Voters cried out for a change in the status quo. They demand someone radically different from right-wing incumbent Iván Duque. And for the first time, they will choose between two dissenting presidential candidates who ran without the support of the traditional political class that has ruled Colombia for generations.
Gustavo Petro, a senator and former guerrilla who pledged to reshape the economic system to uplift the poor, could become the country’s first leftist president, ending two centuries of center-right leadership. Rodolfo Hernández, a wealthy businessman and foreign candidate who pledges to root out corruption, could send the country down an unpredictable path.
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“These are clearly two candidates who will signal and effectively execute change with traditional parties, and in some cases with important cornerstones of our economic system,” said Sandra Botero, a political scientist at Universidad del Rosario in Colombia. “I don’t think we’ve had an election this close and where so many issues have been at stake for decades. No matter who wins, we seem to be standing at a critical moment. »
The election marks another blow to the political establishment in Latin America, where voters have sought to punish incumbent governments for the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. If Petro wins, it would add to a wave of South American countries looking left: In Peru, rising poverty helped propel Marxist rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo to the presidency last year. In Chile, the region’s free-market model, voters this year chose Gabriel Boric, a 36-year-old former student activist, as president. And in Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls to oust President Jair Bolsonaro in October.
Polls show the two candidates tied, setting the stage for a close race. Left and right-wing campaigns have leveled accusations of voter fraud, and a recent failure to tally legislative votes has further deepened mistrust in the country’s electoral system. Fears are growing that the losing candidate on Sunday could challenge the results and spark civil unrest a year after historic protests swept the country.
On Wednesday, police in several cities arrested activists who stood on the front lines of protests last year, accusing them of threatening to disrupt public order around the election. Alejandra Barrios Cabrera, director of Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission, said the arrests “could end up generating the opposite effect”, further emboldening protesters. “The detentions demonstrate the nervous situation the country finds itself in at the moment,” she said, but added that both candidates have said they will demand a peaceful response.
The vote comes after the most violent election cycle in more than a decade, in which both campaigns were threatened with assassination. At least 290 municipalities in Colombia are at “high and extreme risk” of armed violence surrounding the elections, Colombia’s ombudsman’s office warned last week.
But Javi López, the Spaniard who heads the European Union‘s election observation mission in Colombia, said the first round of elections last month was “peaceful and calm”. He said the electoral system had brought important improvements that had helped “overcome a climate of mistrust”.
Voters will choose between two competing visions of change for the country. Both candidates sought to tap into widespread frustration in a country where more than 40% of people live in poverty and almost half struggle to find enough to eat.
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Petro, the former mayor of Bogotá who is in his third presidential run, is proposing redistributive policies such as free higher education and universal public healthcare. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 richest Colombians while establishing a minimum wage for single mothers. He plans to end new oil exploration and move the country towards renewable energy.
Hernández, the former mayor of Bucaramanga who has never held or sought national office, pledges to fight government corruption, cut costs and reduce the national deficit.
Both candidates have suggested declaring a state of emergency to advance their agendas without Congressional support. And both Petro and Hernández were accused of authoritarian tendencies during their time as mayors.
In Bogotá, Petro oversaw a slew of staff departures and was criticized for refusing to listen to his advisers. In the average city of Bucaramanga, the rude Hernández was known for insulting his employees and was once suspended for slapping a councilman. Hernández was also accused by Colombia’s Attorney General of improperly awarding waste management contracts for the benefit of his son. (He denies the charges but is due to stand trial next month).
Either presidency could have profound implications for the rest of the hemisphere and could reshape the country’s role as the United States’ most stable partner in the region. Both candidates criticized the two countries’ joint war on drugs and supported some form of drug legalization. They criticized the aerial fumigation of coca, the base plant of cocaine. And they would relaunch diplomatic relations with Venezuela, a radical departure from the aggressive approach of the Duque administration against the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro.
Petro has worried some US officials by proposing an amendment to the two countries’ extradition treaty and foreign trade agreements. Hernández, meanwhile, revealed few details about any of his policies, including his approach to diplomacy. “It’s really a leap into the unknown in terms of bilateral relations,” said Kevin Whitaker, former US ambassador to Colombia and now a member of the Atlantic Council.
The campaign has notably lacked public debates in recent weeks between the two candidates, after Hernández refused to participate. After a court ordered the candidates to hold a debate last week, Hernández agreed to meet only under certain conditions, including vetting of reporters who would moderate it. The debate never took place.
Instead, the emotionally charged campaign of recent weeks has often played out on social media, through frequent outrages and attacks on Twitter and in viral videos on Hernández’s original TikTok account.
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In Bucaramanga, resident Monica Cordero is “100% with the engineer,” she said, referring to Hernández. Cordero lives right next to a park renovated during Hernández’s time as mayor, a project intended to improve the surrounding low-income neighborhood, but which has now become a hub for crime and drug trafficking. Cordero continues to believe in Hernández, a man who she says “makes sure the money goes to the poor.”
“He always shows his face,” she said. “He’s not a politician.”
But Luis Fernando Barrios, 21, can’t stand Hernández’s “explosive” temper, he said as he voted in the first round in a working-class Bogotá neighborhood. He is also not enthusiastic about Petro’s style, but he believes the leftist is the only candidate capable of bringing real change to the country.
The engineering student, who took part in some of the protests last year, said his family had felt the pressure of the economic crisis of the pandemic. Her father is a cattle rancher and her mother works in a clothing warehouse. “The cost of everything is going up, but not the money,” he said.
Petro would be “something totally different from what we’ve had for 20 years,” he said. “We have no other option.”