The first round of the 2022 presidential elections may still be ten months away, but leftist Senator Gustavo Petro’s consistent poll lead raises the question of whether a Petro victory is inevitable. Below we examine early electoral dynamics on the Left and Center-Left.
Petro’s poll lead is striking but caveats are necessary. Petro is the only confirmed candidate in a very crowded field of possible contenders, which will only truly thin out in March 2022 when party and coalition primaries are scheduled. Moreover, many voters remain uninterested or undecided at this early stage of the race. Finally, there is a local precedent of early poll leaders not ultimately winning the presidency.
Petro’s biggest challenge is that he continues to generate intense resistance from the Center-Left, most pointedly from the centrist former Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo, who was narrowly squeezed out of the 2018 presidential run-off vote by Petro. Ahead of that run-off, in which Petro was easily defeated by President Ivan Duque, Fajardo preferred to cast a blank ballot rather than vote for Petro. The two have been at loggerheads ever since.
Petro’s problem is that he will struggle to win without support from the centerground. Following his defeat in 2018, Petro is aware of this Achilles Heel. Petro has recruited a pair of prominent former “U” party senators – Roy Barreras and Armando Benedetti – in a bid to project a more pragmatic image. More recently, there have been attempts to convince the highly-regarded former health minister and putative presidential contender Alejandro Gaviria over to Petro’s Historic Pact bloc – to no avail. Petro sees the Liberal party – which wants Gaviria as its candidate – as critical to his chances.
However, the Center-Left is organizing as an alternative to Petro. The Coalition of Hope officially launched in June with five heavyweight presidential aspirants who will compete for the nomination in the March 2022 primaries. In addition to Fajardo, the most potent of these appears to be former senator Juan Manuel Galan, the son of the assassinated 1990 presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan. Note that the Coalition of Hope is also courting Gaviria. Meanwhile, the Green Alliance (which backed Fajardo in 2018) has not formally signed up to the new Coalition because a minority of its members favor Petro.
In this context, and if there is no significant shift in the landscape, the 2022 race could see a very similar dynamic prevail on the Left and Center-Left as in 2018. Within this space, factors that could alter the outlook include which side Gaviria and the bulk of the Liberal party settle on, and whether Petro undertakes any credible shift to pragmatism that enables him to break down resistance to his leadership. External considerations include important circumstantial factors: the Duque administration’s performance over the next few months; whether protests re-emerge; and the Right’s own fractured presidential nomination contest. At a deeper level, the key question is how the pandemic and its economic and social fallout will reverberate on public hesitancy towards Petro and the Left, which should become clearer in the months ahead.