Colombia will be ruled by a left-wing president for the first time after former rebel Gustavo Petro narrowly defeated a real estate millionaire in a runoff election that underscored the people’s distaste for the country’s traditional politicians.
Petro’s third bid to win the presidency earned him 50.48% of the vote on Sunday, while political outsider Rodolfo Hernández took 47.26%, according to results released by the election authorities.
The election came as Colombians grappled with rising inequality, inflation and violence — factors that led voters in the first round of the election last month to punish long-ruling centrist and right-wing politicians and choose two outsiders for the second round.
Petro’s victory in Latin America’s third most populous country was more than a defeat for Hernández. It puts an end to Colombia’s long stigmatization of the left for its alleged association with the country’s half-century of armed conflict. The president-elect was once a rebel of the now-defunct M-19 movement and was given an amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.
During his victory speech on Sunday night, Petro called for unity and extended an olive branch to some of his harshest critics, saying all opposition members will be welcome at the presidential palace “to discuss Colombia’s problems”.
“From this government that starts there will never be political persecution or legal persecution, there will only be respect and dialogue,” he said, adding that he will listen to those who have raised arms and to “that silent majority of farmers, Indigenous people, women, young people.”
The vote also leads Colombia to have a black woman as vice president for the first time. Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, 40, is a lawyer and environmental leader whose opposition to illegal mining resulted in threats and a grenade attack in 2019.
Hernández, whose campaign was based on a fight against corruption, admitted his defeat shortly after the results were announced.
“I accept the result, as it should be, if we want our institutions to be steadfast,” he said in a video posted on social media. “I sincerely hope this decision is beneficial for everyone.”
Petro’s performance was the last leftist political victory in Latin America, fueled by voters’ desire for change. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected left-wing presidents in 2021, and in Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election.
But the results were an immediate cause for concern for some voters who most refer to a left-wing government in troubled neighboring Venezuela.
“We hope that Mr. Gustavo Petro lives up to what has been said in his government plan, that he will lead this country to the greatness we so desperately need, and that he will end corruption,” said Karin Ardila García, a supporter of Hernández in the north-central city of Bucaramanga. “That he will not lead to communism, to socialism, to a war where they continue to kill us in Colombia. … (H)e does not lead us to another Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Chile.”
About 21.6 million of the 39 million eligible voters cast their votes on Sunday. Absenteeism has been more than 40% in all presidential elections since 1990.
Petro, 62, is officially declared the winner after a formal count lasting a few days. Historically, the preliminary results coincided with the definitive ones.
Several heads of state congratulated Petro on Sunday. So was a fierce critic, former President Álvaro Uribe, who continues to be a central figure in Colombian politics.
Polls ahead of the second round showed Petro and Hernández — both former mayors — were in a close race since surpassing four other candidates in the first May 29 election. Neither got enough votes to win outright and went to the second round.
Petro won 40% of the vote in the first round and Hernández 28%, but the gap quickly narrowed as Hernández began attracting so-called anti-Petrista voters.
Petro has proposed ambitious pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms and proposed changes to Colombia’s fight against drug cartels and other armed groups. But he will have a hard time delivering on his promises as he lacks a majority in Congress, which is essential for pushing forward reforms.
“The people who support him have very high expectations, and they’re likely to be disappointed pretty quickly if he can’t move things right away,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. †
“I think you’re going to run into a situation where he either has to make some deals and give up a lot of his programs for some things to come through, or the whole country could be in a deadlock,” Isacson added. to.
Petro is ready to resume diplomatic relations with Venezuela, which were cut off in 2019. He also wants to make changes to Colombia’s relations with the US by pushing for renegotiations of a free trade agreement and new ways to fight drug trafficking.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration looks forward to working with Petro.
According to polls, most Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and disapprove of President Iván Duque, who was not eligible for re-election. The pandemic has delayed the country’s poverty reduction efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39% of Colombians lived on less than $89 a month last year.
The rejection of politics as usual “is a reflection of the fact that the people are fed up with the same people as always,” said Nataly Amezquita, a 26-year-old civil engineer waiting to vote. “We need to create more social change. Many people in the country are not in the best shape.”
But even the two outside candidates left her cold. She said she would cast a blank vote: “I don’t like either candidate. … Neither of them seems like a good person.”
Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.