What’s Colombia’s new president up to?

Colombia has a new president – Iván Duque, only 42 years old, was sworn in on 7 August. He has won a highly contested, starkly polarised election campaign that divided the country once again into a pro-peace agreement liberal left, and a pro-business, contra-peace agreement conservative right. Although the political scenery is more complex than that, there is a sense of uncertainty that has swept the country since the election of the right-wing candidate: Many feel unsettled about the prospects of implementation of the peace deal with left-wing guerrilla FARC, but also about the many important challenges of conflict and post-conflict that lie ahead still. What’s on Duque’s plate, and what does he propose to do about it?

Duque and Uribe: A controversial alliance

First, international media have tended to describe Duque as essentially Uribe’s puppet. Álvaro Uribe Vélez is the notorious ex-president who, in the early 2000s, administered the US-backed counternarcotics and counterinsurgency campaign „Plan Colombia“ and earned fame with a successful military push-back of the FARC, which termed „narcoterrorists“, conflating the country’s two major factors of violent conflict. He also earned a reputation as a ruthless and likely corrupt politician with indirect or direct ties to paramilitarism – allegations that most recently led him to step down from his office as senator.

Uribe has founded the party that Duque now won with as the new president, and he has personally and highly visibly endorsed Duque’s campaign – which has led many to view Duque as „Uribe’s little one“, lacking an independent profile. Duque has certainly benefited from standing in the shadows of the so-called „eternal ex-president“, but is still working on his own political stance and on convincing the public that he is more than a spoon-fed Uribista. His first few months as president should show where he is headed.

Profitable post-conflict or lasting security gains?

Second, Duque seems to combine Uribe’s security politics (thus far at least in discourse) with a heavily pro-business public policy. His hopes, he has highlighted in his first presidential address, for Colombia’s future are to secure investor’s confidence, intensify foreign capital investment, and lower taxes.

Pacification seems, in Duque’s eyes, to be primarily key to restoring national and multinational businesses‘ trust in the many resources the country has to offer. What this means for Colombia’s peace has yet to be seen – but it might come at the price of unsettling negotiation prospects with ELN, the second-largest guerrilla group of the country which is currently still active.

New and old challenges on the rise

Third, Duque faces a complicated security situation: Coca production and export have boomed again over the last years; homicide rates are rising again; and organised crime, if not by cartels but by more fragmented groups, is still a significant threat to citizen security. What’s more, over 300 assassinated community leaders (often those actively working on the implementation of the peace accords) in the last two years alone show that Colombia’s peace is, despite significant and very positive advances, not yet fully secured.

Obviously, such challenges are great and demand sophisticated and coordinated action on behalf of the government – and it has to be acknowledged that no solution will be optimal nor satisfactory to all parties involved. Notwithstanding, it is important that Duque invites public debate and citizen participation, and takes into consideration long-term approaches rather than another hard-headed, short-sighted crackdown à la Uribe. The announcement that coca fumigations will return, this time via drones, is sadly not promising.

Not an anti-corruption activist

Fourth and finally, it is not clear how Duque will approach Colombia’s fundamental, far-reaching problem with the corruption of the public sector across all levels. On the 26 of August, Colombia will cast a popular vote for a new anti-corruption legislation, which among others would be a proposal for the reduction of congress salaries – these are currently at a worrying high of 40 times the minimum wage. Unfortunately, Duque has not been very outspoken about the referendum, nor has his government put any considerable effort into stimulating public knowledge and debate of this important vote.

All in all, the above four are but some of the challenges for Colombia’s new government. Duque’s heavy leaning towards big business (consider for example the fact that the new defence minister, Guillermo Botero, has hitherto been president of the National Federation of Commerce and has no experience whatsoever in the defence sector), his close affinity with the controversial and polarising public figure of Uribe, and his blurry political profile make it difficult to estimate how he will do in the future. Nevertheless, his first announcements and proposals do not inspire hope for change and, more problematically, might get in the way of continuing along the road former president Santos had paved. Time will tell.

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