Colombia veers to the right as President Petro's allies lose by wide margins in regional elections

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Allies of President Gustavo Petro lost by wide margins in municipal and provincial elections Sunday, in what analysts called a sign of growing discontent with Colombia’s first left-wing government.

Candidates for the president’s Historical Pact party failed to win mayorships in any of the nation’s main cities and won governorships in only two small provinces along Colombia’s southern border, according to results released on Sunday night by election officials.

Races for governorships were won mostly by candidates from traditional parties on the center and the right, which were beaten by Petro in last year’s presidential election and lost to independent candidates in the last regional elections four years ago.

Some analysts said Sunday’s outcome threatens Petro’s efforts to get the congress to make significant changes to the nation’s health system and its labor laws.

“This sends a message to some lawmakers who were perhaps on the fence about returning to the government, that it’s not going to be in their electoral interests” to support Petro’s proposals, said Will Freeman a fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The winds are changing in Colombia.”

But others argue the president has leverage to get his social and economic changes through congress. Pedro Medellin, a political analyst in Bogota, said Petro could withold funds earmarked for cash-strapped municipal and provincial governments to pressure governors into guaranteeing their parties' congressional members vote for his proposals.

“Colombia is a very centralized nation, where the president has monumental powers" Medellin said.

Petro won the presidential election after campaigning to make far-reaching economic and social changes that would give the government a greater role in the provision of services like health care, education and public transport.

Once in office, he pushed through measures to raise income taxes and cut tax breaks for businesses, and he has arranged ceasefires with rebel groups that did not join a 2016 peace deal between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels.

But his economic overhaul has mostly stalled in the congress, where Petro’s coalition fell apart earlier this year amid differences over what changes are needed.

Meanwhile, a lack of security continues to afflict rural parts of Colombia. Kidnappings for ransom and extortion of local businesses have increased despite efforts by the government to reach ceasefires with groups like the National Liberation Army.

“Despite wins at the (negotiation) table, the actual day-to-day lives of people in these areas has not improved,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a Colombia expert at the International Crisis Group. “The perception is that security has gotten worse.”

Colombians received a painful reminder of the security woes on Sunday, as gunmen kidnapped the parents of national soccer star Luis Diaz in the northern province of La Guajira. His mother was quickly rescued by police but his father is still missing.

Some voters also appeared to be angered by Petro’s intrusion into local races, particularly in Bogota, where the president organized town hall meetings in the weeks before the election that also served as rallies for his handpicked candidate, Gustavo Bolivar.

Petro also upset some in Bogota by challenging a plan to build an elevated rail system that has already been contracted by the city and is expected to receive funding from the national government. He argued it should be replaced for an underground line that would take longer to build.

Petro’s candidate finished in third place, with just 18% of the votes. Carlos Fernando Galan, a centrist, was elected mayor with 49%.

“Voters did not react well to the metro comments, beause they were seen as an unwelcome intrusion,” said Yann Basset, a political science professor at Bogota’s Rosario University.

He said the local elections showed that the leftist president has struggled to build a party that reaches beyond his personal appeal to voters and provides a “lasting” alternative to conservative parties.

Petro’s supporters noted that the president’s party, which was founded in 2021, won dozens of city council seats as well as races for neighborhood councils.

Still the results were less favorable than expected.

In Cali, a city that spearheaded large protests against inequality in 2021 and voted heavily for Petro in last year’s presidential election, the Historical Pact’s candidate only got 10% of the vote in the mayoral race. Alejandro Eder, a center-right businessman linked to the region’s sugar cane industry, won with 40%.

“The results go in line with the traditional political tendencies” of many regions, Dickinson said. “They sort of make last year look like an outlier.”