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Left-wing Petro wins in Colombia’s first-round presidential election

Former guerrilla and left-wing candidate, Gustavo Petro, and right-wing populist, Rodolfo Hernández, will face each other in the second round next month, with Colombia set to break from the conservative establishment.

(CN) — Left-wing former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro won the first round of Colombia’s presidential election with 40.3% and will go head-to-head with right-wing populist and former Mayor Rodolfo Hernández in the second round after winning 28.2% of the vote.

“Today we have won,” announced Petro to his supporters, “it is a day of triumph. We want to make a real change that will allow us a new era, much more prosperous.”

Hernández told his followers: “Today, the country of politicking and corruption lost. I count on you to win in the second round and make this great path a reality.”

All polls pointed towards Petro, who had consistently led other candidates for months, including the conservative Federico Gutiérrez, who had been polling in second place. Considered a continuity candidate with his establishment credentials and moderate policies, Gutiérrez finished third with 23.9%.

“The results of the first round are a clear result of the large dissatisfaction among the population with the political elite that hasn’t addressed the main socio-economic problems of the country,” said Juan Diego Duque Salazar, a political scientist at Uppsala University. 

With Petro and Hernández, the two anti-establishment candidates guarantee a shift away from the country’s long-led conservative establishment. “They propose two very different directions,” added Salazar, “with Petro proposing a substantial increase in social spending and strengthening the state, while Hernández wants to shrink the state bureaucracy that has contributed to the long-standing problem of corruption.”

With no candidate winning half of the votes, Petro and Hernández will face each other in a second-round runoff scheduled for June 19, with incumbent right-wing president, Iván Duque, coming to the end of his constitutional one-term mandate.

The election comes at a pivotal time in Colombia, where poverty and inequality have deepened the discontent in a population that increasingly sees its institutions and elite as corrupt. This has sparked a series of mass protests and labor strikes that have punctuated its politics since 2019.

Despite GDP growth pushing Colombia into the elite group of OECD countries in 2020, in the same year, the country’s poverty rate rose from 35.7% to 42.5%. The nationwide discontent has encouraged populist and anti-establishment candidates to come to the fore of the presidential campaign.

“Now, a great paradox hangs over their institutionality, since the big winner in these elections was the majority of people that are crying out for change,” said Gabriel Orozco Restrepo, a political analyst from Colombia. “Both have internal contradictions as a result of their experience in Colombian politics and institutions. Paradoxically, Petro, who has proclaimed a change in the establishment and denounced acts of corruption, has been in the public administration for more than 25 years.”

His opponent, Hernández, is a millionaire businessman and former mayor of the mid-sized city of Bucaramanga. “With his anti-system speech, he claims that the cancer eating away at Colombia is a parasitic political class,” added Restrepo. “But the truth is that he has benefited from that same system in which politics and economic power converge.” Hernández is also due to be tried for corruption this July, after being accused of intervening in a trash collection tender to benefit a company his son had lobbied for.

This sets up a paradox for the second round. “Petro is the anti-system that has lived off the system and promises to change it by guaranteeing institutionality,” said Restrepo, “and Hernández is the anti-system that promises to end it while continuing the economic system that has perpetuated a hegemonic political elite.”

Petro was a member of the M-19 guerilla organization throughout the 1990s and has served in both houses of Congress and as mayor of the capital of Bogotá. Having only been ruled by liberals, centrists and conservatives, Petro is hoping to become Colombia’s first leftist leader.

Petro heads the leftist Historic Pact coalition, which ties together the country’s varied left-wing parties and social organizations. He is promising a fundamental shift by running on a platform that includes anti-poverty programs funded through tax hikes on the rich and renegotiating trade relations, including with the United States, to better protect national industries and agriculture.

He also promises to cultivate a greener economy through phasing out oil production, which is the country’s main export, while replacing its revenue with other sectors of the economy, including tourism.

The promise of broad and fundamental economic changes would rub against the reality of parliamentary arithmetic. Despite congressional elections in March shifting legislative power leftwards, a fragmented Congress would require Petro to compromise and form alliances.

Hernández fronts the anti-corruption movement LIGA and is promising a mixed bag of policies that include shrinking government, cutting taxes and fighting corruption as well as legalizing marijuana, deescalating the drug war, reestablishing relations with Venezuela and negotiating peace with the guerrilla group ELN — despite his daughter being kidnapped and presumedly killed by the group in 2004.

His avid use of social media to spread his politics and gaffe-prone personality provoke comparisons to Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, but he is an admirer of Mexico’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has also made corruption his biggest fight.

With three weeks left until the second-round runoff, both campaigns will look to find political allies to broaden their support base.

“Hernández will have to decide if he will publicly agree to accept the support of the establishment political parties,” added Salazar. “He’s campaigned that he won’t ally with them, but without those coalitions, he has little chance of winning, in my opinion.”

Polls have suggested that there is little to separate Petro and Hernández.

“This is somewhat worrisome because it speaks to research on election violence, which has proved that countries that have a super competitive election (with both candidates receiving around 50%) have a much higher chance of falling into a new violence cycle,” said Salazar.

A Petro win would mark a historic shift in one of Latin America’s most conservative countries and most reliable partners of the United States. 

A left-wing Colombia would add to the resurgent left across Latin America, from Mexico Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba to Peru, Chile and Argentina, with the left also favorite to regain the presidency in Brazil in elections scheduled for October, as former President Lula da Silva currently leads in the polls over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

Hernandez’s party has just two seats in the lower house of Congress and zero representation in the Senate. With a Hernández victory, “we would be facing one of the most uncertain scenarios in the face of governance,” said Restrepo, “because there would be a candidate who would have little political support in Congress yet with a large majority of citizen support and a high level of expectation in the promises given in the campaign.”

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