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Colombia taps leftist ex-guerrilla Petro for president in historic election

Rising discontent for the conservative establishment amid growing poverty, inequality and corruption led voters to install Colombia's first left-wing government.

(CN) — Gustavo Petro has been declared the winner in Colombia’s presidential election, with the former guerrilla fighter winning 50.44% of the vote — a historic moment for the South American country as it prepares for its first left-wing government.

“We are writing history in this moment, a new history for Colombia, for Latin America and for the world,” said the president-elect during a speech to his supporters. “I thank you Colombians for this historic support. Peace is possible, dreams of freedom can come true. Freedom so that no economic policy will ever take food away from children or kill young people.”

Petro defeated right-wing populist and businessman Rodolfo Hernández, who conceded after winning 47.31% of the vote in the runoff election on Sunday. “I called Gustavo to congratulate him on his victory and to offer him my support to fulfill the promises of change for which Colombia voted today,” wrote Hernández on Twitter. “Colombia will always count on me.”

Latin American leaders responded to Petro’s victory with congratulatory messages. “I am very happy with the triumph obtained by Petro and Márquez,” tweeted Argentina’s center-left president Alberto Fernández, “I have just conveyed my congratulations to the president-elect for the trust that the Colombian people have placed in him” and his victory “assures the path towards an integrated Latin America.”

Chilean President Gabriel Boric also spoke with Petro to congratulate him on his victory. “Joy for Latin America!” Boric, a leftist ally, tweeted. “We will work together for the unity of our continent in the challenges of a rapidly changing world. We continue.”

The election was dominated by the rejection of the conservative establishment that has long ruled Colombia. Rising discontent and anger across the country, directed at a political class that has failed to tackle increasing poverty, inequality and corruption, and swept away establishment and moderate candidates in the first round of the presidential election last month.

Since 2019, a series of mass protests and labor strikes have punctuated national politics in response to proposed tax increases, health care reforms and the lack of progress in the peace process.

“We are talking about an election in which none of the traditional parties had candidates,” said Karol Solís Menco, a political scientist and feminist from Barranquilla, Colombia. “It was also a defeat for Uribe’s legacy [Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010], the most important political force during the last 20 years.”

With nationwide discontent and demands for broad and meaningful change, expectations are high for Petro, who will face the pressure of implementing systemic policy proposals. He leads the Historic Pact coalition, which ties together Colombia’s varied left-wing parties and social organizations. He has vowed a fundamental political shift that includes anti-poverty programs funded by tax hikes on the rich, free university education and renegotiating trade relations, including with the United States, to better protect national agriculture and industries.

“Petro has a progressive and ambitious program,” said Menco.

Petro’s most ambitious policy is to cultivate a green economy by promoting renewable energy and phasing out oil production, which is currently the country’s main export, and replacing its revenue by promoting other sectors of the economy including tourism.

“His main challenges will be his relationship with Congress, where his political movement and progressive sectors have a meaningful representation but are not the majority,” said Menco. “He will have to negotiate with the traditional parties, which continue to be vital in Congress. This is something he has shown he is willing to do.”

In his vision for a greener economy, Menco recognizes that Petro’s administration will face significant criticism in how a shift away from the country’s current extractive model may impact the national economy. 

Petro is a former member of the guerrilla group M-19, which formed in opposition to allegations of fraud in the 1970 elections. He spent time in jail for illegal arms possession before a peace agreement was reached between the group and government in 1990. Petro then entered politics, serving in both houses of Congress before being elected mayor of the capital of Bogotá.

Due to his background as a guerrilla, Petro’s relationship with the military may present another challenge. As such, Menco believes that whoever he chooses to lead the Defense Ministry will be crucial. The head of the Colombian Army, Eduardo Zapateiro, has publicly criticized Petro after the president-elect accused members of the military of supporting the Clan del Golfo, a paramilitary group and Colombia’s largest drug cartel.

Petro has pledged to fully implement the peace agreement with the former guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as well as advance talks with the currently active ELN rebels, who have already stated their openness to talk with the incoming Petro administration.

A key part of Petro’s administration will be vice president-elect Francia Márquez, a human rights and environmental lawyer and activist. She was part of peace negotiations between the government and the FARC and is set to be the first Afro-Colombian to hold the position of vice president.

“The presence of Francia Márquez is highly significant,” added Menco. “Not only is she the first Black woman elected, but the support that she received in the presidential consultation was a surprise.”

The left’s historic victory in Colombia is part of the broad gains of the left across Latin America, following wins for Boric in Chile, Pedro Castillo in Peru and Xiomara Castro in Honduras. Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador maintain right-wing governments.

Brazil meanwhile will hold elections in October. Leftist and former president Lula da Silva continues to lead in the polls ahead of incumbent right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro.

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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