Petro’s Allies Facing Electoral Defeat in Colombia’s Major Cities

(Bloomberg) -- Allies of President Gustavo Petro risk losing control of nearly all Colombia’s major cities in regional elections Sunday, signaling potential paralysis as new mayors clash with the government.

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Petro, the nation’s first leftist leader, has seen his popularity plummet as he struggles to keep his political coalition together in congress.

The latest polls show candidates aligned with his ideas are on track for defeat in Bogota, Medellin and Barranquilla — Colombia’s first, second and fourth biggest cities. The race in Cali, the third most populous, could go either way.

Should Petro’s rivals win power, the government could cut municipal financing or deny approvals for big infrastructure projects, according to Sergio Guzman, director of Bogota-based consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis.

“If the government loses in the regional elections, it could be three years of paralysis,” Guzman said in an interview. “This should force the government to moderate, but President Petro is not known for accepting defeats.”

In the capital, Carlos Fernando Galan, a centrist former senator promising to crack down on crime and build new roads, is leading in the polls. The government’s candidate, Gustavo Bolivar, is running second and campaigning on a push to expand English-language education, with Juan Daniel Oviedo, a former head of the statistics agency, in third. Surveys suggest Bolivar would lose against either competitor in a potential runoff.

Bogota — one of the few large Latin American cities without a subway — is in the midst of building an elevated rapid-transit line. Petro and his candidate want to move a segment of it underground, an idea the others oppose. If polls hold and Bolivar loses, the issue could become a flashpoint given Petro’s government is financing 70% of the $3.3 billion project.

In Medellin, right-wing former presidential candidate Federico Gutierrez, who lost to Petro in 2022, is expected to win in a landslide. The same goes for Alejandro Char, a businessman and member of one of Colombia’s richest families, in the key Caribbean port of Barranquilla.

Weakened Hand

Petro began his presidency riding a wave of popularity, pledging to phase out fossil fuels and overhaul Colombia’s conservative economic model. But 14 months later, with key reforms stalled, his approval rating has fallen to about 30%.

A big defeat in this weekend’s regional elections could further hinder his efforts, according to Andres Mejia, a political consultant who teaches at Los Andes University in Bogota.

“The perception that a president is more or less popular gives him or takes away leverage in congress,” Mejia said. “These elections will allow us to estimate how much strength the government really has.”

Security Concerns

Petro has been in talks with Colombia’s remaining rebel groups and even drug lords, seeking to end all sources of violence in the country. However, his negotiation push hasn’t yet produced a lasting truce.

While the homicide rate has edged down slightly over the past year, kidnapping has increased 70%, and both robbery and extortion are up more than 15%. Most regional candidates are looking to capitalize on those weakening indicators, and an October poll showed insecurity topping the economy as the country’s most pressing problem for the first time since Petro took office.

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