We had no preference in Sunday’s Colombian presidential election runoff and frankly we didn’t envy Colombians the decision they had to make. After a first-round election on May 29, the voters’ choices had been narrowed to two former mayors, whose competence was iffy and whose ideologies were extreme when they were not vague: populist 77-year-old construction magnate Rodolfo Hernández, a Trump-like independent, and Gustavo Petro, a leftist senator and former militant in a guerrilla group. Mr. Petro emerged as the winner with just over 50 percent of the vote. Thus does Colombia, a pillar of stability in recent Latin American history, join a regional trend that has seen traditional center-left and center-right parties nearly collapse — and leftists capture presidencies in Peru, Chile and Mexico.
There is much cause for concern in the policy direction Mr. Petro has articulated, in particular his call for an end to new oil exploration, a potential blow to the country’s industry likely to do much damage to export revenue and little good for the global environment. Still, it must be acknowledged that Mr. Petro (and indeed Mr. Hernández) tapped discontent with the country’s traditional parties that was rooted in real issues, such as chronic corruption and an uptick of economic inequality over the past four years. To be sure, leaders of the center-right — the most recent of which was President Iván Duque, the incumbent — pacified the country after decades of guerrilla war, a historic achievement. But Colombians wanted to know what their government had done for them lately.
If the center did not hold in Colombia, democracy still might. Voting was peaceful and transparent, followed by the prompt, gracious concession of Mr. Hernández — who proved blessedly, and admirably, un-Trumpian in that respect. Other institutions might act as a check on the new president: Colombia’s Congress, for example, is fragmented, and Mr. Petro’s opponents control more seats than his party does. Similar divisions of power have turned governance into a slog for new leftist presidents in Peru and Chile. Mexico’s Congress, too, has blocked some of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s more extreme proposals.
For the United States, the rise of Mr. Petro probably means it can no longer count on Colombia to help isolate next-door Venezuela’s leftist dictatorship; Mr. Petro is also likely to pursue warmer relations with Cuba and Nicaragua. However, that does not mean Colombia — or other left-leaning elected governments — would necessarily harm the long-term cause of democracy in the region. To the contrary, that cause might benefit from the rise of left-wing governments, as long as both they and their opponents on the populist right pursue their political conflicts within constitutional checks and balances. People who are free to choose among governing ideologies, even those that might seem extreme, and to reject those that fail, are less likely to turn to either military coup or violent insurgency, the banes of Latin American history. The Biden administration has no choice but to approach the incoming Petro administration with an open mind. That’s just as well, since it would be the right thing to do anyway.