A GUST of wind struck the Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá while Iván Duque was sworn in as Colombia’s president on August 7th. During his inauguration speech, delivered on a massive stage thronged with Latin American presidents and other dignitaries, a man struggled to shield him from a light rain with an umbrella. Seeking to banish the bitterness of a polarised election campaign, Mr Duque promised to “govern Colombia with a spirit of construction, never destruction”.
That was not the tone used by Ernesto Macías, the president of congress, who introduced Mr Duque and administered the oath. Mr Macías, a member of Mr Duque’s Democratic Centre party, attacked the former president, Juan Manuel Santos, and vowed to modify the agreement that in 2016 ended a 52-year war with the FARC guerrilla group.
The contrast illustrates the main political difficulty that the new president will face: keeping the support of his party, which is militantly opposed to the peace accord, while courting other forces to enact his legislative priorities, including reform of the pension system, making courts more efficient and cutting taxes.
The key to controlling Democratic Centre is co-operation with Álvaro Uribe, a former president who has been Mr Duque’s political patron. The new president has appointed favourites of Mr Uribe to lead the ministries of defence, interior and finance. In July Mr Uribe resigned from his seat in the senate after the supreme court called him to testify about allegations that he had bribed witnesses to retract their claim that he is linked to the AUC, a paramilitary group that disarmed during his presidency. Mr Uribe denies the allegations. He suspended his resignation after his lawyers asked that three supreme-court justices, whom they consider biased, stand aside from the case. But as long as the ex-president’s future is cloudy, Mr Duque’s relations with his party will be unsettled.
On matters of war and peace, Mr Duque has signalled that he is prepared to soften the tough line that Mr Uribe favours, but only a bit. In his speech Mr Duque said his government would consider continuing peace talks with the ELN, a guerrilla group that is still fighting, only if it declared a unilateral ceasefire. The ELN is sure to reject this, but Mr Duque’s demand looks like a retreat from his earlier position that the group would have to gather in designated zones before talks could begin.
Days after his election on June 17th, congressmen from Democratic Centre called for a referendum on transitional justice, the controversial part of the peace deal under which former guerrillas are to confess their crimes in return for light sentences. The incoming vice-president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, made clear that the government did not support the plan.
On coca, an illegal crop exploited by the ELN and other armed groups, Mr Duque must consider the views of the United States as well as of Mr Uribe. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN, who attended the inauguration, said President Donald Trump wants Colombia to reduce the area on which coca is grown, which reached a recent high of 209,000 hectares last year. “We have faith in the fact that [Mr Duque is] going to deliver,” she said.
The government will step up forced eradication of coca, including by sending drones to spray crops. That is bound to provoke conflict with farmers; last year they paralysed large parts of the country in protests against eradication. A clash over coca would intensify the polarisation Mr Duque is eager to lessen.
In other areas he has a freer hand. Most members of his cabinet are technocrats (and half are women). His choices show that he means to end the marmelada (literally, jam; figuratively, buying the support of parties with jobs for politicians). But that high-minded policy has risks. Congressmen who do not get government jobs will have little incentive to support such unpopular but necessary measures as raising the retirement age. The new ministers also risk looking out of touch with ordinary Colombians. “Most of the cabinet lives in two high-class neighbourhoods of Bogotá,” notes Héctor Riveros, a political consultant. The gusts are just beginning.