BOGOTA – Colombian President Gustavo Petro took office a year ago laying out ambitious goals for the nation’s first leftist government.
He said his agenda would provide Colombians with a “second opportunity” to end decades of internal violence, and he promised that his “government of change” would tackle longstanding inequalities by increasing government spending and reforming the health system and labor laws.
Yet, while celebrating his first year in office Monday, Petro is facing growing doubts about his ability to fulfill his promises in the remainder of his four-year term.
The president’s approval rating has plunged 20 points, leaving just over a third of Colombians expressing satisfaction with his performance. Fighting among rebel groups and drug traffickers persists in rural areas, and his social and economic reforms are stalled in the fractured congress.
A campaign finance scandal involving Petro’s eldest son, which broke out earlier this summer, has further weakened the government, with some analysts saying Petro’s capacity to change Colombia’s laws has been severely wounded.
“I think its safe to say that he’s likely to become a lame duck president,” said Will Freeman, a Colombia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He’s moved on to a phase of his presidency where he’ll likely focus more on symbolic gestures and on issues he can control unilaterally, instead of big legislative reforms.”
Petro’s political prospects looked far different a year ago, when tens of thousands of people showed up at his inauguration speech at Bogota’s iconic Bolivar square. He began his term with a 56% approval rating, according to a poll conducted by Invamer.
Still, Petro’s Historical Pact party held less than a quarter of thel seats in congress, and he had to cobble together a coalition that included traditional parties in the center and on the right that were granted Cabinet positions in return for backing his proposed reforms.
The grouping quickly pushed through a tax overhaul that raised government revenues by $4 billiion. And it approved a legal framework for Petro’s government to negotiate the disarmament of rebel groups like the Gulf Clan and the National Liberation Army, whose power has grown in some parts of Colombia since FARC guerrillas disarmed in 2016 during the administration of centrist President Juan Manuel Santos.
But the coalition began to fall apart early this year as differences began to emerge over Petro's proposal to overhaul the health system by putting a government agency in charge of all insurance payments. Currently, private companies insure millions of Colombians and manage payments to hospitals.
Parties on the center and the right slowly began to abandon Petro’s coalition, and they knocked down labor law legislation that would have limited the ability of companies to hire workers on temporary contracts. In July, parties opposed to the Petro government denied the government its choice for president of the Senate.
Petro's health system proposal and a legislation to change Colombia’s pension system have been approved by Senate committees, but the chance of them passing the entire Senate now seems remote, said Sergio Guzman, a political analyst in Bogota.
“If the government wants to get any of its legislation approved they will have to make concessions” Guzman said. “The government will lose those reforms if they fail to understand that they are no longer politically viable.”
Guzman added that the scandal involving Petro’s eldest son, Nicolas Petro, gives the opposition further leverage in disputes over legislation because lawmakers can threaten the president with a congressional inquiry.
Petro’s son, who is also a politician, is under investigation for alleged money laundering and illicit enrichment and last week agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in a probe that is now also looking at how the president’s 2022 campaign was financed.
During a recent hearing, the younger Petro said he took tens of thousands of dollars from a convicted drug trafficker on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and funelled some of the money into his father’s presidential campaign.
Nicolas Petro said his father had no knowledge of the source of those donations. But prosecutors say they are looking into whether funds from other illicit sources might have entered the campaign — and whether the president knew about the donations.
Petro has denied any wrongdoing and said he would not interfere with his son’s investigation.
On Monday, he marked his first year in office with a one-hour speech at the site of a historic battlefield where Colombia secured its independence from Spain in the 19th century.
Petro celebrated the start of a six-month truce with the Natinal Liberation Army, Colombia’s largest remaining rebel group, saying that it will save lives and facilitate negotiations with the rebel group.
He said that his government will present an education reform to congress that seeks to ensure free tuition at public universities and that he will continue to press congress to pass his health and labor law measures.
“Change will strengthen us, not weaken us,” Petro said. “It will put us on a road to development, that leaves nobody behind.”