A polling station in Cali, Colombia. (AP)

A polling station in Colombia. (AP)


Explainer: Colombia's 2018 Elections

By Holly K. Sonneland

The race to replace outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos is on, with candidates from across the spectrum.

On June 23, former Presidents of Colombia Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana announced that their parties, the Democratic Center and the Conservative Party, were joining forces to form a “great coalition,” just as campaigning for 2018 elections revs up. The announcement came almost a full year before the elections, but the union now allows the two politicians—both critics of President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—to begin to corral mostly right-wing voter support behind a single presidential candidate and start to give some definition to a crowded field with several dozen declared and likely candidates from across the political spectrum.

Between 12 and 22 percent of Colombians say they’ll likely vote for whichever candidate Uribe endorses. With Democratic Center’s Óscar Iván Zuluaga—Santos’ challenger in the 2014 runoff—pulling out of the race this spring after being implicated in the sprawling Odebrecht corruption case, the nomination for the right-wing coalition remains wide open.


The Basics

Colombians will vote first for the legislature on March 11, 2018. The ruling coalition, led by Santos’ Party of the U and the Liberal Party, today holds 52 out of 102 seats in the Senate, and 99 of 166 seats in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Center and Conservative Party together hold 38 Senate seats and 46 House ones.

Two months later, on May 27, Colombians will hold a first-round vote for president. If no ticket receives at least 50 percent of votes plus one, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff three weeks later on June 17. The winner of that vote will be inaugurated and move into the Casa de Nariño on August 7, 2018.

Voting is not compulsory in Colombia. Turnout in the last presidential election was its lowest in two decades, at just 40 percent for the first round and 48 percent for the runoff.

Voters who need to update their registration must do so by January 11, 2018, for the congressional elections and by March 27, 2018, for the presidential one. This includes Colombians living abroad, who must update their registration in person at the nearest consulate. In the last nationwide vote—October’s plebiscite on the FARC peace agreement—just 12.8 million of 34.9 million eligible voters, about 37 percent, turned out.



Former Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras and ex-Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro have leads in early polls, though much remains to be seen in the next 10 to 12 months. Undergirding the current campaign season is that Colombians disapprove of Santos’ administration by about a rate of 2 to 1. He gets his highest levels of support from upper classes, albeit still with a net disapproval. Congress isn’t doing any better, though, as it’s running 3 to 1 disapproval numbers and even the judiciary has 2 to 1. Uribe’s approval runs between 50 and 58 percent, and his disapproval between 36 and 45 percent.

According to electoral probability analysis by Colombian research firm ANIF, the right-wing coalition’s candidate stands to pick up about 5 million votes, while Vargas Lleras—siphoning votes from Santos’ Party of the U and both the Liberal and Conservative parties—could get 4.7 million, and a hypothetical left-wing coalition’s candidate 2.7 million.

The 2018 elections will be historic for the FARC’s first-time participation in them, but Colombian voters are much more focused on domestic issues of healthcare, unemployment, and corruption.

The Candidates

Germán Vargas Lleras (Radical Change party) — Leading early polls is Vargas Lleras, 55, the grandson of a former president of Colombia, who first entered politics when he was 19. He served as vice president for Santos’ second term, during which time he headed up the administration’s infrastructure projects. He was the minister of interior and then housing in Santos’ first-term cabinet, and he was a four-term senator before that. He is most popular in the areas where many of these infrastructure projects were rolled out, namely the Caribbean and eastern interior regions, where he gets the majority of his support (60 percent, per Invamer). His ambiguous support for the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC, however, caused a rift between him and Santos—along with the capital-based political establishment—during the final months of his vice presidency, from which he resigned in March 2017 to begin campaigning. As such, he receives just 10 percent of his support from his hometown of Bogotá. An incident in December when he was caught on camera hitting his bodyguard (for which he later apologized) also has soured his image for many, and his net approval rating is negative.

Nonetheless, he maintains almost double-digit lead in support among the elderly and lower-income Colombians. This is his second run for the presidency, after coming in third in 2010 with 10 percent of the vote. His Radical Change party holds nine seats in the Senate and 16 in the House.

Gustavo Petro (Progressive Movement) — Petro, 57, is one of the most prominent leftist candidates, having come into politics via the M-19 guerrilla movement, which he joined at age 17. While a member of the armed movement, he reportedly did not see combat but was considered more of a strategist and organizer as the movement demobilized and transitioned into a political party. He served as a congressman in the early 1990s and later in the 2000s, with a stint working in the Colombian embassy in Belgium in between.

Petro came in fourth in the 2010 presidential first round, with 9 percent of the vote. Traditionally, some of his biggest support has come from the Atlantic Coast, the region where he launched a movement to root out the influence of paramilitaries in Colombian politics.

Most recently, he served as Bogotá’s mayor from 2012 to 2015. Midway through his term, he was briefly deposed from his office by then-Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez for allegedly mishandling trash collection contracts before being reinstated by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. He ended his mayoral term with 36 percent approval and 61 percent disapproval ratings.

Iván Duque (Democratic Center). Duque is in a tough spot: Among possible Democratic Center candidates, he gets the most support, but that’s still only just 23 percent, with 42 percent saying they don’t know whom they’d support. As with most candidates on the right, their viability will depend almost entirely on if they can convince Uribe and Pastrana to name them the candidate to head their coalition’s presidential ticket. Nationally, Duque did not poll above 2 percent in May, and 58 percent of people don’t know the senator from Bogotá, as his party is typically more popular in the Antioquia region, where Uribe is from. Among those who do know Duque, more than 2 out of every 3 people have a negative image of him, according to Cifra y Conceptos’ Polimétrica poll.

