Bogota, Colombia – When Yoad Ernesto Pérez Becerra launched his congressional campaign in one of the most violent corners of Colombia, he did so with the promise that he would be an “architect of peace”.
The candidate hoped to fight corruption and launch change in the Venezuelan border region of Catatumbo, but that pledge was not welcomed by those in control: not the Colombian government, but a toxic slate of armed groups fighting for power.
In the weeks leading up to elections, fighters from the rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN) detained and threatened Pérez Becerra, a candidate campaigning to take over a congressional seat set aside for conflict victims.
At gunpoint, the fighters stole the weapons of the candidate’s state-appointed bodyguards, and Pérez Becerra’s main campaign tools: his car and phones. They were left in the middle of nowhere, with a lingering reminder that the price of change could be their lives.
“I thought they would kill me,” he said. “It terrified me, and it’s affected my entire campaign.”
Colombians are headed to the polls Sunday to vote in the country’s congressional elections and inter-party consultations that function as primaries for the highly contested presidential vote. The results could mark a moment of significant political shifts in the historically conservative country.
But observers warn that potential for change may also be ushering in a wave of electoral violence not seen in Colombia since its 2016 peace accords and say the presidential race is unpredictable.
The South American country has historically been commanded by right-leaning rulers, namely former right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, a highly controversial figure who has held deep political sway in the country for decades.
But right-wing President Ivan Duque – a member of Uribe’s right-wing Democratic Centre party – has the highest disapproval ratings a Colombian president has seen in decades, according to an Invamer poll.
Late last year more than 75 percent of Colombians said they disapproved of their leader.
That vast dislike for Duque and his party was driven by a resurgence of violence in the countryside and “egregious” human rights abuses by police against protesters last year, analysts said.
“There’s an incredibly strong backlash to the violence, to the deaths, to corruption, to the handling of the health crisis,” explained Camilo Gonzalez Posso, head of Bogotá-based think-tank Indepaz. “It’s changing the political atmosphere, strengthening more moderate and leftist movements.”
That has created an opening for alternative candidates to take the stage.
Chief among those is Gustavo Petro, a leftist and former member of the 19th of April Movement, or the M-19 fighters, running for president under the Colombia Humana party. Despite losing the presidency to Duque in 2018, Petro currently leads the crowded field of more than a dozen candidates by double digits in polls.
The progressive Petro has called for a new economic model to more fairly distribute wealth and said he plans to take on rising armed group violence in rural parts of the country. But his goals to push away from oil and gas have also spooked foreign investors, and his origins as a fighter have alienated large swaths of the Colombian public.
While Duque is not running, Petro is tailed by a smattering of candidates. Those include centrist Sergio Fajardo, independent Rodolfo Hernández and Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, who claims he represents “the opposite of Petro” and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt, who has high name recognition but little experience in politics.
Meanwhile, Duque’s Democratic Centre party has lagged behind.
Sunday’s vote will disqualify stragglers in the lead up to the first round of presidential elections in May.
The congressional elections could determine how much the country’s incoming president can achieve. And could also shake up power dynamics in strategic zones like Pérez Becerra’s Catatumbo, a threat to actors reaping profit from their territorial control.
More than anything, said Gonzalez Posso, it will give the first real look at who voters support. And through it, what direction the South American may take in the future.
“In this election, we’re going to see which current has more strength,” Gonzalez Posso said.
And Colombia is not alone. The elections follow a larger trend happening in Latin America to move away from traditional leaders in favour of alternative candidates, explained Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis.
Last April, little-known rural school teacher Pedro Castillo shocked Peru by defeating establishment candidate Keiko Fujimori.
In November, Xiomara Castro, a socialist female candidate with establishment ties, pulled off an astonishing victory in Honduras’ elections and ended the right-wing National Party’s 12-year grip on power.
In December, Chileans elected former student activist and millennial Gabriel Boric, who has promised to reduce endemic inequalities, and focus on gender, Indigenous and environmental issues.
But Guzman said it should not be mistaken for what some have dubbed a “leftist wave”. Rather, it is a trend of turning away from those who have traditionally held power.
“One of the things that the pandemic reinforced is how fed up people are with the status quo. So to that extent, this election reaffirms the anti-incumbent sentiment,” Guzman said. “People are fed up, people are tired, people are pissed [off]. And you see that all over the world.”
Yet that is easier said than done in a country like Colombia, where elections have historically been plagued by targeted violence.
In the years following the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and the Marxist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), electoral violence reached record lows.
But as armed groups fight for territorial control of strategic drug trafficking routes like Catatumbo, political violence has once again jumped across the country, data from Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (PARES) showed.
The organisation, which monitors electoral violence, has documented that every two days there is a new victim of electoral violence in the country. Overall, PARES has documented 188 victims of electoral violence this cycle.
Esteban Salazar, who tracks the violence, said anti-corruption or peace-building candidates often “threaten” the power of regional elites or armed groups.
“These acts are meant to sow terror,” he said, “create an environment of fear to block these alternative organizations from being able to participate electorally.”
Others, like the Ombudsman Office, the government agency in charge of protecting civil and human rights, have raised alarms about certain parts of the country being “in extreme risk of electoral violence”.
The watchdog said it has dispatched nearly 2,500 observers across the country. It has placed a special emphasis on seats like the one Pérez Becerra is running for designated for conflict victims, which the entity said are under particular risk.
Yet, there is no clear perpetrator of the violence, a testament to rampant impunity, Salazar said.
An estimated 30 percent of the attacks, killings, threats and more could be attributed to armed groups like the one that detained Pérez Becerra, according to PARES data, but the vast majority of cases go unsolved.
While violence has usually been more rampant in local and regional elections, Salazar said that as Colombia approaches the presidential runoff vote in May, such acts are likely to happen less frequently, but with greater severity.
However, many candidates like Pérez Becerra still hold onto hope for change.
“I’m trying to represent the victims of the conflict, the people who have been most affected [by the violence],” he said. “I want to build a Catatumbo in peace.”