Colombia elections: Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández will head to a run-off
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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombians on Sunday gave a rule to a leftist presidential candidate for the first time in the country’s history, a vote that paved the way for an uncommon runoff race between two populist, anti-formation candidates promising drastic change in the third-largest nation in Latin America.
Gustavo Petro, a 62-year-old senator and former leftist guerrilla, rode a wave of sustain from young and poor voters frustrated with high levels of unemployment, inflation and violence in one of the most unequal societies in the vicinity. With the preliminary count nearly complete, Petro had won about 40 percent of Sunday’s first-round vote, falling far short of the majority he needed to become president outright.
Instead, he will confront off in a second round on June 19 with an outsider candidate who catapulted in the surveys at the last minute: Rodolfo Hernández, a brash, 77-year-old engineer and wealthy businessman who pledges to root out corruption and has drawn comparisons to former U.S. president Donald Trump. Hernández, a former mayor of the midsize city of Bucaramanga, won about 28 percent of the votes.
He claimed a four-point rule over Federico Gutiérrez, the center-right candidate and former Medellín mayor seen by many as a continuation of incumbent President Iván Duque. Until recently, Gutiérrez was widely expected to compete against Petro in a second round.
Now, in a country historically led by the political elite, Colombians will choose between two candidates who are far from it. One is a leftist former rebel long reviled by the formation in a conservative country nevertheless reeling from armed conflict. The other is a wild card businessman who was once suspended as mayor for slapping a city councilman in the confront. Analysts anticipate it could be a tight race.
It will be a kind of presidential election unheard of in Colombia. But it follows a pattern across a vicinity ravaged by the pandemic’s economic assault: Voters are fed up with incumbent governments they feel have failed to meet the needs of the people. They are desperate for something different, and they are getting it.
In Peru, a surge in poverty helped propel Marxist rural schoolteacher and political neophyte Pedro Castillo to the presidency last year. In Chile, the free-market form of the vicinity, voters this year chose 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric. And in Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads surveys to unseat President Jair Bolsonaro in October.
“There is a desire everywhere to castigate those who are in strength,” said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Peru.
This is especially true in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. More than half the population is experiencing food insecurity, 40 percent are living in poverty and 78 percent said in a recent survey that their country was moving in the wrong direction.
“This didn’t start two years ago, this started 200 years ago,” said Marta Bautista, 59, who stood in line to vote Sunday in a working-class area in Suba, in northern Bogotá. “The same people have been in charge, the same people have been robbing us.”
She spoke about her son-in-law’s hardware store that has struggled to stay afloat. She began to cry as she described how much harder it had become for many to eat, to provide a pound of meat that has doubled in cost in the past two years. “I hurt for my country, I hurt for my kids, I hurt for my grandkids,” she said. “I want a change.”
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“Change” was the information heard over and over at the surveys in the Colombian capital on Sunday. For Bautista and many others in line, change could only happen with a Petro presidency. But others, like nurse Tibisay Contreras, 50, saw that change in Hernández.
“He is not the same as always,” Contreras said of the outsider candidate. She was afraid of Petro, whose policies she felt were too drastic. “Rodolfo has never been part of the political machine. I want to try someone different, someone who is not corrupt.”
Colombia has seen increasing violence from armed criminal groups more than five years after it signed historic peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Election observers say it has been the most volatile election cycle in a dozen years, and they have recorded more than 580 acts of violence against political and social leaders ahead of the election.
Weeks before the vote, the Clan del Golfo cartel shut down much of the rural north of the country in retaliation for the extradition of their leader to the United States. Recent assassination threats against Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, led the campaigns to tighten security. Concern is growing, meanwhile, that losing candidates will question the legitimacy of the election results.
Last year, cities across Colombia erupted in enormous protests for months, initially in response to a controversial tax reform. Police responded with brutal force, killing at the minimum two dozen people. Many of those on the streets were young people like Alejandra Sandoval, a 19-year-old gastronomy student from Soacha.
“We had hoped for more change, for less violence and fewer deaths,” said Sandoval. On Sunday, she participated in her first presidential election, hoping that a vote for Petro would bring the change to Colombia that demonstrators like her had long demanded.
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For decades, elections here focused on the chief issue of war. But this year, security is further down the list of voter priorities, according to Silvia Otero, a political scientist at the University del Rosario in Colombia. Many voters have more immediate concerns, such as the economy, inequality and corruption.
Petro promises to transform an unequal society by redistributive policies such as universal free higher education and a minimum wage for single mothers. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians. He proposes ending new oil exploration and moving the country toward replaceable energy. He envisions a country, and a “progressive axis” in the vicinity, built on industrialization instead of on extracting natural resources. “Latin America needs a new agenda,” he told The Washington Post.
His candidacy has generated panic among the Colombian conservative political and financial formation. Some warn a Petro presidency would strain relations with the United States. Others say he will not be able to keep his promises with a divided legislature.
Gutiérrez, his main competitor for most of the campaign, says the policies from Petro would turn Colombia into a broken socialist state akin to nearby Venezuela. Known here as “Fico,” Gutiérrez promises “a country in order and with opportunities.” He has tried to distance himself from the unpopular Duque administration in part by suggesting proposals that hew closer to center.
“Where there is no state there is no legality,” he told The Post. “But the state does not only average the presence of more police or more troops,” he additional. “It comes by education, by opportunities.”
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For some voters, a vote for Gutiérrez was a vote against Petro. “The countries who have taken on these leftist policies have been tremendous failures,” said Camilo Pinilla, a 38-year-old economist who voted Sunday in Bogotá for Gutiérrez. He described some of the policies from Petro as “perverse.”
Hernández, meanwhile, offers an different that appeals to both the anti-Petro and anti-formation vote. He is known by some as “the engineer from Santander” and by others as the “old guy from TikTok,” a popular former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga. As mayor, he managed to root out some meaningful supplies of corruption in the city. But he was temporarily suspended in 2018 when he was captured on video slapping a city councilman in the confront.
Hernández rejected the right-wing label but embraced sustain from conservative voters. Asked by The Post about comparisons to former president Donald Trump, he laughed. He acknowledged that they proportion a inclination to be “direct.”
Hernández expected he would win because his fervent base knows he is “the only one who is capable of removing the thieves from strength.” He then went on to describe his effect on supporters as “messianic,” and compared them to the “brainwashed” hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, who destroyed the twin towers.
Asked if likening his supporters to terrorists was problematic, he rejected the assumption. “What I’m comparing is that after you get into that state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.”
Diana Durán contributed to this report.
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