Before Jhon Hernandez became a voter for the first time last month, he was a frontline protester calling for change. He joined tens of thousands of Colombians last year in demanding stronger social programs and an end to a proposed tax reform as COVID-19 restrictions wreak havoc on the nation’s poor.
This year, Hernández ditched the balaclava that identified him as a protester and instead organized a voter registration drive, convinced that the way forward is not through bigger protests, but through smarter voting.
“Change depends on our vote,” says the community leader, who cast his ballot in a presidential election for the first time this year, despite having been eligible for the past 15 years.
why are we writing this
Colombians marched in massive anti-government protests in 2021. Their unanswered demands for better job opportunities, health care and education are prompting record voters to elect a new president from outside.
He is not alone. More Colombians voted in the first electoral round last month than in any other vote in the last 20 years., spurred in large part by historic street protests. Frustration with the government’s out-of-touch policy proposals, combined with a growing desire for change, has laid the groundwork for the major political shift underway in this weekend’s presidential runoff.
For decades, Colombia has been governed by an elite group of established politicians. But this weekend, two candidates who eschew the status quo face off in what is expected to be a historically close runoff. Both candidates are seen as leaning to the left, even if one is far from a traditional leftist, to meet the demands of the protesters.
“The vast majority of Colombians are fed up with this exclusionary political and economic class that has been governing only in its [own] favor, on the grounds that the armed conflict prevented them from addressing each other’s concerns,” says Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“Undoubtedly, this scenario is a defeat for the traditional parties. He shows tiredness with his way of doing politics and dissatisfaction with the expectations that are not met,” says Daniela Garzón, a researcher at the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, a think tank in Bogotá.
From the national strike to the presidential elections
Last year, protests paralyzed Colombia, with massive blockades and demonstrations lasting more than two months. Initially sparked by a proposed tax reform, the protests quickly widened to include frustration over inequalities in income, housing, education and health care.
Close to 40% of Colombians live in poverty, nearly 50% of the workforce is in informal employment, and violence is on the rise as armed groups expand, despite promises of a 2016 peace deal.
Police violently cracked down on protesters, and conservative President Iván Duque addressed some of their grievances. These issues became the main concerns of voters.
In Cali, the epicenter of the unrest, Hernández joined from day one, angry at the poor medical care he received after being injured as a construction worker.
With a cohort of stone-throwing protesters, Hernandez and his neighbors drove police out of their neighborhood and occupied a six-block area for two months. They transformed a police station into a library, organized art events and concerts, and held community meetings to discuss solutions to the riots.
The levels of participation seen in these protests were unprecedented, says Victoria González, a professor at the Externado University in Bogotá. People supported the protesters in any way they could: organizing soup kitchens, leading vigils and silent marches, teaching art classes, and holding open-air seminars on politics. Some Colombians, especially in popular neighborhoods, were learning for the first time how Congress works.
This “contributed to creating a broader political consciousness,” he says.
Hernández says that he had never voted in an election before because “nothing was going to change.” But participating in the protests and making decisions that positively impacted his community was empowering. When the protests ended with no real solutions, he decided that the only option left for him was to vote.
“What do we gain by protesting if we are not going to vote?” he says.
Demonstrations are not new to Colombia, but in the past, protesters typically “didn’t directly participate in elections,” says Dr. González.
“Now they believe that their only hope of transformation is to participate [at] the urn”.
Goodbye to the status quo?
This weekend’s second round pits Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter who, if he wins, would become Colombia’s first leftist president, against Rodolfo Hernández, a populist businessman who has vowed to stamp out corruption.
Mr. Petro previously served as mayor of Bogotá and promised free higher education, welfare for the poor, a transition away from oil exports and investment in the rural economy. He has raised fears among some conservatives and the business community that he, as a leftist, would move Colombia in the direction of neighboring Venezuela.
Mr. Hernández, also a former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, has inspired fed up voters with his anti-corruption platform and direct manner of speaking. His populist rhetoric, which affirms that “thieves must be removed from politics”, has connected with Colombians and has earned him a surprise place in the second round.
Despite comparisons to Donald Trump and a wave of support from establishment candidates who did not make it to the second round, Hernandez has launched policy proposals that surprisingly lean to the left. They are calling for full implementation of the peace deal, talks with the largest remaining rebel group, legalization of marijuana, and restrictions on riot police. But he has also mentioned the intention to rule by emergency decree if he wins office, raising concerns about his commitment to democratic institutions.
It is not only Colombia that rejects the status quo. Across Latin America, a lack of opportunity and, more recently, the fallout from the pandemic, have fueled fervor against incumbents, catapulting outsiders into the presidency. From Gabriel Boric in Chile to Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, successful candidates increasingly speak of and rely on votes of discontent.
But two anti-establishment outsiders reaching the final round make Colombia unique, says Patricio Navia, a political scientist and professor at New York University. Both candidates promise a clear break with the right-wing politics that has won the presidency in the last four election cycles.
New generation of social leaders
On a recent afternoon in Cali, former protesters rode motorcycles to a rough neighborhood in the south of the city where they served food, offered free haircuts and encouraged locals to vote.
Mayra Mueses, a protester turned organizer, says she initially had little interest in electoral politics. She had never voted in her life. But after five people were killed in the protest blockade she oversaw for two months last year, she felt compelled to look for new ways to pressure the government to change.
By talking to other protesters and educating herself, she “understood that the repression coming from the police had been ordered” by people in power, says Ms Mueses. “We began to ask ourselves: ‘In whose hands are we if [politicians] are giving orders to kill their own people?’”
At least 80 people were killed during last year’s protests, according to the rights group Indepaz, and Ms Mueses’s political awakening is not unique in the areas where protesters took to the streets.
A recent poll shows that almost 70% of people between 18 and 24 years old, the protagonists of last year’s demonstrations, will vote for Petro on June 19. They are concerned about poverty and lack of opportunity, having seen friends come together violently. gangs and parents work until old age without pension.
Older generations are wary of stigmas associated with the left, in a nation that suffered decades of civil war between far-left guerrilla groups and the government. Many are lining up behind Mr. Hernandez.
Ms Mueses has no plans to protest again, deterred by the violence that injured and killed so many last year. But even if Mr. Petro loses, she says, that would not discourage her commitment to social change. “We understand that it is the responsibility of young people, like us, to vote.”
Since last year’s social uprisings, he adds, “many social leaders have been born.”