Colombia’s Regional Elections:
A Barometer for the Peace Agreement Implementation
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Colombia’s recent regional and local elections have sent ripples through the country’s political landscape. They revealed a shift: away from the left-leaning parties that won big in the last national election, and towards the right and centre-right parties that have now secured the most important governorships and mayoralties. The outcomes indicate a palpable setback for President Gustavo Petro’s government coalition, that had set out to transform the post-conflict nation through a left-wing agenda.
Petro’s Pacto Historico (Historic Pact) coalition did win some support in these regional votes, but was left disappointed in comparison to 2022’s presidential election. As the ballots rolled in, it became apparent that Conservative, Liberal, and opposition parties had reaffirmed political power in their traditional areas of influence. Meanwhile, the left and other alternative forces suffered losses in strategic locations, including the mayoralties of the main cities of the country, such as Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín.
Control over these cities means administration of some of the country’s largest budgets. This hence represents a significant political shift: a rebalance of power, which brings substantial implications for implementation of the country’s peace agreement.
The Colombian peace process has been fraught with formidable challenges. The landmark 2016 peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signalled a monumental leap towards resolving prolonged strife, yet its fruition has been thwarted by persistent aggression from renegade paramilitary factions and organized crime groups involved in drug trafficking.
These groups have carried out killings of social leaders that advocate for human rights, land reform, and environmental protection (Amaya 2021). Additionally, the administration of President Iván Duque (2018-2022) has faced accusations that it undermined peacebuilding efforts.
In an attempt to make progress with the implementation of the peace agreement, the Petro administration (2022-2026) vowed to initiate new dialogues with FARC dissidents and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as with criminal groups, in a policy programme known as ‘Total Peace.’
These regional election results, however, have delivered a reality check. Petro’s victory in the presidential race has not translated into broad local support; a discrepancy that could undermine his leverage to advance implementation of territorial elements of the peace agreement.
This electoral rally for parties outside Petro’s coalition indicates a split in public opinion: aspiration for peace and social equity, but a wariness of the methods and perceived radicalism of the left. This polarized environment magnifies challenges for the implementation of peace accords.
First, territorial control is crucial for the realisation of the agreements. Local governments play a pivotal role in executing reforms, particularly those related to rural development and the reintegration of ex-combatants. The shift in electoral support means that Petro must now navigate a more complex landscape of local authorities, some of which may be opposed to his agenda, muddling consistent application of peace accords across different regions.
Second, divisions exposed by the election results underscore pressing needs for dialogue and consensus-building. The peace process cannot be dominated by either left or right; it requires the inclusion and participation of all political voices, especially those from survivors’ communities directly impacted by conflict.
Consequently, Petro’s government must endeavour to reach across the political divide, engaging with opposition parties to find common ground. The goal is not to override differing views but to integrate them into a robust and inclusive peace strategy.
Another critical aspect is security. The power vacuum left by the FARC’s demobilization has been filled by other armed groups, leading to a fragmented security landscape. In this context, national government policies must align with local security strategy. The success of conservative and opposition parties the local level may indicate preference for hardline security measures, seemingly at odds with Petro’s approach, which includes broader social investment and reconciliation measures.
Finally, the economic realities cannot be overlooked. The peace agreement demands substantial resources, particularly for initiatives like crop substitution programs for coca farmers – a key aspect of Petro’s peace and rural reform agenda. With the current economic headwinds and concerns about fiscal stability, rallying a diverse group of local governments to prioritize peace initiatives over other pressing needs is a formidable challenge.
The regional elections, then, present a complicated situation for President Petro. The left’s momentum at the national level has not continued in the regions, creating a dissonance that could significantly impact implementation of the peace agreement with its focus on territorial peace.
To navigate these challenges, Petro’s administration must undertake a campaign of sustained engagement, aiming to develop a legitimate and resonant vision of peace that appeals across Colombia’s diverse and polarised political landscape.
Johanna is a Lecturer in Latin American Politics at the Institute of the Americas at the University College of London. She holds a BSc (Honours) degree in Political Science and International Relations, a Master of Research in Latin American Studies at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, and she has recently completed her PhD in Government at the University of Essex.
Juan Federico Pino Uribe
Juan Federico is Associate Professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO-Ecuador). His main lines of research are subnational politics in unitary states, political communication and reconciliation in post-conflict societies.