For much of the campaign, it appeared Petro would be heading for a runoff with Federico Gutiérrez, a center-right former mayor of Medellín who has sought to capture the voices of the political establishment. But recent polls have shown a late rise in foreign candidate Rodolfo Hernández, a brash 77-year-old civil engineer and businessman with a populist anti-corruption message who has been gaining traction on TikTok.
That would prepare the ground for a second round between two protesting candidates, an unprecedented competition in a country historically ruled by the political elite.
“It didn’t start two years ago, it started 200 years ago,” said Marta Bautista, 59, who lined up to vote on Sunday in a working-class Suba neighborhood in northern Bogota. “The same people were in charge, the same people robbed us.”
She talked about her son-in-law’s hardware store struggling to stay afloat. She began to cry as she described how difficult it had become for many to eat, to afford a pound of meat that had doubled in price over the past two years.
“I hurt for my country, I hurt for my children, I hurt for my grandchildren,” she said. “I want a change.”
“Change” was the word heard time and time again at the polls in the country’s capital on Sunday. For Bautista and many others online, change could only happen with a Petro presidency. But others, like nurse Tibisay Contreras, 50, have seen this change in Hernández.
“He’s not the same as always,” Contreras said of the foreign contender. She was afraid of Petro, whose policy seemed too radical to her. “Rodolfo was never part of the political machine. I want to try someone different, someone who is not corrupt.
Colombia saw increase in violence by armed criminal groups more than five years after the signing of historic peace agreements with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Election observers say it has been the most volatile electoral cycle in a dozen years; they recorded 581 acts of violence against political and social leaders in the pre-election period. Weeks before the vote, the Clan del Golfo cartel shut down much of the country’s rural north in retaliation for their leader’s extradition to the United States. Recent assassination threats against Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have led the campaigns to tighten security.
Meanwhile, there are growing fears that losing candidates will challenge the legitimacy of the election results.
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U.S. Representatives Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash. Joined by 22 House colleagues, urged the Biden administration to convey the country’s support for free and fair elections in Colombia , a key US ally in “As the first ballot nears,” they wrote, “these shared democratic values are increasingly under threat.”
The vote could prove a harsh rebuke to the politically conservative establishment that has ruled Colombia for more than two centuries. It comes amid a wave of discontent in a region still recovering from the economic onslaught of the pandemic as it grapples with runaway inflation and growing inequality.
“All of this has sapped people’s patience,” said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Peru.
In Peru, a surge in poverty helped propel Pedro Castillo, a Marxist rural schoolteacher and political neophyte, to the presidency last year. In Chile, the region’s model free market, voters chose 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric this year. And in Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls to oust President Jair Bolsonaro in October.
“There is a desire everywhere to castigate those in power,” Vergara said.
This is especially true in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. More than half of the population is food insecure, 40% live in poverty and 78% said in a recent survey that their country was heading in the wrong direction.
Last year, cities across Colombia erupted in massive months-long protests, initially in response to a controversial tax reform. The police responded with brutal force, killing at least two dozen people. Many of those on the streets were young people like Alejandra Sandoval, a 19-year-old food student from Soacha.
“We had hoped for more change, less violence and less death,” Sandoval said. On Sunday, she contested her first presidential election, hoping a vote for Petro would bring the change in Colombia that protesters like her have long been calling for.
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For decades, elections here have focused on one central issue: war. But this year, security is lower on voters’ list of priorities, according to Silvia Otero, a political scientist at Universidad del Rosario in Colombia. Many voters have more immediate concerns: the economy, inequality, corruption.
Petro promises to transform an unequal society through redistributive policies such as free universal higher education and a minimum wage for single mothers. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 richest Colombians. He proposes to end new oil exploration and move the country towards renewable energy. He envisions a country — and a “progressive axis” in the region — built on industrialization, not natural resource extraction. “Latin America needs a new agenda,” he told the Washington Post.
His candidacy has sown panic within Colombia’s conservative political and financial establishment. Some warn that a Petro presidency would strain relations with the United States. Others say he won’t be able to deliver on his promises with a divided legislature.
Gutiérrez, his main rival for most of the campaign, said Petro’s policies would turn Colombia into a broken socialist state similar to neighboring Venezuela. Known here as “Fico”, Gutiérrez, 47, promises “a country in order and with opportunities”. He tried to distance himself from the unpopular Duke administration in part by suggesting proposals closer to the center.
“Where there is no state, there is no legality,” he told the Post. “But the state does not only mean the presence of more police or more troops. … It goes through education, through opportunities.
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For some voters, a vote for Gutiérrez was a vote against Petro.
“The countries that have adopted these leftist policies have been tremendous failures,” said Camilo Pinilla, a 38-year-old economist who voted Sunday in Bogotá for Gutiérrez. He called some of Petro’s policies “perverse”.
Hernández, meanwhile, offers an alternative that appeals to both the anti-Petro and anti-establishment vote. He is known by some as “the engineer of Santander” and by others as the “old man of TikTok”, a popular former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga. As mayor, he managed to eradicate some key sources of corruption in the city. But he was temporarily suspended in 2018 when he was filmed slapping a councilman in the face.
Hernández rejected the right-wing label but embraced the support of conservative voters. Asked by The Post about comparisons to former President Donald Trump, he laughed. He acknowledged that they share a tendency to be “direct”.
Hernández predicted he would win because his fervent base knows he is “the only one capable of weeding out the thieves of power”. He went on to describe its effect on supporters as “messianic” and compared them to the “indoctrinated” hijackers of 9/11, 2001, which destroyed the Twin Towers.
When asked if equating his followers with terrorists was problematic, he rejected the premise. “What I’m comparing is that after entering this state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.
Diana Durán contributed to this report.