Bogota's Mayor Fights for His Seat

By Rachel Glickhouse

A January 14 court order allowed Gustavo Petro to temporarily stay in office. But what happens next?

Updated January 15—On January 13, Colombia’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez ratified his decision to dismiss Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro from his post and ban him from public office for 15 years. Ordoñez first announced his ruling on December 9, saying Petro had made an unconstitutional move by replacing private garbage collectors with a public-sector service. But Petro received respite on January 14, when a local judge imposed a temporary stay order to provisionally suspend his removal. Still, the mayor will need a definitive decision from either a local court or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to keep his seat. And even if he keeps it, he will face a recall election in March.

What will happen if Petro loses his battle to keep his seat as mayor of Colombia’s capital city? And what would a new mayoral race mean on both the local and national levels?

What’s the timeline for next steps in the removal process?

First, Petro must be legally notified and sign off on the removal order. If he refuses, the inspector general can then move on to the next step: notifying the president. Ordoñez told Caracol Radio on January 14 that he would send President Juan Manuel Santos the order by January 29 at the latest. In order to complete the removal process, Santos must sign off on Ordoñez’s decision. As soon as Santos receives the paperwork, he has a maximum of 10 days to make a decision. Minister of Justice Alfonso Gómez Méndez told the press that Santos would make his decision once all legal appeals are exhausted, such as the IACHR case. If he signs the order, Santos must pick an interim mayor within the 10-day limit. The interim mayor would be chosen from a list submitted by Petro’s party, the Green Alliance.

How would the city replace the mayor?

As soon as the president signs off on the mayor’s removal order, the National Registry has 55 days to call new elections. After the elections are announced, candidates have 15 days to register their candidacies. The winning candidate would serve for less than two years, as the next municipal elections take place in 2015.

In mid-December, the National Registry received a petition to recall Petro, and earmarked around $19 million to hold the recall vote on March 2. If Petro gets to keep his seat, the recall election will go on as planned, and the budget will be used for this vote. If Petro loses his seat, the budget will be used to hold a new mayoral election.

Who are likely candidates for mayor?

La Silla Vacía reports that a source close to the president said that Enrique Peñalosa would be his pick for mayor. From the Green Alliance, Peñalosa served as Bogota mayor from 1998 to 2001. He has presidential aspirations, but his party may not back him to be a candidate. On the other side of the political spectrum, the president’s cousin Francisco Santos could be a candidate for the Democratic Center party—established in 2012 by former President Álvaro Uribe. Santos served as vice president for Uribe from 2002 to 2010, and lost a bid to be the Democratic Center’s presidential pick this year. 

Other potential candidates include the Green Alliance’s Vicente de Roux, a Bogota councilman; the Democratic Pole’s Aurelio Suárez, a former Bogota mayoral candidate; the Social Party of National Unity’s William Vinasco, a businessman who previously ran for mayor; and the Conservative Party’s Juan Carlos Echeverry, a former finance minister.

What would be the economic impact of Petro’s removal?

Portafolio notes that a number of outstanding projects from Petro’s administration still need to be resolved. One of the largest is that of free government housing: Bogota is due to build 9,000 units, though land has only been provided for 4,000 units. In addition, the fate of the city’s zoning plan would be up in the air; the plan has prevented numerous infrastructure and housing projects from taking place. Finally, the future of the public trash collection system—the one behind Ordoñez’s removal order—remains to be seen. Other pending issues include the construction of a cable car system and an ongoing study to potentially build a subway.

What’s the national political impact of the mayoral debacle?

A mayoral race during an election year for president and Congress means Bogota’s vote will likely have national implications. Sources at the presidential palace told La Silla Vacía that they would prefer the election to take place after May 25—the first-round presidential election—because if the opposition wins Bogota’s mayoralty, it could hurt Santos’ reelection campaign. If the vote took place in March, when the recall vote was supposed to take place, the election would serve as a litmus test for the upcoming congressional and presidential races, explains El Nuevo Siglo. Plus, a race between a candidate supported by Santos and another by Uribe could reflect an overall acrimonious political battle taking place at the national level, says El Colombiano.

Petro’s potential removal from office could also have an impact on the country’s peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The mayor is a former guerrilla with the M-19 movement, and FARC negotiators said in December that the decision to oust Petro reduces the government’s credibility in the peace process. Political participation for former guerrillas has been one of the most hotly debated topics at the negotiation table with the FARC. In November, both sides came to an agreement on this issue, but the accord doesn’t address if certain members of the FARC will be banned from holding public office.