Photo: Correo del Orinoco

Sunday’s elections in Colombia show Gustavo Petro running strong, giving us reason to fear his lead in the presidential polls, even if the overall results aren’t that good for him. I’m not saying no vale, yo no creo; I’m saying DON’T PANIC.

At least not yet.

First things first: what were we voting for?

  • Senate: elected from party lists presented nationwide.
  • House of Representatives: elected from party lists in each department.
  • The left-wing primary: between Gustavo Petro and Some Dude.
  • The right-wing primary: between uribista Iván Duque, conservative Marta Lucía Ramírez and hard-right, religious conservative Alejandro Ordóñez.

It’s true, Petro did really well. It’s not that he beat a minor, local politician, 85% to 15%, but rather that he was able to get 2.8 million votes two months away from the first round of the presidential election. That’s more than a leftist candidate has ever obtained in such a race, positioning him well to the runoff.

On Venezuela, Petro has been all over the map, from saying Chávez was a great leader, to ignoring the issue, to accusing his opponents of being the ones with chavista-like policies.
But if Petro won, Iván Duque won big.

Despite facing a tougher primary opponent (former presidential candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez), he won decisively with over 4 million votes, confirming he’ll be Uribe’s voice in this election. Ramírez is now his running mate.

Venezuela has been an important theme in their campaigns. Ramírez even visited Caracas and met with opposition leaders, in an effort to show the extent of the Venezuelan crisis to voters.

That being said, around 8 million people decided not to participate in any primary, which were open to everyone, but only for one of the two.

All you need to know is that Santos’ party (U) lost seats and Cambio Radical, the party of former VP and presidential candidate Vargas Lleras, gained a few.

In the Congressional elections, the uribista party, Centro Democrático, also performed well. Despite losing a senator, they’re now the largest party in this chamber, increasing their vote total. Uribe himself was the most voted candidate, with over 875,000 votes.

Then comes the messy middle, with four parties getting 12-14% of the vote. These parties, Cambio Radical, Conservative, Liberal and U, don’t have much of a defined ideology, relying mostly on regional figures. All you need to know is that Santos’ party (U) lost seats and Cambio Radical, the party of former VP and presidential candidate Vargas Lleras, gained a few. Party cohesion is close to non-existent and support will shift as the political winds change.

Within this bloc, attitudes to the Venezuelan government are fairly uniform (opposing and denouncing it), but there are differences on whether to take a directly combative approach, like Uribe, or a more pragmatic one, like Santos.

Something worrying me is that we’ve started to see Venezuelan immigrants as political targets, and xenophobia may become a useful political weapon as the crisis aggravates, especially in border regions like Norte de Santander, where Santos won in 2014. Regions have become more uribista, as seen in the peace deal referendum, and these elections.

The smaller, more progressive parties, also saw improvement, especially the Greens, who doubled their representation in the Senate to ten seats and were the most voted party in Bogotá. While they don’t have a single cohesive ideology, their base tends to be upper/middle class, educated, urban and progressive. They’ve denounced Maduro and chavismo, making the case that there’s room for progressive proposals and open criticism of the Venezuelan government.

Freshly-elected Green Senator Angélica Lozano has made the case that mass migration from Colombia to Venezuela presents us with two challenges: first, the ethical imperative to reciprocate and, second, that restricting migration does absolutely nothing for the millions of Venezuelans who have, or can claim, Colombian citizenship.

While middle class Colombians face tough challenges, they’ve seen Venezuelan immigrants transform from being their bosses, coworkers and small business owners, to informal sellers on public transportation.

Something worrying me is that we’ve started to see Venezuelan immigrants as political targets, and xenophobia may become a useful political weapon as the crisis aggravates.

Why are these voters so relevant? Because they’re the key to Petro expanding his base (perhaps forming an alliance) and being competitive, especially if the election goes to a runoff. His coalition did well for a first time party, crossing the threshold to get seats, but it only got 4% of the vote, with similar results for the traditional left-wing party Polo Democrático.

How about FARC? Well, a very smart piece argues that, despite the attention they got around the world, they were not relevant in the election, getting just a tiny percent of the vote (though they have 5 seats in each chamber guaranteed by the peace treaty), and won’t field a presidential candidate.

So despite Petro’s results, anti-Maduro uribistas did well and Petro needs more moderate voters to support him. Yet, I’m still worried.

It’s not that we won’t talk about Venezuela in the campaign, we vote a week after Maduro’s “election”, it’s the way it’ll be used as a political weapon, excluding all discussion on how to address concrete issues like migration or international relations.

On the right, candidates haven’t been able to effectively argue what exactly has gone wrong in Venezuela. Taking pictures of poor people living in precarious housing in Caracas is not a convincing argument, when millions of poor people already live in neighborhoods that look exactly like that all over Colombia.

This gives the left space, while not directly endorsing chavismo, to claim that the argument is being used as a political boogeyman and, worse, that the problems in Venezuela are as bad and of the same kind as those in Colombia, completely missing the point.

And that frustrates me to no end.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.