2015 with third parties approximating a quarter of the vote in the first round in both cases. Will this voter breakdown pattern of 2015 here and in Colombia last weekend be replicated in next year’s election?

Last but not least, the comparisons with Colombia should not exclude the spectre of drug-trafficking – if Brazil’s Primer Comando Capital organised crime syndicate is increasingly colonising Paraguay next door (with Argentina the home of one out of every five Paraguayans, according to some estimates), who can rule out a growing influence here?

The new polarisation emerging from these elections contains elements of left and right but can be more accurately described in very broad terms as social anger versus an anti-system frustration with all political parties – the former has plenty of overlap with the historic left while hostility towards all traditional politics tilts naturally towards the right since the more left-wing parties tend to favour a greater presence of the reviled state. If next year’s elections follow these trends, which faces will be championing this new polarisation?

In all probability we have no idea – it is far too early to say. That question seems easiest to answer on the anti-government side with the libertarian Javier Milei immediately springing to mind. But the opinion polls are starting to confirm what simple logic would already suggest – that Milei has shot his bolt much too soon. Of late he has only been taking one foot out of his mouth to put the other one in by voicing his eccentric views on organ donations and unrestricted gun possession with his approval ratings suffering in consequence. His constituency might find more purchase in the more hawkish options of the main Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition (which could, however, equally well choose to continue aiming for the middle ground) or a new outsider could emerge out of the blue much closer to election day.

Turning to the Frente de Todos government, who best defends its populist credentials? The most obvious answer is its Kirchnerite backbone whose guerrilla nostalgia evokes Petro – the presence of ex-Montoneros in its ranks can be exaggerated but the very name of its youth grouping La Cámpora is drawn from a president of the violently turbulent 1970s. Yet its monopoly on “national and popular” sentiment is slipping, even within the Greater Buenos Aires bastion to which Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has virtually retreated. The strong picket challenge mounted against the Peronist movement and traditional organised labour alike (to which CFK fiercely responded last Monday) obviously favours the left filling the shoes of Boric or Petro here but strangely enough, it could also be the last chance for the re-election of President Alberto Fernández – after losing his Productive Development Minister Matías Kulfas, allied picket movements like Movimiento Evita are almost all he has left. Or Frente de Todos might simply put up a throwaway candidate like Scioli, the successor of Kulfas.

In the global village, Colombia is not so far away.

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