Colombia Elects its First Leftist President: Gustavo Petro

By Tim Martinson, HM Summer Political Journalism Intern

Situated in the northwestern portion of South America, the Republic of Colombia is a Latin American country with a population of over fifty million people (Garavito et al. 2022). As a presidential republic, the country recently held an election for its new chief executive. The first round of the Colombian presidential election was on May 29 (Moss 2022). Since none of the original candidates reached the necessary fifty percent threshold, a runoff election was held between the top two candidates on June 19. The runoff itself was between longtime Colombian Senator and former guerilla rebel Gustavo Petro and the more conservative and populist businessman Rodolfo Hernández (Jackson and Watson 2022). 

In a historic win, Mr. Petro won the runoff election to become the first leftist president of the Republic of Colombia. His vice presidential running mate, Francia Márquez, an environmental activist, was also elected, becoming the first black vice president of Colombia (Turkewitz 2022a). The opposing ticket for the runoff consisted of Mr. Hernández, and his own running mate, Dr. Marelen Castillo, who herself would have become Colombia’s first black vice president had their ticket won. Unlike Ms. Márquez’s platform focusing on “social justice and inclusion” (Glatsky 2022), Dr. Castillo focused her own platform on public education and greater economic opportunities. 

Regardless, both Mr. Petro and Mr. Hernández had fashioned themselves as anti-establishment figures against the traditional elite figures, albeit with very different visions for the future of Colombia’s politics. One aspect of Colombian history that is important to note in the context of this election, however, is its past of violence between the government and a leftist insurgent group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, abbreviated as FARC. Having engaged in armed conflict with the Colombian government for decades, FARC only ended its violence after a peace deal was signed in 2016 (Turkewitz 2022b). However, this was not the first peace deal of its kind. As previously mentioned, Mr. Petro was a former guerilla rebel; he served with the April 19th movement, often abbreviated to M-19. After being arrested in the 1980s for his role in M-19, Mr. Petro entered politics, becoming a Colombian congressman and senator and later the mayor of the country’s capital city: Bogotá. The insurgent group he was associated with decades ago had tried to sign their peace deal with the Colombian government over 30 years ago. This was not the end of the violence, however, as right-wing paramilitary groups continued campaigns against left-wing insurgents like FARC, going so far as to assassinate ex-combatants who attempted to enter the political realm. With the first-time election of a leftist to the Colombian presidency, there could be further change. While the 2016 peace deal did not become fully implemented under outgoing President Iván Duque, Mr. Petro desires to see the FARC peace deal finished and undergo negotiations with the insurgent group National Liberation Army, abbreviated ELN (Gilbert 2022). 

As for the rest of Mr. Petro’s platform, he plans to take a less-punitive approach to some of Colombia’s hottest social issues, such as drug trafficking and longtime political violence. His plans to work towards further peace with insurgent groups could potentially cool down longtime political tensions. His administration plans to end the extradition of drug lords and legalize marijuana and cocaine (Gilbert 2022).

Should Mr. Petro’s preferred policies go into effect, however, it could be a drastic change in US-Colombia relations. For decades, there has been a strong alliance between the two countries, with some long-standing policies including the extradition of drug lords to the United States and a “forced eradication of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine” (Rodriguez 2022). These previous agreements could be discarded in favor of Mr. Petro’s more reconciliatory drug policies. 

However, the Biden administration has not taken a hard stance on whether the new Colombian president should be embraced or shunned, instead taking a wait-and-see approach. Mr. Biden has previously supported the FARC peace deal and with a more environmentally-conscious administration in Colombia, there seems to be room for agreements between the two countries moving forward. 

On the other hand, Mr. Petro has spoken out in favor of normalizing relations between the Republic of Colombia and the Venezuelan government led by Nicolás Maduro, who has not been recognized as the nation’s legitimate president by many countries, including the United States (Rodriguez).

In addition, some of Mr. Petro’s other proposals seem to go further against the established traditions between Colombia and the United States. For example, as Mr. Biden calls for greater global production of oil, Mr. Petro has spoken against oil exploration. Additionally, the policy of crop eradication pushed by the United States in Colombia could come to an end, as Mr. Petro intends to create economic incentives for poor farmers to steer them away from illicitly producing coca. 

