Colombian voters have opted for a dramatic change in presidential politics, choosing a leftist former rebel and an outsider populist businessman to advance to a runoff election to be held in June.
Leftist Senator Gustavo Petro led the field of six candidates on Sunday, with just over 40% of the vote, while real estate tycoon Rodolfo Hernández, who has no close ties to any political parties, finished second with more than 28%, election officials reported.
Both are far from the conservatives and moderates that have long governed the South American country.
Petro, the front-runner throughout the campaign, could become Colombia’s first head of state to hail from the left, which for years has been marginalised for its perceived association with the nation’s armed conflict.
Hernández, meanwhile, whose success in the campaign has surprised many, has been compared to former US President Donald Trump for his anti-establishment rhetoric.
The pair will face off on 19 June amid the same polarised environment and growing discontent over increasing inequality and inflation that shadowed the election's first round.
Rise of the left
In recent years there have been a series of leftist political victories in Latin America, with voters seeking change at a time of dissatisfaction with the economic situation. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election. Mexico elected a leftist president in 2018.
In some of Colombia's most traditional areas “the rejection of the status quo even among many of the most conservative Colombians ... really does show a disgust with the traditional workings of Colombian politics,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
For most of the campaign, Petro’s main rival had been Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin who was seen as the continuity candidate and ran on a pro-business, economic growth platform. However, Hernández, the former mayor of the north-central city of Bucaramanga, began to move up strongly in polls heading into the first round of the election.
Petro has promised to make significant adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, and to change how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. Hernández, meanwhile, promised to reduce wasteful government spending and to offer rewards for people who report corrupt officials.
Hernández, in a livestream after early results showed he advanced to the runoff, said he remains firm on his commitment to end “corruption as a system of government.”
“Now, we enter the second period, and these next few days will be decisive in determining the future of the country,” he said.
“The political parties allied to the government of (incumbent Ivan) Duque, his political project, has been defeated in Colombia,” Petro told his supporters as they celebrated at his campaign headquarters in Bogotá.
Third time is a charm, perhaps
It is Petro’s third attempt to become president. He was defeated in 2018 by Duque, who is not eligible to seek re-election.
In a sign of resistance to a leftist government, Gutierrez endorsed Hernández shortly after he failed to advance to the runoff.
“Knowing that our position is decisive for the future of Colombia, we have made a decision ... we do not want to lose the country,” Gutierrez said, adding that he would support Hernández because he does not want to put Colombia “at risk.”
Petro was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.
According to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this month, 75% of Colombians believe their country is heading in the wrong direction, while only 27% approve of Duque.
The pandemic has set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade, according to some estimates. Official figures show that 39% of Colombia’s 51.6 million residents lived on less than $89 a month last year, a slight improvement from 42.5% in 2020. However, annual inflation reached its highest levels in two decades last month, hitting 9.2%.
“The vote serves to change the country and I think that this responsibility falls a lot on young people who want to reach standards that allow us to have a decent life,” said Juan David González, 28, who voted for the second time in a presidential election.
Duque’s successor will also have to decide whether to resume peace talks that Duque suspended with the National Liberation Army, a guerrilla group founded in the 1960s, as well as contend with violence from FARC dissidents who rejected the historic 2016 peace accord signed between the rebel group and the government.