In the Senate, he filed an ultimately successful challenge before the country’s Constitutional Court that shifted powers from the presidency to Congress to modify the legal framework for the implementation of the FARC peace agreement. Before coming to the Senate in 2014, Duque, 40, spent a decade working in Washington for the Inter-American Development Bank on housing projects in Colombia and Peru. He holds a law degree from American University and a master’s from Georgetown University.

Luis Alfredo Ramos (Democratic Center / Conservative Party) — Former Antioquia Governor Ramos, 69, might be a more viable option for the Democratic Center-Conservative Party Alliance, at least per the polls and some analysts. More than a third of Democratic Center party voters prefer him, per Invamer, though that poll didn't ask about Duque. In hypothetical runoffs, Ramos would win against Petro and de la Calle, but would lose to Clara López and fellow former Antioquia Governor Sergio Fajardo.

Ramos—who’s also served as a mayor, cabinet minister, ambassador, and senator—was arrested in 2013 over charges he engaged in corrupt activities with paramilitaries, which derailed his 2014 bid for president. He was provisionally released from prison in November 2016 after lawyers successfully discredited some witness testimony against him, though he’s still awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court on the original charges of ties to paramilitaries that will determine if he can stand in the 2018 race.

Marta Lucía Ramírez (Conservative Party) — A former minister of both defense and foreign trade and an ex-senator, Ramírez was the Conservative Party’s presidential nominee in 2014, when she came in third in the first round with 15.5 percent of the vote. Today, she garners 38 percent support from Conservative Party voters, per the Invamer poll, almost three times as much as those voters’ next favorite, Ordoñez. Her platform focuses on fiscal discipline, and she introduced a bill to make English language instruction mandatory in schools.

Clara López (independent, formerly of Democratic Pole) — Clara López is an economist by training, with a long history in Colombia’s left. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a bachelor’s in economics and then went on to Spain where she received a doctorate in tax and finance law.  She’s held various positions in Bogotá’s municipal government, and also was Santos’ labor minister for just over a year before resigning in May to run for president in 2018. A former presidential candidate and head of the Democratic Pole, she resigned from that party in April, saying that the group had strayed from its roots and fallen into infighting and increasingly sectarian politics.

Claudia López (Green Party) — One of the dark horses in the race is Senator Claudia López, 47, one of the few candidates with strong recognition and net approval. Her national profile rose in December 2016 when she spoke out against colleagues for trying to quietly slip in a salary bump for themselves amid a complicated tax reform and just before the holidays. She officially launched her campaign shortly thereafter, emphasizing her antiestablishment strain by saying she’d be seeking the support of the 80 percent of Colombians who don’t identify with any party and she’s gone head-to-head with politicians on both sides of the aisle. Anticorruption efforts make up a major part of her political work and platform, as well as environmental issues. She got her start in politics while in undergrad in Bogotá as part of a committee that helped lay the academic groundwork for the 1991 Constitution. She spent many years as a journalist, researcher, and analyst before her election to the Senate in 2014, winning the most votes of any female candidate. López has a master’s in public administration and urban planning from Columbia University in New York, and is pursuing a doctorate in political science at Northwestern University near Chicago.

Sergio Fajardo (Citizens Commitment Movement) — Fajardo gained international acclaim for turning Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, into a beacon for infrastructure revitalization. A mathematician by training, he was a political novice when he first ran to be the city’s mayor in 2000, when he lost, ultimately winning in 2004. He was ex-Mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus’ running mate on the losing ticket in the 2010 presidential runoff; after that race, he went on to become governor of Antioquia. He’s the lone candidate so far in 2018 to get both double-digit support and net approval in national May polls, though as a candidate who falls mostly to the center-left, he’d have his work cut out for him to consolidate that end of the voter spectrum.

Humberto de la Calle (Liberal Party) — A lawyer and poet, de la Calle was Santos’ chief negotiator for the government in the Havana peace talks with the FARC. He’s well regarded for that work with a double-digit net positive approval rating, though his positions have typically come through appointments and not election wins. As such, he doesn’t register large support nationally.

He was a Supreme Court judge in the late 1980s, when members of the judiciary were under particular threat from cartel leader Pablo Escobar’s operation. Next, he was chief of staff to President César Gaviria, during which time he oversaw key aspects of the country’s rewriting of the Constitution in 1991. He then served as President Ernesto Samper’s vice president from 1994 to 1998, and as Colombia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom during Pastrana’s administration.

The FARC in the 2018 Congress

Colombia’s 2018 elections are historic for at least one reason: it’ll be the first time former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, aka the FARC, will be able to vote and run as candidates for the legislature—or even the presidency. Turning their illegal armed fight into a legal political one was one of the foundational terms of their peace talks with the government, which wrapped up in August 2016 after almost six years of negotiations.

But that idea of ex-guerrillas being able to participate in politics is a bitter pill to swallow for many Colombians. Indeed, politicians like former Uribe have used it to galvanize voters for the better part of the last year, including in the ultimately successful campaign against the peace deal in October 2016, and in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election. Per the peace deal, the FARC is guaranteed five additional seats in both the Senate and House, increasing the number of legislators by 10 to 278 for the 2018–2022 session. Nearly 9 in 10 Colombians say they would never vote for a FARC candidate for president.