FUSAGASUGÁ, Colombia (AP) — Flanked by bodyguards with bulletproof shields, Gustavo Petro stood on a stage and lashed out at Colombia's political elite in a speech to the residents of Fusagasugá, a rural town where farmers are struggling.
The leftist presidential candidate spoke of the need to protect local farmers from heavily subsidized foreign competitors. In the crowded public square, supporters waving the flags of opposition parties cheered when Petro promised to oust a political class that “prefers to work with criminals.”
“What we offer is a different way to perceive Colombia,” Petro said in an hourlong address. “We want a country where the state provides fundamental rights like education and health, and can finance them because there is a productive economy.”
With an emotional anti-establishment discourse and promises to boost state involvement in the economy, Petro has garnered a comfortable lead in polls as Colombia heads into Sunday's presidential election.
The senator, who began his career in politics as a rebel, is aiming to become the first leftist president in a nation that has long been ruled by politicians with ties to wealthy families and powerful business groups. The current president — who cannot seek reelection — is Ivan Duque, a conservative from Bogota's elite.
Petro’s supporters say he will focus on reducing longstanding inequalities that have fueled decades of political violence and led to the creation of powerful drug cartels.
His critics, however, fear that Petro will upend the country’s market-friendly economy.
Politicians on the right regularly cast the senator as a populist leader in the mold of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and question his commitment to democracy. It’s an accusation denied by Petro, who says he wants peaceful changes that will benefit long-neglected groups.
“If he wins, we are in for four turbulent years,” said Laura Gil, a political scientist at Bogota’s Javeriana University. “He will have to prove that his leftist movement is willing to operate within the rules of democracy and control the most radical members of his coalition, while facing right-wing groups that will make every effort to block his proposals.”
Petro has been fighting against the odds for decades in his quest to transform Colombian politics.
He began his career as a community organizer for the M-19 guerrilla movement, helping a group of 400 squatter families take over a plot of land in the town of Zipaquira.
He won the housing battle, but was captured and spent two years in jail on weapons charges. He resurfaced in Colombia’s political scene in the early 90s, when his rebel organization made a peace deal with Colombia’s government and participated in drafting a new constitution.
Petro gained national recognition as a congressman in 2006, when he investigated conservative legislators with ties to paramilitary groups and revealed evidence of their crimes on nationally televised debates.
Facing numerous death threats, he’s run for Colombia’s presidency twice and served as Bogota’s mayor from 2011 to 2015, where he led efforts to reduce bus fares and wrestle the city’s trash collection system from private contractors that cost the city millions of dollars.
Though some of his ideas, like mobile health care units in poor neighborhoods, proved successful, his administration was also marked by large numbers of unexecuted projects and frequent clashes with technical advisers and members of his own cabinet.
A study financed by the central government proposing a subway in the city was ditched by Petro, who wanted to use the money for a tramway. When that became unfeasible, the mayor returned to the subway idea, but had too little time left to execute it, said Juan Carlos Florez, a historian who was then a city council member.