Who's Afraid of Petro?
The new Mayor of Bogotá has a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate that he is not the bogeyman, that he can achieve a good government and that he can reach higher.
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Gustavo Petro has been the Colombian elite’s bogeyman for several years. His years in the guerrilla marked him as a radical person and, in order to create a political left force, all his career have been driven by different experiments, parties and movements: Vía Alterna, Frente Social y Político, Polo Democrático and now with Movimiento Progresistas. All of them have had as main objective to counterbalance the establishment. In a country with little tradition of parliamentary opposition, Gustavo Petro became the opposition par excellence, especially in his years as senator. In the debates he was noted for his intelligence, his great oratory and his exaggerations.
As if that was not enough, when Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela, in 1998, Petro was his closest friend and by his hand he made his first visits to the country. And in the years of the Uribe era, who strengthened the banner of security, terrorism and intolerance against the guerrillas, Gustavo Petro became the antichrist of the Uribismo, the coalition of former President Uribe. In his debates he even criticized the former president brother and sons. Uribe responded by opening for the first time in 20 years a bitter debate over his guerrilla past, on the pardon that allowed him out of jail, where he had been for two years, and his legitimacy to participate in politics.
The bogeyman of the establishment, since last Sunday, is the new Bogotá Mayor. That means that he has reached the second highest office in the country, which is a huge personal triumph. Simultaneously he defeated the establishment, Uribe, the Polo Democrático, (his previous' party), and in some way the government, which would have preferred other candidates. Petro achieved to shield himself in a way a few months ago would have been inconceivable, to guard against the continual attacks over his past, his radicalism and his friendship with Chavez. And with his eloquence, and wearing a tie, he defeated the fear he evoked.
The key of his success was a genuine transformation of his image and his political mood. On one hand, after departing of the Polo Democrático, he founded a movement, that enabled him to run for Bogotá’s Council. Before taking this step, he made important political moves. He denounced the contractors cartel of former mayor Samuel Moreno, who he had help to elect. He also attacked his own party, for which he was a presidential candidate just 16 months ago, he voted for the ultra conservative Alejandro Ordóñez for General Prosecutor, he proposed to President Santos, after his victory, an approach to discuss land, victims and water policies, and in the external field he gave the impression that he walked away from Chavez.
Gustavo Petro is one of the best examples of the dynamic nature of the politics. The new Mayor of Bogotá is a leader with demonstrated political skills and an excellent candidate. He lost his first election, when he ran for the House of Representatives for the first time, but since then he has shown a great ability to gain votes: in 2006 he obtained the second highest vote for the Senate and in 2010 he defeated Carlos Gaviria, a recognized and important left politician, in the Polo Democrático’s primary.
And last Sunday he reached his most precious victory: the city government. Without political machinery or party, and with a candidacy determined just hours before the registration close, the feat of Petro in the capital is comparable with that of Uribe in the country in 2002: both lonely, they got into a stage set for a very different script and eventually swept the election. On this occasion, Petro understood that to tune into the feelings of the citizens, he needed to convince them of his commitment and ability in the fight against corruption. If Enrique Peñalosa thought that after the disaster of Samuel Moreno the city needed a manager, Petro thought that what was really required, was a gladiator against corruption: his speech focused on criticizing the mafias and the Polo Democrático, and claim his role as the complainant of the hiring carousel.
Another strategic key was to counteract the fear generated by his image. He assumed an attitude of stoic tolerance, he didn't sought fights, he almost didn't attack his rivals, he adopted a discourse of inclusion, almost religious, which dipped into corny resources like his propose of "politics of love." He promised many things and once again proved that in an election campaign, the debate between the populist promises and the "cannot be done" of those who appeal to fiscal responsibility tends to give the victory to the first one. The publicist Daniel Vinograd provided creative design and popular slogans such as "Petro is the man", referring to a famous Colombian soap opera, who gave joy and spontaneity to the campaign.
Petro took a big political risk playing the Lone Ranger, especially in a competition in which the partnerships were the key, and in which his rivals had important and powerful people beside them. Peñalosa had Alvaro Uribe and Gina Parody had Antanas Mockus. Petro knew that the key to his victory was to conquer the feeling of rebellion that has characterized Bogotá electorate, who had chosen before Lucho Garzón and Samuel Moreno. His target was the middle class. He knew that the elite would chose Peñalosa or Gina, in that target he just reached 14 percent.
Gustavo Petro's triumph provoked a great interest in the international community. On Sunday night, the fact that an ex-guerrilla reached a position of such importance was highlighted by the biggest news agencies and foreign media, which compared what it meant with the triumph of José Mujica in Uruguay , or Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. In the infield Petro's triumph generated unconformities for both right and left. On the one hand, the leadership of the Polo Democrático suffered the pain of being defeated by none other than his former presidential candidate. And on the other side, much of the establishment and the uribismo see with discomfort the climb of the bogeyman.
This does not mean that Gustavo Petro is a man of center political views. His place is of a moderate left who could succeed because the moderate right was divided between Enrique Peñalosa, Gina Parody and Carlos Fernando Galán.
The triumph of a non-party ex-guerrilla who overcomes a charge of the importance of Bogotá Mayor, will have many positive implications for democracy. Somehow, it claims the idea that for the left wing, institutions are a more efficient way than armed struggle to achieve the power. The message to the guerrillas is clear: it may be worthwhile to demobilize. Also for the dogmatic left, which was reduced to a tiny percentage in these elections. With his victory, and with the one of Raul Delgado in the Government of Nariño, a similar phenomenon, Petro is, for now, the owner of the space that exists in Colombia for a democratic left. His only rival is Clara Lopez, Bogotá’s acting mayor. Incidentally, his triumph will allow the President Santos to argue that, despite of a strong government majority, the National Unity is not a suffocating coalition.
With the tone of his victory speech, Petro made clear that he will be here for a while. The content of his speech touched national issues that have little or nothing to do with his responsibilities as mayor. He made it clear that the City Government is the first step for a movement that will later seek the presidency. In order to achieve it, he knows he has to be conciliatory and constructive. As a good convert, he will not fall into the statism and socialist radicalism. He will benefit the city's momentum, which while is now critical, will allow him to reap what is already planted. The main wrongs of the contracts are fixed and the works will be delivered slowly. Petro knows that being the successor of the failed former Mayor Samuel Moreno, is a unique opportunity. And he will not miss this opportunity.