Counting ballots at a polling station in Medellín, Colombia, on Sunday.Credit…Joaquin Sarmiento/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Two anti-establishment candidates, Gustavo Petro, a leftist, and Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist, captured the top two spots in Colombia’s presidential election, delivering a stunning blow to Colombia’s dominant conservative political class.
The two men will compete in a runoff election on June 19 that is shaping up to be one of the most consequential in the country’s history. At stake is the country’s economic model, its democratic integrity and the livelihoods of millions of people pushed into poverty during the pandemic.
With more than 99 percent of the votes counted on Sunday evening, Mr. Petro received 40.31 percent, while Mr. Hernández received 28.20 percent. Mr. Hernández beat by more than four percentage points the conservative establishment candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, who had been polling in second place.
Mr. Hernández’s unexpected second-place victory shows a nation hungry to elect anyone who is not represented by the country’s mainstream conservative leaders.
“This is a vote against Duque, against the political class,” said Daniel García-Peña, a Colombian political scientist, referring to the current president, Iván Duque, who swept into office four years ago with the support of the country’s most powerful conservative kingmaker, Álvaro Uribe.
The Petro-Hernández face-off, he said, pits “change against change.”
Mr. Petro, the leftist, is a senator and former rebel who is proposing an overhaul of the country’s capitalist economic system. He had been expected to face off next month against Mr. Gutiérrez.
Instead, voters decided that Mr. Petro will face Mr. Hernández, a businessman and former mayor with an anti-corruption platform and Trumpian irreverence who was largely unknown until just a few weeks ago.
The election was characterized by deep frustration with chronic poverty, inequality and growing insecurity. The country is saddled with 10 percent inflation, a 20 percent youth unemployment rate and a 40 percent poverty rate.
At the same time, polls from the firm Invamer show growing distrust in almost all institutions, including congress, political parties, the military, the police and the media.
Such widespread disillusionment has led many voters to reject two driving forces in Colombian politics, said Mr. Peña-Garcia: political dynasties dominated by a few families, and Uribismo, a hard-line conservatism named for its founder, Mr. Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010.
Both Mr. Petro and Mr. Hernández are proposing new — and radically different — paths forward for the country.
If elected in the runoff, Mr. Petro would be the first leftist president in the nation’s history. He proposes a broad expansion of social programs, while halting all new oil exploration, cutting off a key revenue source.
His base includes many Colombians who believe the right has failed them.
“This is the awakening of many young people who have realized, truly, that our grandparents and parents were lied to,” said Camila Riveros, 30, a Petro supporter. “They were sold a story of salvation that wasn’t true.”
Mr. Hernández, a former mayor of a midsize city, has based his campaign around one issue — jailing the corrupt — but his position on other issues is less clear.
He has suggested combining ministries to save money and declaring a state of emergency for 90 days to address corruption, leading to fears that he could shut down Congress or suspend mayors.
Some Colombians have called him a loose cannon. He once said he was a fan of Adolf Hitler — a claim he later called a mistake — and on another occasion he smacked a city councilman, provoking a suspension from office. He recently gave an interview to CNN dressed in silky pajamas.
Some voters, though, said they were attracted to what he has promised. “I think his entrepreneurial view of things is comparable with Trump,” said Salvador Rizo, 26, a tech consultant who lives in Medellín.
“I think that the other candidates are watching a house that is on fire and they want to extinguish that fire and reveal the house,’’ he said. “What I think the view of Rodolfo is: That there’s a house that can be a massive hotel in the future.”
Reporting was contributed by Genevieve Glatsky from Bogotá.