Updated Jun 18, 2018

The biggest challenges Colombia's President-elect Iván Duque will face

Colombian President-elect Ivan Duque in Bogota, after winning the runoff on June 17, 2018. Photo: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Conservative at heart but progressive in outlook, President-elect Iván Duque came in ahead of Gustavo Petro — an ex-guerrilla and former Bogotá mayor — in this weekend's highly polarized runoff election.

What's next: His honeymoon period is likely to be short-lived, however, as growing political divisions add to Colombia's governability challenges.

Even after the campaign, Duque's political identity has yet to be fully revealed. The 41-year-old former senator and one-time Washington policy wonk managed a meteoric rise after forming a tight-knit relationship with Álvaro Uribe, the popular former president (2002-2010) who looks poised to maintain his status as political kingmaker from his Senate perch. For example, Duque ran on the ticket of Uribe's Democratic Center party, and it is unclear whether he will take risks that could upset the conservative base underwriting the Uribista coalition.

Among the many challenges, the economy may be where Duque first turns his attention. Growth was anemic in 2017 and Colombians are thirsty for social change, especially after the losing candidate, Gustavo Petro, used his campaign to shine a light on deep social inequalities.

The country's security risks are of greatest concern to the U.S. and the region. Washington made a multi-billion-dollar security investment via Plan Colombia (2000-2006) and has continued to strengthen its strategic relationship with Bogotá. Duque is likely to modify parts of the FARC peace deal, sealed by outgoing President Santos, though he seems to have stepped back from calls for wholesale renegotiation, a moderation that will probably please the region.

Drug-trafficking issues will resurface as well, with Duque likely to resume aerial eradication of coca crops, in part to satisfy the U.S., where President Trump stands ready to decertify Colombia for non-cooperation.

Why it matters: Duque's election did not directly develop from the right-wing shift in Latin American politics, though his ascendance adds another important voice to the emergent chorus of pro-business, pro–U.S. leaders in Latin America.

Michael McCarthy is a research fellow at American University’s CLALS, an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Elliot School for International Affairs and the founder and CEO of Caracas Wire.

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