Reviews | Petro and the rule of law in Colombia

Former M-19 rebel Gustavo Petro won the second round of the Colombian presidential election on Sunday with 50.5% of the vote. His opponent, businessman Rodolfo Hernández, obtained 47.3%. The other votes were intentionally left blank or canceled by the election authorities.

With nearly half of all voters refusing to endorse Mr. Petro, there is no mandate for sweeping change. But don’t count on him to accept this reality.

The 62-year-old president-elect is a far-left populist. He promised to raise taxes on contractors, impose new import duties, expand duties and end oil exploration permits. According to him, the state, and not the market, should lead the economy. Colombia’s central bank is supposed to be independent, but Mr Petro is expected to pressure it into printing pesos recklessly, Argentina-style. Capital flees the country.

Still, Colombians will be lucky if counterproductive economic ideas are Mr. Petro’s worst contribution to public policy. A bigger – and legitimate – concern is that by choosing an executive with an unbridled appetite for power and ties to political factions that sympathize with criminal groups, Colombians have signed their democracy’s death warrant.

The country already has a weak rule of law. Particular credit for this vulnerability goes to President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who put Colombia’s impunity problem on steroids by securing amnesty for the terror group FARC in a so-called peace deal in 2016. The special and longstanding relationship between the United States and Colombia is now over.

Mr Petro is feared by many Colombians because he was a member of M-19 – a guerrilla group funded by Pablo Escobar – in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a close advise to Hugo Chávez in the early 2000s, as the Venezuelan strongman consolidated his power. The authoritarian side displayed by Mr. Petro when he was mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015 alarmed even his allies. When he lost his third presidential bid in May 2018, he told his supporters to take to the streets. That same year, Diosdado Cabello of Venezuela, dictator Nicolás Maduro’s first lieutenant, said Mr. Petro had asked Caracas to fund his campaign.

Mr. Petro denied the allegation. During that campaign – his fourth run for president – he bristled when accused of having anti-democratic intentions. Venezuela helped him with his denials. In March, Mr. Cabello declared him “enemy of Chavismo.”

On Sunday, a narrow majority of Colombian voters said they either thought Mr. Petro had no chavista aspirations or they don’t care. Shortly after the results were released, however, Mr. Cabello tweeted his “tremendous joy” and “a Bolivarian hug” for Colombia. At the end of his tweet, he added the traditional Cuban revolutionary battle cry:Venceremos.”

Mr. Hernández was a weak challenger. He promised to defeat corruption. But he was a neophyte in national politics and suffered from popular fatigue with the centre-right, which repeatedly failed when in government to boost competitiveness and spur rapid growth. Its relatively strong performance is mainly explained by the Colombian fear of a Petro presidency.

Colombia is theoretically a democracy. But there is no law that cannot be circumvented, and drug traffickers in the past have infiltrated the courts. Mr. Petro, convicted by a military court of the charge of illegal possession of weapons in 1985, should have been constitutionally barred from running for president. But years after that felony conviction, for which he served 18 months, his lawyers managed to get a court to reclassify it as a misdemeanor.

When Mr. Santos (2010-18) wanted to bring FARC terrorists into Congress, he used his control of the legislature to declare their drug trafficking (but not that of others) a political crime, and therefore forgivable.

The Santos government, with the support of Mr. Obama, has placed the FARC on the same moral plane as the Colombian army at the negotiating table in Havana. In the final agreement, the guerrillas were granted de facto amnesty for their many bloody transgressions. In 2016, when voters in a national referendum rejected what amounted to a surrender of democracy, Mr Santos reneged on his promise to respect the will of the people.

The agreement established a special “peace” tribunal, ostensibly tasked with uncovering the truth about five decades of FARC-engendered violence. But Team Santos allowed the ideological left to take over this court. Victims of rebel terrorism, who suffered years of sexual slavery and torture in captivity, and families who lost loved ones were subjected to planned and scripted hearings by FARC sympathizers.

Chávez used high oil revenues to grease his hands and pay his henchmen as he built his dictatorship. Bolivian Evo Morales used cocaine revenue to do the same. If Mr. Petro tried to copy the neighbors, Colombian institutions might be strong enough to resist either or both methods of power consolidation. But betting on it seems like a triumph of hope over experience.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

Journal editorial report: The best and worst of the week from Kim Strassel, Kyle Peterson, Jillian Melchior and Dan Henninger. Images: AP/Shutterstock/SpaceX/Reuters Composed: Mark Kelly

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