Enrique Peñalosa: the candidate hoping to greenwash Colombian politics

It’s early days yet, but Green candidate Peñalosa is ahead of current president Santos in some polls. However, there are many hurdles to overcome before success can become a reality.

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Enrique Peñalosa, the Green candidate for the Colombian presidency. Photo courtesy of Infolatam.

With the popular Brazilian environmentalist, Marina Silva, appearing to have lost her political momentum following her decision to join the Brazilian Socialist Party instead of heading her own political party, it has fallen to another figure to place himself at the forefront of Latin American Green politics. The Colombian Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of the capital Bogotá and now candidate for the Alianza Verde (Green Alliance), has seen his support surge in the build up to Colombia’s presidential elections at the end of May.

Some surveys are even suggesting that in a second round run-off with the incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos, the 59-year-old Peñalosa could well emerge victorious. The latest poll from the Centro Nacional de Consultoría put the centre-right Santos on 27% in first-round preferences, Peñalosa on 18%, Óscar Zuluaga of the right-wing Centro Democrático (CD – Democratic Centre) backed by former President Álvaro Uribe on 13%, and Clara López of the centre-left Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA – Alternative Democratic Pole) on 10%. However, in a hypothetical second round between Santos and Peñalosa that would occur in the (apparently likely) event that no single candidate achieved more than 50% of the first-round vote, Peñalosa would obtain 42% of the vote against Santos’ 34% (with the remainder of those polled either stating no preference or declining to reply). Another poll a short while ago, this time from Datexco for the Colombian daily El Tiempo, put Santos, Peñalosa, Zuluaga and López on 25.5%, 17%, 14.6%, and 10.7% respectively in first-round voting intentions, and showed that in a second round between Santos and Peñalosa the Green candidate would triumph with 40.4% to Santos’ 37.1%. In this and all other surveys, though, Santos is projected to comfortably win a hypothetical second round against any other candidate, including Zuluaga.

This Green insurgency has echoes of the 2010 campaign, when their then-candidate Antanas Muckus, who also served two terms as Mayor of Bogotá on either side of Peñalosa’s term, enjoyed a brief spell at the top of the opinion polls before being roundly beaten by Santos in the second round. On that occasion, pre-first round polls had suggested a close race between Muckus and Santos, who at the time was running for his first term as successor to Uribe, and had even suggested Muckus could win. However, in the event Santos garnered 46% of the first-round vote against Muckus’ 21%, and the run-off saw Santos prevail by an even greater margin of 69% to 27%.

Despite Peñalosa’s relatively late arrival to the race for the Colombian presidency – the Greens only held their primaries at the beginning of March – he is far from an unknown quantity in the country. He was Mayor of Bogotá between January 1998 and December 2000, and is considered by some as one of the best mayors the capital has ever had. Under his watch, the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system was devised and implemented, opening just before the end of his term. Using special bus lanes in order to avoid Bogotá’s notorious traffic jams, the system has proved a success, and cost far less than the subterranean metro system that had been proposed for the city before Peñalosa shelved it on taking office. His time as mayor was also marked by an improvement in Bogotá’s libraries, parks and public spaces, and other aspects of public transport, including the construction of numerous cycle lanes.

The TransMilenio bus rapid transit system in Bogotá, the development and initiation of which was largely overseen by Peñalosa during his term as Mayor of the Colombian capital.

Among the policies and campaign promises that Peñalosa has revealed thus far, his focus on rural poverty and the need to drive rural development is perhaps one of the most significant, given the widespread protests that took place across the Colombian countryside last year as farmers and other rural inhabitants vented their anger at what they perceived to be the failure of the Santos government to help farming and agricultural sectors, both in terms of social and economic development and in terms of the negative impacts of Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States on rural communities. Nodding to these sectors could prove to be a shrewd move by Peñalosa, given the widespread support enjoyed by the protesters and the negative impact they had on Santos’ approval ratings, and among his proposals is a pledge to create a Ministry of Rural Wellbeing focussed on improving social and economic conditions in the Colombian countryside.

