Election 2018: Grading the fourth presidential debate

By Arjun Harindranath April 22, 2018
fourth presidential debate

Image courtesy of Concordia.

After having a more sedate sit-down affair in the coffee region, the presidential debates moved on Bogotá last Friday. And while the fourth televised presidential debate offered little in the way of fireworks, it did offer the country to see all of the candidates in the same place for once. 

The moderators constricted the actual debate to segments of 1 minute or 30 seconds and were unwilling to allow a freer exchange that might have illuminated or deepened the dialogue on more complex topics.

The debate was segmented into thematic blocks, centering on 1) commitment to democracy 2) growth of the economy 3) visions on social progress 4) Colombia in the world, before opening up to questions from the floor.

Seated studiously behind large corporate white tables, the debate included frontrunners Iván Duque and Gustavo Petro as well as Germán Vargas Lleras, Humberto de la Calle, Sergio Fajardo and Viviane Morales. With all the candidates in tow, how did they do? The Bogotá Post grades the candidate’s performances:

Iván Duque – Centro Democrático

Assured and measured, Duque continues to communicate his policies with confidence. Duque’s strategy in these debates appears to be to commit the least number of missteps possible, an advantage he has given that the most recent polls have him several points ahead of second-placed Petro.

Managed to stay invisible for the most part and seldom sparred with his rival. His reputation and lead probably remains intact as a result of this debate. Critics decried the possibility of unfair biases in his favour during the debates when moderator Claudia Gurisatti said that law required RCN to cut to commercial at which point a campaign ad for Ivan Duque turned up. Duque is still the favourite to win, and any favouritism he may get probably won’t hurt him either.

Grade: A

Gustavo Petro – Colombiana Humana

Gustavo Petro

A more subdued performance, Petro is probably exercising the same restraint as Duque in the hope that he’ll have a runoff with the man in the second round of elections. A larger field meant that Petro at sometimes disappeared but his measured delivery may have calmed those who are still concerned that he may turn Colombia into another Venezuela. He continued to distance himself from the distressed country saying he doesn’t want an economic model that depends on the petroleum industry. His calm, humane response to the crisis in Venezuela and the desire to find international agreement on a solution to the crisis also helped.

He did however show his willingness to confront Trump on his attitude on climate change, even if it strained relations with a crucial ally. His popularity outside the studios of RCN is growing and undisputed. The stillness of the studio and little audience interaction didn’t however seem to jade him in any obvious way.

Grade: A-


Sergio Fajardo – Alianza Verde

Allowed himself to be overshadowed by Humberto de la Calle on education, a platform fundamental to Fajardo’s vision for Colombia.

Fajardo respected the rules of the debate a little too closely, ending his speeches as his time was up rather than running over and fighting for every second.

He remains popular among younger voters but, at this stage, his stature at these debates has been encapsulated in a meme purporting to show him fast asleep at the first televised debate. Fajardo has to stay awake and on his toes if he wants to stand a chance during the elections.

Grade: B-

Germán Vargas Lleras – Partido Cambio Radical

Benefiting the most from the eerie silence that the crowd displayed as well as the small 1-minute soundbyte segments allowed by the moderators, German Vargas Lleras gave a confident display on his strongest topics: narcotrafficking, illegal mining and immigration.

Not going after Petro as strongly as many had expected, Vargas Lleras still managed a swipe on Petro’s acceptance of the Venezuelan elections. His deadpan humour was a win on the night, even if the touch-screen technology didn’t go his way.

Grade: B

Humberto de la Calle – Partido Liberal

Despite facing immense legal hurdles that jeapordise his candidacy, de la Calle remains the most impassioned warrior for Colombia’s liberals. His confidence has been growing with each debate and his willingness to address polarising issues is beginning to show up the more appeasing Fajardo, whose unenthusiastic debate performances have so far let his policies down. Landed a powerful jab on Duque when the former insisted that the latter’s policy on merging the courts would remove the Constitutional Court.

De la Calle’s first question, which he directed at Petro, was on whether the Colombiana Humana candidate would take action on abortion or euthanasia if the Supreme Court ruled on the matter. It had been the first mention of abortion or euthanasia in these debates and de la Calle has to be credited for raising the topics in a country where religion still considers them taboo.  

Also was willing to keep the environment at the forefront by taking to task the problem of the economic model in Colombia being dependent on extracting minerals and fossil fuels.

Grade: B+

Viviane Morales

Viviane Morales

Viviana Morales raised the objection of being excluded from the earlier debates at the very outset but did little to justify her inclusion. Nervous and at times unprepared for the format of the debate, Morales was also ignored on stage as most questions were directed at the frontrunners.

On the issue of teen pregnancy Morales chose to side with family values and respect for women rather than on sex education that instructs the best ways in which to prevent early pregnancies. Also spoke little on women’s right to choose, nor on the best ways to battle high rates of violence against women in the country.

Had early exchanges with Vargas Lleras and de la Calle which were courteous and civilised at a time when she probably needed to attack to distinguish her policies from the others. Choosing to stay behind the table where she was sitting for the duration of the debate rather than take centrestage probably didn’t get the ball rolling on her campaign either.

Grade: C-