A tale of two mayors: Debate sideshow rolls through Bogotá

By Arjun Harindranath May 9, 2018

Photo courtesy of @DeLaCalleHum

After a total of umpteen debates, it was finally Bogotá’s turn to have the presidential candidates nut over the issues that concern Colombia’s capital the most. And though the debate stage was shared by four candidates–Humberto de la Calle, Iván Duque, Germán Vargas Lleras and Gustavo Petro–it seemed that the debate was more about two mayors of Bogotá than about any of the political topics that had been covered in the previous debates.

In fact, there was no talk of the peace accord, healthcare, the environment or Venezuela during the two hours of ‘Debate Capital’. The majority of the discussion revolved around the thorniest issue in bogotano politics: the construction of a public metro.

Gustavo Petro, the Humana Colombiana candidate and former mayor of Bogotá, immediately put his weight behind the construction of an underground metro line that stretches across the capital. However, the other three candidates want the plans of current mayor Enrique Peñalosa to build an elevated metro line to continue to fruition much like the one built in Medellín.

What resulted was perhaps one of the more illuminating debates that allowed itself the time to flesh out a discrete topic to greater depth. It also became clearer how different candidates were planning on governing if elected as president.

Centro Democrático candidate Duque on the one hand was stunned that Petro would scrap plans for the elevated metro– the construction of which has been awarded to French company Systra–even if that came at a great cost to the city.  “You are blackmailing the people! So if we don’t do the subway like you want, Bogota citizens won’t have a subway?” Duque charged. Petro’s response: “Dr Duque, democracy isn’t blackmail,” which was one of the more discussed quotes from the debate on social media after the debate. “The truth is that citizens do not want an elevated metro,” Petro added.

The exchange clearly showed Petro’s intention to play the role of political disrupter and his willingness to take on the current mayor if elected as president. On the other hand, both Duque and Vargas Lleras of Cambio Radical were willing to hold Petro’s feet to the fire on the issue. Bogotá commands the greatest finances as well as the greatest expenditure in the country and a working relationship with the Bogotá mayor will be on the mind of many a voter in the capital.

The truth is, the people of Bogotá have probably seen this Simpson’s episode before- the one where the flashy song and dance man wants to sell them a monorail only to exit stage left without having delivered on his promise. Many Bogotá voters are also doubly aware of Petro’s divided legacy as an administrator of the city though they would also have to take their chances with Duque, Vargas Lleras or De la Calle, none of whom have held a similar managerial position.

Nonetheless, viewers were treated to a compelling debate where the candidates could dissect a smaller selection of topics–others included the creative industry in Bogota and criminality in the city–with minimum interruption from either moderators.

The moderators,  Érika Fontalvo y Yesid Lancheros, also resorted to few gimmicks (the only exception being a pub quiz on Bogotá at the end which every candidate aced) nor did they constrict the free flow of ideas by overly burdensome debate rules. The constant back and forth along with occasional overlapping arguments made for lively exchanges without descending into a free-for-all brawl.  

Last month, Weekly magazine Semana suggested that the country was suffering a bout of ‘debatitis’ – that pervasive fatigue resulting from all too many debates. If that’s the case then Debate en Capital, and the edifying dialogue that came from it, may just have been the cure.

Winner: Canal Capital for putting on the best debate so far.

Loser: Sergio Fajardo for not turning up and failing to capitalise on the fact that he’s the only candidate who, as Mayor of Medellín, has actually delivered on a metro.