Rural development could also be a critical factor in the country’s future if it succeeds in bringing about an end to the decades-long civil war between State forces, left-wing FARC guerrillas, and paramilitaries and other factions, which was initially waged in the name of land reform and the interests of Colombia’s rural poor. The ongoing peace process in Havana, Cuba, is set to play a huge part in the election campaigns, with President Santos using it as a central part of his appeal for voters to stick with him, in order to see the peace process through to a successful conclusion. However, on this Peñalosa seems determined not to concede any ground, stating that he supports the peace process (in contrast to the fervent opposition by Zuluaga’s CD and several other candidates). He has also highlighted the need to work to improve Colombia’s health and education systems, as well as urban security, topics which along with an end to armed conflict in the country often feature among voters’ top concerns and priorities.

Óscar Zuluaga, of the right-wing Centro Democrático (CD), who could also challenge Peñalosa for second place in the first round of the presidential elections. Photo courtesy of Infolatam.

Peñalosa has at his disposal a plentiful source of voters who are disenchanted with the country’s political system, dominated by the party of President Santos and other conservative forces, including the presence of Uribe and his new CD party. In the Alianza Verde primaries, he racked up more than 2.5m votes, easily defeating his rivals and far surpassing the 800,000 that Muckus had achieved in the same contest four years earlier. However, this support base and appeal to voters looking for a credible alternative to Santos will be something the Greens will need to make the absolute most of, as there are many distinctive hurdles standing in the way of Peñalosa and the Colombian presidency.

First, one can never dismiss the advantage of incumbency, which Santos has already indicated he will be looking to exploit as the campaign heats up. He has pointed to the ‘lack of experience’ of his rivals, as opposed to his four years in charge having previously acted as Defence Minister under Uribe, and has been quick to highlight the undeniable social and economic progress that has been made in Colombia in recent years. This, he claims, is reason enough to stick with him and his political project, rather than opting for the great unknown in one of the alternative candidates on offer. Santos is also quite rightly drawing on the growing approval of the FARC peace talks, and he wants to paint this process as something that is absolutely crucial to the country’s future – with himself as the only person who can finish the job.

Second, the shadow of 2010 will be hanging over Peñalosa and the Greens. As detailed earlier, the then-candidate Muckus enjoyed similar bursts of approval and at one stage may have appeared odds-on to win the contest. Yet as the crunch time approached, it may have been that Colombian voters saw the reality of the choices on offer, and opted for what they considered to be the ‘safer’ option. The chances of such an occurrence repeating itself this time around are far from slim.

Third, one also cannot rule out the possibility that Peñalosa’s popularity derives in part from something of a ‘protest vote’, given Santos’ mediocre approval ratings and the polarisation that the other candidates of the Right and Left can still cause among voters. Numerous opinion polls over recent months had shown an alarming number of ‘Blank Votes’ – people saying they would deliberately spoil their ballot or vote for the ‘none of the above’ option. However, this spectre has diminished somewhat in recent polls, possibly as the election itself draws nearer and voters start to make up their minds, but also possibly because Peñalosa has drawn on some of these undecided or protest votes.

If this is the case, the Greens may well struggle to hold on to enough votes to even make it through to the second round, let alone pose a challenge to Santos in the run-off vote. The fact that Peñalosa is polling at around or less than 20% for the first round, but around 40% for the second round, means that a lot of voters would be crossing over to him only when their choices are more limited; they would be taking something of a gamble, and they may well decide it is a gamble not worth taking and vote for Santos instead. And all this is to say nothing of the challenge that would await Peñalosa if he did emerge triumphant: in the recent legislative elections, the Greens won just 6 seats out of 164 in a fractured Chamber of Representatives (lower house), and 5 senators out of 102, with less than 4% of the valid vote. If Peñalosa were to become President, he would have to strive to stitch together a ruling coalition, in which his own Alianza Verde would be very much a minority party.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who is running for reelection and to whom Peñalosa appears to be the main challenger. Photo courtesy of Infolatam.

Of course, one could also say that lightning doesn’t strike twice – that this time around the appeal of the Greens and Peñalosa is real and represents a new direction in the wishes of Colombian voters. Peñalosa is undoubtedly popular, and for all the challenges that remain ahead, his success thus far has been no fluke, being built instead on the solid electoral base enjoyed by the Greens and the positive legacy of Peñalosa’s time as Mayor of Bogotá. Yet there is clearly a lot at stake for the Colombian electorate, and it is now up to Peñalosa and the Greens to convince them that they are the most credible option; both as an alternative to Santismo and Uribismo, and as a genuine team capable of running the country.