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Gustavo Petro, a president in search of a party

The Historic Pact for Colombia — the diverse left-wing coalition that brought Petro to power — faces the choice of either merging into a single party, or risk disappearing

Gustavo Petro recibe banda presidencial
President Gustavo Petro receives the presidential sash from Senator María José Pizarro and from President of the Senate Roy Barreras, during his inauguration in the Plaza Bolívar, in Bogotá, on August 7, 2022.Mauricio Dueñas Castañeda (efe)
Santiago Torrado

At many points in his life, President Gustavo Petro has been a politician without a party.

Initially a member of the M-19 Democratic Alliance — the heir to the guerrilla group that he belonged to in his youth — he served as a congressman, mayor of Bogotá and presidential candidate for a handful of parties and movements: the Alternative Way, the Progressives, the Alternative Democratic Pole and Humane Colombia. The first left-wing president in the modern history of his country, he arrived at the presidential palace a year-and-a-half ago thanks to the Historic Pact for Colombia — a diverse coalition of progressive forces that, in the most formal sense, isn’t a political party. That alliance — and the government’s legislative bloc — now faces an existential crisis on the (still) long road to the next elections, scheduled for 2026.

The poor results of the ruling party in the October regional elections — which revealed the cracks in the coalition — has opened up a debate. “My proposal is that the Historic Pact that has elected 1,083 councilors and 39 deputies in the country be configured into a single political party,” Petro wrote this past Wednesday on X, his favorite communication channel. This was in response to a message that raised the need to relaunch the idea of a united front. “Together with other parties and forces — among which I highlight the Green [Alliance], the Liberal Party, the Christian [Democrats and] the social, ethnic and popular forces of the country — [we can] move towards a great victory in Congress and the presidency in the year 2026,” he added.

Beyond the mentions of the Green Alliance and the Liberal Party — partners of the government that are currently contemplating the possibility of declaring independence — the president has unequivocally supported the call for unity that has been expressed by some of the most prominent voices within the Historic Pact, including Senator María José Pizarro, Representative David Racero or Gustavo Bolívar, the senator and novelist who came third in his failed race to become the mayor of Bogotá.

“Given the resounding failure in the delivery of [results] by the Historic Pact and its parties, either the legal [political] entities are unified into one and democratic mechanisms are defined to choose candidates, or we disappear,” Bolívar warned this past July. “It’s difficult to bring 13 parties, 51 congresspeople and national and regional leaders into an agreement,” he lamented. This was months before his defeat at the polls near the end of October.

Senator Pizarro — who is very close to Petro, to the point that she placed the presidential sash on him at his 2022 inaugural ceremony — has been a key leader in this ongoing debate. “If the October elections showed us anything, it’s that, when we’re divided, it’s much, much more difficult to advance,” she points out.

Just over a year ago, the Historic Pact became the political bloc with the most seats in Congress — an unprecedented result for the left — and successfully catapulted Petro to power in his second attempt at the presidency. But Pizarro admits that there’s now a pending task to rebuild morale and work towards the cohesion of progressive forces to carry out the proposed reforms and consolidate the advances of the left… which, in Colombia, has traditionally been characterized by its tendency to fragment.

“In unity, we’ve achieved greater success than in dispersion,” she emphasizes in an interview with EL PAÍS. “The left — progressivism — should be a cohesive, united bloc. That’s the direction we’ve proposed.”

Added to this reflection is a legal reality. To maintain legal status in Colombia, political parties must cross an electoral threshold: 3% of all valid votes. In the recent regional and municipal elections, the Historic Pact managed less than 20% of the overall vote. For Pizarro, this means that the scenario is reduced to two options: “Let each of the 13 parties go their separate ways, reducing the representation of the left and risking the legal status of all the parties… or merge into a single party,” with robust and solid mechanisms of internal democracy. “We have to ask ourselves if we want to continue being a majority force in the Congress — or, at least, a broad-based one — or marginal forces, as we were in the past.”

Yann Basset — a professor of Political Science at the University of Rosario, in Bogotá — explains that what’s holding the Historic Pact together is President Petro. “Evidently, once Petro’s term is over (Colombia prohibits re-election), it’s very difficult for all these forces to remain together, because if they don’t have the common objective of supporting this government, they’re probably going to be divided on many issues,” he emphasizes. The only thing that could keep them together despite their differences, he reasons, is the prospect of losing legal status if they don’t risk a merger. “The Colombian left is reluctant to get organized, and this is now becoming a matter of life or death for them,” he concludes.

The biggest objections come from the smaller parties in the coalition — they fear that they’ll be diluted in a merger. Some of the partners — such as the Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement (MAIS) — have already expressed their opposition to the idea. The discussion, furthermore, has been complicated by risky legal gaps that surround coalitions, a concept that hasn’t been properly regulated. This has been illustrated by the fact that two senators from the Historic Pact — César Pachón and Alexander López — recently saw their 2022 victories annulled, for engaging in double militancy. During last year’s general elections, they campaigned for candidates who weren’t from their own parties.

“We understand the dynamics of each party, the reluctance, the identity characteristics… we understand that this isn’t an easy decision,” Senator Pizarro acknowledges. She describes this confluence of forces as “a slow-cooking process,” with challenges that require dialogue and effort. “The most important thing is that it has sparked debate,” she points out, regarding the proposal to merge into one party. “After all that it cost us to win, if we don’t make the right decisions, if we don’t keep up with the times, we’re simply going to go backwards.”

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