Colombia’s ex-mayors tout hands-on experience in presidential race

Iván Duque was just 42 when he was sworn in as Colombia’s youngest elected leader in more than a century and one of its least experienced. When he became president in 2018 the fresh-faced Mr Duque had served neither as minister, regional governor nor mayor.

Since then Mr Duque, who spent more than a decade at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, has struggled to connect with increasingly restive voters and a new generation of presidential hopefuls has sensed an opportunity play up its own grass roots experience ahead of next year’s elections.

As would-be candidates begin jockeying for position a trend is emerging: many presidential hopefuls are former mayors with experience of running cities such as Bogotá, Medellín and Barranquilla — precisely the experience that Mr Duque lacks.

In late 2019, Mr Duque’s centre-right government faced serious street protests amid a clamour for social reforms, part of the “Andean spring” that spread north from Chile and Ecuador. His approval ratings slumped to below 25 per cent and although they have recovered during the pandemic, his government, unable to muster a consensus in congress to push through reform, is limping into its final 18 months in power.

Colombian president Iván Duque. who cannot seek immediate re-election under the country’s constitution © Adriana Thomasa/EPA

“Duque was elected because of his condition as a “moderate” within his Democratic Centre party but his government programme has been anything but moderate,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “His government hasn’t worked to solve differences between Colombians, which seem significantly larger than when he took office. We are more divided, more unhappy and increasingly unequal.”

Mr Duque cannot seek re-election under Colombia’s constitution so from 2022 the country will have a new president. Opinion polls suggest the front-runners are Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo, who came second and third respectively behind Mr Duque in 2018.

Mr Petro, a former leftwing guerrilla, was mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015, a tenure best remembered for a scandal over rubbish collection when he transferred the job from private companies to the state. Rubbish piled up in the streets and private contractors were eventually called back to clean up the mess. Mr Petro was removed from his post and although he was reinstated a few weeks later, critics cite the episode as evidence he is unfit to run the country.

The prospect of a Petro victory in 2018 spooked foreign investors and would probably do so again in 2022, although he insists they have nothing to fear unless they want to invest in the oil and coal sectors, which he wants to wind down.

“During my time as mayor we had the highest employment levels ever seen in Bogotá and high levels of foreign investment,” Mr Petro told the Financial Times. “Foreign investors weren’t scared away just because the mayor was called Gustavo Petro.

“I’m not proposing further investment in oil and coal. Investors are already leaving those sectors but that’s not out of fear of the government. It’s because their industry is dying. If I were in power there would be investment opportunities in other sectors.”

While Mr Petro is the clear frontrunner on the left, the picture is far fuzzier in the centre and on the right, where dozens of potential candidates are vying for position.

Among them is Mr Fajardo, who made his name as mayor of Medellín from 2003 to 2007, when the city shrugged off its reputation as the drug and murder capital of the world. He later served as governor of Antioquia, the region of which Medellín is capital, and says that experience has given him the skills needed to run the country.

“A mayoralty is the most emotive of public positions because it’s the one that gives you the greatest contact with people. You share with them the consequences of the measures that your local government has put in place,” he said.

“I learnt how to do politics on my feet, walking around every neighbourhood, understanding the needs on every corner of the city whereas President Duque has no idea how to govern. He only knows about people in the abstract.”

The problem Mr Fajardo faces, however, is that the centre-ground of Colombian politics — his natural habitat — is fragmented.

“It’s an orchestra of solos in which no one wants to be part of a larger group,” Mr Guzmán said. “The centre needs to get over its leadership crisis soon and find a leader that everyone can get behind.”

On the right, much will depend on whom Álvaro Uribe, the powerful former president and standard bearer of Colombian conservatism, anoints as his chosen candidate. Although his star has waned since he helped propel Mr Duque to the presidency, tarnished in part by his protege’s shortcomings, Mr Uribe remains a potential kingmaker. Whoever he backs is likely to be a contender.

Gustavo Petro and Sergio Fajardo. Opinion polls suggest they are the two front-runners for the presidential election in 2022 © AP/EPA

One possibility on the right is Alex Char, twice mayor of Barranquilla. He transformed the city and left office last year with an approval rating close to 90 per cent. Since then, however, he has been implicated in vote-buying scandals that could stymie any run for the presidency.

Another former mayor in the frame is Federico Gutiérrez, who governed Medellín until last year. He has flirted with both the centre and the right, working under Mr Fajardo as city councillor but also developing close links with Mr Uribe’s conservatives.

Much has changed in Colombia since the late 1980s when Virgilio Barco became the first man to serve as both mayor and then president. Back then, mayors were appointees. Only after 1991 when a new constitution was approved did they become elected officials.

In the 1990s and 2000s, César Gaviria, Andrés Pastrana and Mr Uribe all followed the path from governorship of a city to governorship of the country.

“Being a successful elected mayor of a major city does strengthen a candidate,” said Malcolm Deas, a historian and author of a recent biography of Barco. “It gives them a national profile.”

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