BOGOTA – In a blow to Colombia’s political class, a leftist former rebel and a populist businessman took the top two spots in the country’s presidential election Sunday and headed to a runoff showdown in June.
Leftist Sen. Gustavo Petro led the field of six candidates with just over 40% of the votes, while independent real estate tycoon Rodolfo Hernández finished second with more than 28%, election authorities said Sunday evening.
A candidate needed 50% of the total votes to win outright the contest held amid a polarized environment and growing discontent over increasing inequality and inflation.
No matter who wins June 19, the South American country long governed by conservatives or moderates will see a dramatic shift in presidential politics.
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, whose spot in the runoff contest came as a surprise, has few connections to political parties and promises to reduce wasteful government spending and to offer rewards for people who report corrupt officials.
Looking at areas where Hernández won in some of the most traditional heartland departments, “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.
Petro’s main rival for most of the campaign was Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin who was seen as the continuity candidate and ran on a pro-business, economic growth platform. But Hernández began to move up strongly in recent polls heading into the election.
There has been a series of leftist political victories in Latin America as people seek 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.
“The main problem in the country is the inequality of conditions, the work is not well paid,” said Jenny Bello, who sold coffee near a long line of voters under a typical cloudy sky in the capital of Bogotá. She had to resort to informal sales after months without work because of the pandemic.
This was the second presidential election held since the government signed in 2016 a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC for its initials in Spanish. But the divisive agreement was not a main issue during the campaign, which focused on poverty, inflation and other challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.
It is Petro’s third attempt to become president. He was defeated in 2018 by Iván Duque, who was not eligible to seekr re-election.
“What is in dispute today is change. The political parties allied to the government of Duque, his political project, has been defeated in Colombia,” Petro told his supporters as they celebrated at his campaign headquarters in Bogotá. “Colombia’s total vote launches that message to the world: A period is ending; an era is ending.”
A victory for Petro would usher in a new political era in a country that has long marginalized the left due to its perceived association with the nation’s armed conflict. He was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.
“The peace accords of 2016 really broke the link between left politics and guerrillas/terrorists,” Isacson said. “I think people suddenly realized they could be very critical of the existing system without being painted as a guerrilla.”
But in a sign of the resistance to a leftist government, Gutierrez endorsed Hernández shortly after he was left out of 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 has promised to make significant adjustments to the economy, including a tax reform, as well as changes to how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups.
Hernández, the former mayor of the north-central city of Bucaramanga, surged in recent polls with promises to “clean” the country of corruption and to donate his salary.
“Now, we enter the second period, and these next few days will be decisive in determining the future of the country,” Hernández said in a livestream after early results showed he advanced to the runoff. He said he remains firm on his commitment to end “corruption as a system of government.”
A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month said 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of Duque. A poll last year by Gallup found 60% of those questioned were finding it hard to get by on their income.
The pandemic set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39% of Colombia’s 51.6 million residents lived on less than $89 a month last year, which has a slight improvement from 42.5% in 2020.
Inflation reached its highest levels in two decades last month. Duque’s administration said April’s 9.2% rate was part of a global inflationary phenomenon, but the argument did nothing to tame discontent over increasing food prices.
“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.
In addition to economic challenges, Colombia’s next president will also have to face a complex security issue and corruption, which is a top concern of voters.
The Red Cross last year concluded Colombia reached its highest level of violence in the last five years. Although the peace agreement with the FARC has been implemented, the territories and drug-trafficking routes that it once controlled are in dispute between other armed groups such as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a guerrilla founded in the 1960s, FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan cartel.
Duque’s successor will have to decide whether to resume peace talks with the ELN, which he suspended in 2019 after an attack killed more than 20 people.
“Corruption in state entities is the main problem in the country,” Édgar González said after voting in Bogotá. “... A very big change is taking place in the country’s politics and if we all exercise the right we are going to achieve that change.”
Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.