Analysis

Colombia’s violent protests in 2021 will open door to political transformation

  • Americas
  • Political and Economic Risk Consulting
  • Operational Security Management
Raul Gallegos

Raul Gallegos

Colombia’s violent protests in 2021 will open door to political transformation



Violent clashes between protesters and the police that have been escalating since 28 April – initially to oppose a controversial tax reform – will set the stage for a growing empowerment of the left ahead of Colombia’s May 2022 general election, and a likely win by a leftist candidate.

  • Progressive politicians, especially the populist leftist Gustavo Petro, stand to gain strength from the deep discontent of the middle class and the poor.
  • The victory of Petro or a left-of-centre politician in 2022 is highly likely, especially due to pandemic-related unemployment and rising poverty.
  • The political right led by President Iván Duque will become increasingly weakened in the coming year, opening the door to a future leftist government.
  • The business climate will face operational hurdles in the face of recurring protests that disrupt logistics and put assets at risk. 

Unrest

Social organisations, unions, and students, representing the poor and the middle class, sustained over a week of violent, anti-government protests that began on 28 April and which led on 2 May to the government’s retraction a controversial fiscal reform, the resignation of Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla on 3 May, and on 4 May the announcement of a formal dialogue between the government and social actors. Permanent levels of violent unrest are unsustainable over time, which means that protests will likely ease in intensity in the coming weeks but will re-emerge on occasion over the next year. Furthermore, the police response in these protests, leading to cases of police brutality, will further propel anti-Duque sentiment. The government’s retraction of the tax reform has placed it on the defensive, and social organisations are likely to seek to take advantage of this position of weakness in the next 12 months, ahead of the 2022 presidential elections. Protesters will seek to extract further concessions from a Duque government that is widely perceived to be weak and desperate to regain political capital ahead of the vote. The Duque administration and its Democratic Centre (CD) party, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, is unlikely to be able to regain that strength in time to win the next election. We assess that, as things stand now, whichever presidential candidate Duque and Uribe back will struggle to reach a second round. A second-round run-off would therefore be more likely to take place between two leftist candidates, a first in Colombian history.

Gustavo Petro, who represents the populist wing of the left, has continued to gain in popularity since he came 2.4 million votes shy of the presidency and lost to Duque in the 2018 presidential election. A survey by local pollster Invamer, released on 22 April, shows Petro with 38% of voter intent, double that of Sergio Fajardo (15.9%), who is considered the more centrist leftist option. Vice-President Marta Lucía Ramírez from the right, stood at 11.8%. There is ample time ahead of the 2022 election for new candidates from both the right and moderate left to emerge and upset Petro’s popularity. However, the trend of empowerment of the left and weakening of the right will continue and likely intensify in the coming months. While more moderate, educated, middle-to-upper class voters in large cities would prefer a centre left candidate like Fajardo, this segment is a privileged minority. The larger, poorer segment of society, which has lost the most jobs and income during the pandemic, is likely to embrace the populist ideas of a candidate like Petro.



Discontent

Discontent over corruption, the absence of the state in rural areas, poverty, and inequality all served to fuel protests in Colombia in late 2019, and the pandemic has only made things worse. While more revenue is needed to continue to tackle pandemic spending, protesters argue that Duque’s fiscal reform did not tax the rich and companies enough. Data from the state statistics agency Dane shows that in 2020, the middle class fell from 30% to 25% of the population. At the same time, poor households surged from 35.7% to 42.5%. The income of the poorest Colombians declined by nearly 25%. This means more than 3 million people saw a social demotion last year, despite financial subsidies from the state, and the Duque government will be unable to turn that around in time for the next election. In fact, the third wave of the pandemic continues to take a toll in Colombia and the vaccine rollout remains slow with only 10 per 100,000 people having had at least one dose, according to Our World in Data on 7 May. This means 6.9% of a population of 50 million is partially vaccinated, and only 3.5% fully vaccinated since the rollout began on 1 March. Political pressure will likely prompt Duque to redouble efforts to secure vaccines, and the US government may provide additional help. Should the Duque administration fail to quickly turn around low vaccination numbers, this failure will also help deliver a defeat to the right next year.

A total of 4.24 million voters aged 18 to 22 will vote for the first time in 2022, and most of these embrace progressive ideas that coincide with Petro and other left-of-centre candidates. Even assuming an abstention rate of 46%, that leaves 2.3 million new voters who are young, unemployed, and angry because of the pandemic, who will likely cement a victory for a leftist candidate in the coming election. Young voters are especially wary and distrustful of Uribe and his conservative political legacy of distrust of dialogue or peace with guerrillas, which means that new voters are especially likely to avoid voting for any candidate backed by the current administration, hence delivering political change.

Security, operational implications

Although the current protests are unlikely to go on consistently for more than a month, given fatigue and potential concessions from the government in the ongoing dialogue, they will become recurrent throughout the remainder of 2021, and in the first half of 2022 ahead of the election. This means that strikes by teachers, bus drivers, cab drivers, health professionals, students and even farmers are likely in the coming months as they seek to exact their pound of flesh from the lame duck Duque government. These protests will continue to disrupt logistics, and pose mostly incidental security threats to company assets, personnel, and operations, depending on their location. Protests and riots are unlikely to directly target private sector assets except for transportation units, the looting of some automated teller (cash) machines (ATM) and smaller, unguarded commercial establishments.

Protests will also disrupt public transportation which will pose difficulties for people to work when they can under already challenging mobility restrictions due to the pandemic. Blockages of major thoroughfares into and out of major cities like the capital Bogotá, Medellín in the department of Antioquia, and Cali in Valle del Cauca, are likely and this will lead to shortages of food and other necessities. Such blockages, however, are unlikely to be sustained over time given the intent and capability of the security services to use force to unblock those areas if necessary.

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