BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombians on Sunday gave a lead to a leftist presidential candidate for the first time in the country’s history, a vote that paved the way for an unusual runoff race between two populist, anti-establishment candidates promising radical change in the third-largest nation in Latin America.
Gustavo Petro, a 62-year-old senator and former leftist guerrilla, rode a wave of support from young and poor voters frustrated with high levels of unemployment, inflation and violence in one of the most unequal societies in the region. With the preliminary count nearly complete, Petro had won about 40 percent of the first-round vote on Sunday, falling far short of the majority he needed to become president outright.
Instead, he will face off in a second round on June 19 with an outsider candidate who catapulted in the polls at the last minute: Rodolfo Hernandez, a brash, 77-year-old engineer and wealthy businessman who pledges to root out corruption and has drawn comparisons to former U.S. president Donald Trump. Hernandez, a former mayor of the midsize city of Bucaramanga, won about 28 percent of the votes.
Hernandez claimed a four-point lead over Federico Gutierrez, the center-right candidate and former Medellin mayor seen by many as a continuation of incumbent President Ivan Duque. Gutierrez, who was expected to face Petro in the second round of voting, had been widely anticipated up until recently.
Now, in a country historically led by the political elite, Colombians will choose between two candidates who are far from it. The leftist rebel from the past is being resented by conservative politicians in a country that’s still recovering from war. One is a wildcard businessman, who once was suspended from office as mayor after slapping an elected city councilman. Gutierrez declared Sunday night that Hernandez will be his support in the runoff. Analysts say it could be an interesting race between two visions for change in the country.
Speaking before a crowd of supporters Sunday night, Petro said the results proved that the “political project” of the Duque administration “has been defeated.”
“It is the end of an era,” Petro said, standing onstage beside his running mate, Francia Marquez, who could become Colombia’s first Black vice president. “From this moment on, we must define what kind of change we want.”
Hernandez, speaking in a video address, said the results reflected a country “that doesn’t want to keep going for one more day with the same people, the same people who have led us to the painful situation we’re in today.”
It will be a kind of presidential election unheard of in Colombia. It is a common pattern in a region that has been ravaged economically by the recent pandemic. Voters have grown tired of incumbent governments not meeting their needs. They want something better and are receiving it.
In Peru, a surge in poverty helped propel Marxist rural schoolteacher and political neophyte Pedro Castillo to the presidency last year. In Chile, the free-market model of the region, voters this year chose 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric. Brazil is the biggest country in Latin America and Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, a leftist ex-president, leads October polls.
“There is a desire everywhere to castigate those who are in power,” said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Peru. This is especially true in Colombia, where over half the population is experiencing food insecurity, 40 percent are living in poverty and 78 percent said in a recent survey that their country was moving in the wrong direction.
“This didn’t start two years ago, this started 200 years ago,” said Marta Bautista, 59, who stood in line to vote Sunday in a working-class area in Suba, in northern Bogota. “The same people have been in charge, the same people have been robbing us.”
She spoke about her son-in-law’s hardware store that has struggled to stay afloat. As she spoke of how difficult it was for people to eat and to pay twice as much to buy a pound meat in two years, she began to weep. She said, “I feel sorry for my country. I also hurt for my children. I am hurting for my grandchildren.” “I want a change.”
“Change” was the word heard over and over at the polls in the Colombian capital on Sunday. Bautista, like many others on the line, believed that Petro’s presidency would bring about change. But others, like nurse Tibisay Contreras, 50, saw that change in Hernandez.
“He is not the same as always,” Contreras said of the outsider candidate. Petro’s policies were far too radical for her, and she was scared of him. “Rodolfo is not part of the political machinery. I want to try someone different, someone who is not corrupt.”
Hernandez could prove to be a formidable threat to Petro in the second round, analysts say. Analysts predict that both candidates will have to attempt to win votes from those they opposed in the second round. Yann Basset of Bogota’s Rosario University, said that Hernandez is running on an anti-corruption platform. However, Hernandez must win back voters from the right and “everything it means”, with support from all political classes. Petro, meanwhile, will have to show he’s part of a “reasonable change.”
As a longtime politician, senator and former mayor of Bogota, will Petro suddenly become the establishment candidate? Head of the Petro debates, Alfonso Prada said that instead of focusing on Hernandez, the campaign would be focused more on connecting him to the conservative political elite that is likely to rally behind him. Some prominent Duque party members announced their support for the ex-Buccaramanga mayor on Sunday night.
Sunday’s vote followed the most tense and volatile election cycle in more than a decade. Election observers recorded more than 580 acts of violence against political and social leaders ahead of the election. In retaliation to their leader’s extradition to the United States, Clan del Golfo shut down large stretches of rural northern Mexico weeks before the election. Campaigns to increase security were led by recent assassination threats made against Petro and Francia Marquez his running mate.
On Sunday, representatives from several campaigns expressed concern about what they saw as election irregularities, heightening fears that a losing candidate could question the legitimacy of the election results in June.
Last year, cities across Colombia erupted in massive protests for months, initially in response to a controversial tax reform. At least 22 people were killed by police when they responded to the protests. Many of those on the streets were young people like Alejandra Sandoval, a 19-year-old gastronomy student from Soacha.
“We had hoped for more change, for less violence and fewer deaths,” said Sandoval. She participated in Sunday’s first presidential election hoping to see Petro win the changes that she and other demonstrators had long hoped for.
For decades, elections here focused on the core issue of war. According to Silvia Oltero (a Colombian political scientist), security has fallen further down on the voter priority list this year. Many voters are more concerned about the future, including corruption, inequality, and the economy.
Petro promises to transform an unequal society through redistributive policies such as universal free higher education and a minimum wage for single mothers. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians. He wants to end new oil exploration, and move the country towards renewable energy. He sees the country as a progressive axis in the region that is based on industrialization and not on extraction of natural resources. He told The Washington Post that Latin America needed a “new agenda.”
His candidacy has generated panic among the Colombian conservative political and financial establishment. Many fear that a Petro presidency could cause tensions with the United States. Some say that he won’t be able keep his promises to a divided legislature.
Hernandez, meanwhile, offers an alternative that appeals to both the anti-Petro and anti-establishment vote. Some refer to him as “The engineer from Santander”, while others call him “The old guy from TikTok”, a former mayor of Bucaramanga. He was able to eliminate corruption from the city as mayor. He is being charged by Colombia’s Attorney General with improperly granting contracts for waste management. He has pleaded guilty to the charges and will be appearing in court soon.
He is also known for making shocking comments. During an interview in 2016, he described himself as “a follower of a great German thinker, Adolf Hitler.” He later said he confused Hitler with Albert Einstein.
Hernandez rejects the right-wing label but has embraced support from conservative voters. He laughed when asked by The Post about his comparisons with former President Donald Trump. He acknowledged that they share a tendency to be “direct.”
He seemed uncertain when asked about specific policies. When asked if he supported aerial fumigation of cocaine (the base plant), he replied that he needed to determine which was more affordable. It wasn’t necessary that a president know every department well. “Because all those who know it did it. Where did they take the country?” Where did they take the country?”
Hernandez predicted he would win because his fervent base knows he is “the only one who is capable of removing the thieves from power.” He then went on to describe his effect on supporters as “messianic,” and compared them to the “brainwashed” hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, who destroyed the twin towers.
Asked if likening his supporters to terrorists was problematic, he rejected the premise. “What I’m comparing is that after you get into that state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.”
Diana Duran contributed to this report.