Colombians to vote for president amid widespread discontent

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians emerging from the coronavirus pandemic will vote for their next president on Sunday, choosing from six candidates who all promise varying degrees of change amid growing inequality, inflation, violence and discontent against the status quo.

The poll includes former rebel Gustavo Petro, who could become Colombia’s first leftist president on Sunday if he can secure the 50% of the vote needed to win in the first round. If no one obtains more than half of the votes, a second round between the two best voters will take place.

Pre-vote polls show Petro leading but not getting 50%. Behind him are a populist property mogul promising monetary rewards for advice on corrupt officials and a right-wing candidate who has tried to distance himself from the widely hated current conservative president, Iván Duque.

This is the second presidential election since the government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, but the divisive deal was not a central campaign issue as issues such as poverty and corruption have captured the spotlight.

This will be Petro’s third attempt to be the president of the South American country. He was beaten in 2018 by Duque, who is not eligible for re-election.

His victory would usher in a new political era in a country that has historically been ruled by conservatives or moderates while marginalizing the left due to its perceived association with the country’s armed conflict. He was once a rebel in the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being imprisoned for his involvement with the group.

He promised to make major adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, as well as changes in the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. His main rival for most of the campaign has been Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellin who is supported by most of Colombia’s mainstream parties and ran on a pro-business platform of economic growth.

Gutiérrez promised to fight hunger with the extension of subsidies and public-private alliances so that 10 tons of food wasted each year go to the poorest.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month showed that 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of Duque. A poll by Gallup last year found that 60% of respondents struggled to make do with their household income.

The coronavirus pandemic has set back the country’s poverty alleviation efforts by at least a decade. Official figures showed that 39% of Colombia’s 51.6 million people lived on less than $89 a month last year, a slight improvement from 2020’s rate of 42.5%.

Meanwhile, the country’s inflation hit its highest level in two decades last month. Duque’s administration justified April’s 9.2% rate for April by saying it was part of a global inflationary phenomenon, but the argument did not tame people’s discontent with the increase in food prices.

In addition to economic challenges, the next Colombian president will also have to deal with a complex security problem and corruption, which is a major concern for voters.

The Red Cross concluded last year that Colombia had reached its highest level of violence in five years. Although the peace agreement with the FARC has been implemented, the territories and drug trafficking routes they 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 Clan del Golfo cartel.

Duque’s successor will have to decide whether or not to resume peace talks with the ELN, which he suspended in 2019 after an attack killed more than 20 people.

Aware of voters’ fears of corruption, real estate mogul Rodolfo Hernández has made the issue central to his campaign. Hernández, the former mayor of Bucaramanga, has surprisingly risen to the final stretch of the campaign after promising to “cleanse” the country of corruption and donate his salary among other measures.

The other candidates in the running are Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín and candidate of the center coalition; Christian leader John Milton Rodríguez; and curator Enrique Gómez.


Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

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