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Colombia protest leaders hope to gain seats in Congress

March 8, 2022 GMT
Jennifer Pedraza, a student leader who is running for a seat in Congress, poses for a photo while campaigning in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Pedraza led protests that stopped the government from raising taxes on the middle class and marches that prevented President Ivan Duque from changing the country’s labor laws. Congressional elections are set for March 13. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Jennifer Pedraza, a student leader who is running for a seat in Congress, poses for a photo while campaigning in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Pedraza led protests that stopped the government from raising taxes on the middle class and marches that prevented President Ivan Duque from changing the country’s labor laws. Congressional elections are set for March 13. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Jennifer Pedraza, a student leader who is running for a seat in Congress, poses for a photo while campaigning in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Pedraza led protests that stopped the government from raising taxes on the middle class and marches that prevented President Ivan Duque from changing the country’s labor laws. Congressional elections are set for March 13. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
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Jennifer Pedraza, a student leader who is running for a seat in Congress, poses for a photo while campaigning in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Pedraza led protests that stopped the government from raising taxes on the middle class and marches that prevented President Ivan Duque from changing the country’s labor laws. Congressional elections are set for March 13. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
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Jennifer Pedraza, a student leader who is running for a seat in Congress, poses for a photo while campaigning in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Pedraza led protests that stopped the government from raising taxes on the middle class and marches that prevented President Ivan Duque from changing the country’s labor laws. Congressional elections are set for March 13. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Jennifer Pedraza has been spending a great deal of time in the streets recently — leading protests that stopped Colombia’s government from raising taxes on the middle class and marches that prevented President Ivan Duque from changing the country’s labor laws.

Now the student leader is running for a seat in Colombia’s Congress. Pedraza is hoping to promote legislation that will shift Colombia away from its conservative economic model, including a bill that will ensure free tuition at public universities and another law to provide lower income households with a guaranteed monthly income.

“Marches have helped us to stop the government’s plans” said Pedraza, who is currently 25 and just meets the minimum age required to run for Congress in Colombia. “But if we are just protesting, it’s harder for us to score goals. Now we want to set the agenda in this country.”

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In the spring of 2021, Colombia experienced the largest protests in decades as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to march against economic inequality, police violence and plans by the country’s cash-strapped government to increase income taxes on the middle class.

Now, some of the activists who led those protests are running in congressional elections that will be held on March 13 as frustration with Colombia’s political establishment appears to open a door for outsiders and liberal candidates.

The activists on the ballot are popular on social media, and include a young orchestra director who organized classical music concerts in parks during the protests, a lawyer who stopped police from pressing criminal charges against dozens of protesters and a reporter who filmed protests with his cellphone and posted hundreds of videos of police abuse on his Facebook page.

They have been endorsed by parties on the left of the political spectrum that are hoping to lure young voters to the polls and win enough seats to change the balance of power in Congress. Colombia will also hold presidential elections at the end of May.

But to win a seat in Congress, political newcomers like Pedraza must compete against rivals who are better funded and who work with community leaders who mobilize voters on election day with free transport to ballot sites, food and sometimes illegal bribes for votes.

Colombia’s protest leaders, on the other hand, seem to be running their campaigns with minimal funds and a very loose structure.

“We work exclusively with volunteers” said Pedraza who recently graduated from college, with an economics degree. “I’m even using my personal credit card to pay for ads on Facebook.”

Still, Pedraza is hoping for a surprise victory. She’s motivated by recent events in Chile, where 35-year-old leftist congressman and former student leader Gabriel Boric won the presidential election in December.

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“Chile was held up as an example of the neoliberal economic model” she says. “But now things are changing there and the student movement has been able to turn its street protests into votes.”

Currently, Colombia’s Congress is dominated by six conservative parties that are aligned with President Ivan Duque. These parties hold 65% of seats in the Senate and a similar portion in the House of Representatives.

According to the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a think tank in Bogota, 70 seats in Colombia’s Congress –about 25% of all seats -- are currently held by politicians under investigation for corruption, or their relatives. Most of these congressmen under investigation are members of parties aligned with the government.

“Congress has become like a black box, where we don’t know what is happening,” said Catherine Juvinao, an activist who runs Trabajen Vagos, a website that has published lists of senators who regularly miss congressional debates, and are therefore breaking the law. Juvinao is now running for Congress on behalf of the Green Party.

On Sunday, all of the congressional seats will be up for grabs, giving the Green Party and the leftist Historical Pact a chance to chip away at the majority held by conservative parties.

Sen. Gustavo Petro, who leads the Historical Pact, has said in interviews that he expects his party and its allies will get a majority in both houses of Congress.

Petro is also running for president in May, and currently has a roughly 15% advantage over his closest rival in polls.

But a recent survey by the Cifras y Conceptos polling firm shows 65% of respondents said they still haven’t decided who to vote for, while only 14% described themselves as supporters of the Historical Pact.

Petro, who fought for a guerrilla group in the 1980s, has previously struggled to turn his personal popularity into victories for his congressional candidates.

“The candidates from traditional parties have more economic power and social capital” particularly in small towns and rural areas, said Esteban Salazar, a researcher at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. “They have the support of city council members, mayors and governors,” that help to get voters to the polls.

Still Salazar expects Petro’s movement and the Green Party to increase their presence in Congress in this election, and possibly get 45% of all seats, because traditional parties have been affected by corruption scandals, and the current government’s unpopularity.

Petro has promised to cancel oil exploration contracts if he becomes president in a bid to make the country less dependent on fossil fuels. He has proposed increasing import tariffs on food that can be produced in Colombia and said recently in an interview that if he becomes president he will declare an “economic state of emergency” that will enable him to rule by decree, and bypass Congress for up to 90 days. Petro said he needs to do that for the government to buy food from farmers so that local agricultural production increases.

Pedraza says her party, Dignidad, is currently backing another presidential candidate who has been critical of Petro’s energy proposals. She said that if Petro makes it to the final round of presidential elections in June, there will be “serious discussions” over whether to support him.

Susana Gomez, a 27-year-old orchestra director who led protests last year in Medellin, said that she is fully behind Petro.

Gomez – who goes by the stage name of Susana Boreal — became viral last year on social media, as videos emerged of her leading a classical music orchestra during a protest in Colombia’s second largest city.

She said several parties asked her to be on their lists during this year’s congressional election. She settled on the Historical Pact.

As the second candidate on the party’s list for the state of Antioquia – where Medellin is located – Gomez has a decent chance of winning a seat on Sunday. But Gomez said that even if she loses, she will continue to fight for causes like more government funding for cultural activities, and reparations for families of youth killed by police during protests.

“I cannot turn my back on this struggle now” Gomez said. “I’ve been given a chance now to do something that makes an impact.”