Today’s column is about Colombia. That is the correct spelling – it is not about Columbia University and hence about its masters student Economy Minister Martín Guzmán or its most famous professor, the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz with his bullish take on Argentina’s economic prospects, but about a Caribbean (and Pacific) country which voted last Sunday.
Colombia has drawn global attention on a number of fronts but its elections and party politics generally do not figure among them – drug lords like Pablo Escobar and the FARC guerrillas tend to grab the headlines while the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez (another Nobel Prize winner) sets the tone. So much so that if Charles de Gaulle wound up his 1964 visit to Brazil with the conclusion: “Brésil, ce n’est pas un pays sérieux,” many people today would still think that way about Colombia. Argentine exceptionalism prides itself on this country being a uniquely odd place but it would not be hard to find a Colombian exceptionalism to rival it.
Outside Colombia, it would also not be hard to find it perceived as just another Latin American country when it deserves more prominence, even if punching below its weight. The region’s big three are invariably seen as Brazil and Mexico with Argentina in an increasingly distant third place, but this has not been true for the last three decades in demographic terms at least. In 1992 (the year in which half a millennium since the discovery of the Americas by the man after whom the country is named was marked) Colombia’s population overtook Argentina’s and despite all the deaths from drug mayhem and political violence since then, it is now estimated at 52 million as against our 47,327,407 – or so we were told after the census a fortnight ago. Argentina’s economy is still bigger than Colombia’s – the latest official World Bank data from 2020 calculated our gross domestic product at US$383 billion as against US$271.4 billion for Colombian GDP – but the latter peaked at US$382 billion in 2013 while our economy seems more vulnerable to a maxi-devaluation in the near future.
Anyway, time to cut to the chase – what do last Sunday’s elections in Colombia remind me of to warrant being the topic of today’s column? Quite simply the 2015 presidential elections in Argentina. Perhaps more for the first round percentages resulting in a run-off in both cases than for the candidates. Leftist frontrunner Gustavo Petro netted 40.3 percent of the vote as against 28.15 percent for the anti-graft outsider Rodolfo Hernández, the surprise of the election, placing them both in the June 19 run-off at the expense of the centre-right candidate Federico Gutiérrez with 23.9 percent of the vote. The percentages in the 2015 PASO primaries here – 38.67 percent for the Peronist Daniel Scioli, 24.5 percent for PRO’s Mauricio Macri within a 30.12 percent vote for the three hopefuls of his Cambiemos coalition and 14.32 percent for dissident Peronist Sergio Massa – and in the first round (37.08 percent, 34.15 percent and 21.4 percent for Scioli, Macri and Massa respectively) offer several similarities to the Colombian results, while the first-round totals of the three main candidates are 92.6 percent and 92.35 percent of the vote in Argentina and Colombia respectively.
Not that the candidates lend themselves so easily to twinning. Scioli was running for the incumbent government while Petro stands for the opposition – nor do the right-leaning former offshore powerboat racer and the former M-19 guerrilla have much personally in common, least of all in their past histories. Indeed, Petro has more in common with Macri to the extent of being a former mayor of the national capital – perhaps an underestimated route to the presidency. Hernández, labelled by some as a “tropical Trump,” eludes comparison. Embodying the cliché of the “angry young man” (except that he is almost as old as Joe Biden) with his rants against the political establishment, he might seem to resemble our libertarian Javier Milei but he is more anti-graft than anti-caste and less anti-system – a far cry from the more conventional centre-right stances of Macri. No Colombian candidate defended the deeply unpopular outgoing president Iván Duque as Scioli went out to bat for Kirchnerism although Gutiérrez was closest to Duque’s rightist ideas and policies.
Yet the comparison remains interesting because Argentina’s past might herald Colombia’s present, which might in turn offer clues for our future. Scioli topped Macri’s PRO vote by almost 15 percent in the PASO yet was dead in the water because he had so little potential to reach an absolute majority – his percentage actually dropped in the first round. Petro won less than two percent more than Scioli and has similar limitations in finding the extra 10 percent to take him over the top. Well behind in the first round, Hernández would seem to have every chance of winning the run-off like Macri, quite likely with a bigger majority. And in turn the success of the TikTok outsider might well be a harbinger of next year’s elections here, reminding us how unpredictable they are with an electorate seeking an outlet for anti-system anger, rather than the solid platform still conspicuous by its absence.