Colombia presidential election: leftist former guerrilla and populist outsider head to runoff


Colombia’s election will go to a runoff between two opposing anti-establishment candidates on 19 June after voters on Sunday were unable to pick a president outright.

Gustavo Petro, a leftist former guerrilla and onetime mayor of Bogotá, won the largest share of the vote, with 40%, but fell short of the 50% required to win outright and prevent a second round. Petro’s rival in the runoff will be Rodolfo Hernández, a business magnate and social media firebrand, who is viewed as a conservative, populist outsider.

Voters in the South American country went to the polls amid a polarized environment and growing discontent over increasing inequality and inflation.

Hernández was a relative unknown until surging in polls ahead of the election. His campaign – largely carried out on TikTok – has been criticised for being light on policies and heavy on anti-establishment populism. He won 28% of the vote on Sunday.

“Today the nation of workers, of honesty, won,” Hernández said in a speech published on his Facebook page on Sunday evening. “Today the nation won that doesn’t want to go on, even for one more day, with the same [people] that got us in the painful situation that we are in.”

Federico Gutierrez, the rightwing former mayor of Medellín widely seen as a continuation of the current government of term-limited president Iván Duque, underperformed on Sunday, having only picked up 23% of the vote. He could prove kingmaker in the second-round as his supporters are likely to switch to Hernández.

Petro, who has been a frontrunner in the polls for months, came second in the 2018 election. He has promised to make significant adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, and to change how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups.

If he is able to beat Hernández in June, it would be the first time the South American nation has a president from the left. Petro’s running mate Francia Márquez is already making history as the first black female vice-presidential candidate.

Petro cast his vote in Bogotá, after initially having to dart home to pick up the ID card he’d forgotten and needed to vote, to shouts of “Petro for president!” from his supporters.

“I believe in Colombia, the peaceful dream, beautiful, fair, and full of work and knowledge,’ Petro wrote in a brief handwritten letter posted to social media on Sunday morning. “I believe it’s time to make dreams come true.”

Members of the Electoral Jury count ballots at a polling station after voting closed in Cucuta, ColombiaMembers of the Electoral Jury count ballots at a polling station after voting closed in Cucuta, Colombia Photograph: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Also on the ballot on Sunday was Colombia’s fragile peace process with the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), who demobilised after a peace deal was signed in 2016, ending decades of civil war that killed over 260,000 and displaced 7 million people. State forces and their paramilitary allies contributed to the violence.

Petro is a fervent supporter of the deal, while the vanquished Gutierrez is seen as a skeptic. Hernández has pledged to support the deal, though critics say the septuagenerian businessman could shift that position as he seeks to build a right-wing coalition.

“We know that Petro stands with the poor,” said Ana Romero, a student from Bogotá, outside a polling station on Sunday afternoon. “Nobody knows anything about Rodolfo [Hernández].”

Voting took place on Sunday amid fears of political violence, though authorities reported that no major violent incidents linked to the election. Márquez voted in her home town in the conflict-ridden Cauca province, accompanied by police officers with bulletproof shields, while Petro has campaigned from behind a phalanx of bodyguards.

The National Liberation Army (ELN), another leftist rebel group, announced a ceasefire in the run-up to Sunday’s vote, but other factions and criminal groups have routinely targeted political candidates and polling stations in recent years.

The surge in anti-establishment campaigns squares with a public cleaved apart by social unrest. Mass protests against inequality last year shutdown cities across the country. A recent Gallup poll found that 75% of respondents felt their country was going in the wrong direction. That discontent was felt at the ballot box.

“Colombians are demanding a change of the socio-economic paradigm that will dictate the public policies for the next four years, but most importantly a change that restores their hope; hope for better days, for a better social environment with less corruption and more equality,” said Silvana Amaya, a senior analyst at risk consultancy firm Control Risks, ahead of the election.

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