With the potential re-establishment of Colombia-Venezuela relations, another policy of deporting Venezuelan migrants from the southern US border to Colombia could come to a halt. The election of Mr. Petro serves as a potential turning point in these long-established bilateral agreements, particularly in the face of inequality and violence in Colombia that could be grounds for change (Franco 2022).

In terms of governing, the incoming president faces the potential for obstruction and a necessity to compromise on some of his more radical proposals in the legislative process. According to preliminary results from the March 2022 elections for Colombia’s Congress, Mr. Petro’s political party, Historic Pact, won the largest number of seats in the Senate but not an outright majority. Without a majority in either the Senate or the lower house of the legislature, the president will certainly face difficulties implementing his ambitious platform. However, the ever-political Mr. Petro has made an agreement with the Liberal Party, which holds a large number of seats. While this is a win for the new administration, the agreement may lead to some platform items being modified to fit a more moderate palate (Bristow 2022). 

Another boon to Mr. Petro’s legislative prospects was the agreement with members of the Conservative Party to come into a coalition, getting closer to a majority. However, this agreement will also surely require some platform concessions. The Democratic Center Party, the party of the outgoing President Duque, stated they would act in opposition to Mr. Petro, though (Medina 2022). In the Colombian Senate, the results include 20 seats for the Historic Pact, 14 seats for the Liberal Party, 15 seats for the Conservative Party, and 13 seats for the Democratic Center. In the Colombian House of Representatives, the results include 27 seats for the Historic Pact, 32 seats for the Liberal Party, 25 seats for the Conservative Party, and 16 seats for the Democratic Center. Other parties received the remaining seats in each chamber (“Así quedó conformado” 2022).

Outside of the legislature, Mr. Petro’s left-wing policies were not exactly welcomed by everyone, with “Colombian stocks, bonds, and currency tumbl[ing] after” (Medina 2022) the presidential election. Investors in the Colombian economy are especially interested to see if Mr. Petro’s tax reforms will affect the wealthy or land ownership (Medina 2022).

The election of Gustavo Petro as Colombia’s first leftist president could be a major turning point for the country and international relations in Latin America. Mr. Petro’s victory could be indicative of a gradual shift in the politics of the region. If the new president can garner enough legislative support, there would be a clear path to overturn decades of policies set by the country’s conservative political establishment, including relations with the United States.

Tim Martinson is a political science major from Merrick, New York, on Long Island. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he plans on continuing to graduate school for a Master’s degree. Tim volunteered for State Senator John Brooks’ re-election campaign in 2018. He is currently a member of the Binghamton College Democrats and is a public affairs show host at WHRW. Tim was an intern political journalist at Happy Medium in the summer of 2022. Tim has an interest in political history and likes to play video games and learn new things in his free time.


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Garavito et al. 2022. “Colombia.” Encyclopedia Britannica, June 28.

Gilbert, Danielle. 2022. “Can a former left-wing guerrilla salvage Colombia’s peace plan?” The Washington Post, June 29.

Glatsky, Genevieve. 2022. “Marelan Castillo sought to become Colombia’s first Black female vice president.” The New York Times.

Jackson, Patrick, and Katy Watson. 2022. “Colombia election: surprise run-off beckons.” BBC News, May 30.

Medina, Oscar. 2022. “Colombian Conservative Party to Back Petro’s Congress Agenda.” Bloomberg, June 26.

Moss, Loren. 2022. “Colombia 2022 National Elections: Key Dates.” Finance Colombia, March 3.

Turkewitz, Julie. 2022a. “Francia Márquez — a former housekeeper and activist — is Colombia’s first Black vice president.” The New York Times, June 19.

Turkewitz, Julie. 2022b. “Gustavo Petro wins the Colombian election, becoming the country’s first leftist president.” The New York Times, June 19.

Rodriquez, Sabrina. 2022. “Biden’s new Latin America juggling act: How to handle Colombia’s new president.” Politico, June 23.