Colombia elects first leftist president in tough competition

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — 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 underscores the country’s traditional politicians .

Petro’s third attempt to win the presidency on Sunday saw him get 50.48% of the vote, while political outsider Rodolfo Hernández got 47.26% of the vote, according to results released by election officials.

The election came as Colombians struggled with rising inequality, inflation and violence – factors that forced voters in the first round of elections last month to punish long-ruling centrist and right-wing politicians and two outsiders to the runoff contest. Leading the people to choose.

Petro’s victory in Latin America’s third most populous country was far greater than Hernandez’s defeat. It ends the Colombian left’s longstanding stigma for its alleged involvement with the country’s half-century armed conflict. The president-elect was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being imprisoned for his involvement with the group.

Petro called for unity during his victory speech on Sunday night and extended an olive branch to some of his harshest critics, saying all members of the opposition would be welcomed “to discuss Colombia’s problems” at the presidential palace .

“What is starting with this government, there will never be political persecution or legal persecution, only respect and dialogue,” he said, adding that he would listen to those who have taken up arms as well as “mute farmers”. majority” will also be heard. , indigenous people, women, youth.”

Colombia is also expected to vote for the first time a black woman as vice president. Petro’s running mate, 40-year-old Francia Marquez, is a lawyer and environmental leader whose protests against illegal mining led to threats and grenade attacks in 2019.

Hernandez, whose campaign was based on the anti-corruption fight, accepted his defeat soon after the results were announced.

“I accept the result, as it should be, if we want our institutions to be strong,” he said in a video on social media. “I sincerely hope that this decision will be beneficial for all.”

Petro’s performance was the latest left-wing political victory in Latin America, fueled by voters’ desire for change. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected left-wing presidents in 2021, and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil is leading the election for this year’s presidential election.

But the results were an immediate cause for fret for some voters, whose closest reference to a leftist government is troubled neighbor Venezuela.

“We hope that Mr. Gustavo Petro complies with what is said in his official plan, that he leads this country to the greatness we so desperately need, and that (he) ends corruption, Carin Ardilla García, a Hernandez supporter, said in the north-central city of Bucaramanga. “That it does not lead to communism, to socialism, to a war where they continue to kill us in Colombia. … (h)e do not lead us to another Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Chile goes.”

Of the 39 million eligible voters, about 21.6 million voted on Sunday. Moderationism has been above 40% in every presidential election since 1990.

The 62-year-old will be officially declared the winner after a formal calculation that will take a few days. Historically, preliminary results have coincided with final results.

Several heads of state congratulated Petro on Sunday. So has a fierce critic, former President lvaro Uribe, who remains a central figure in Colombian politics.

Elections before the runoff indicated that Petro and Hernandez – both former mayors – were in a tight race as they topped four other candidates in the early May 29 election. Neither got enough votes to win outright and went into the runoff.

Petro won 40% of the vote and Hernández 28% in the early rounds, but the gap quickly narrowed as Hernández began to attract so-called Patrista voters.

Petro has proposed ambitious pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms and changes to the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. But he will find it difficult to deliver on his promises as he does not have a majority in Congress, which is the key to delivering on the reforms.

Adam Isaacson, a Colombia-based expert in the Washington office on the Latin America think tank, said, “The people who support him have very high expectations, and they’re probably going to be disappointed very quickly when he can’t move things right away.” ” ,

Isaacson said, “I think you could get a situation where he either has to make some deals and give up a lot of his programs to get some things passed or the whole country could be gridlocked.” Is.”

Petro is set to resume diplomatic ties with Venezuela, which were halted in 2019. He seeks to transform Colombia’s relationship with the US by renegotiating a free trade agreement and seeking new ways to fight drug trafficking.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration is looking forward to working with Petro.

Polls say most Colombians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and reject President Iván Duque, who was not qualified to seek re-election. The pandemic set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39 percent of Colombians lived on less than $89 a month last year.

The rejection of politics as usual is “a reflection of the fact that people are fed up with the same people as ever,” said Natalie Amazquita, a 26-year-old civil engineer waiting to vote. “We have to bring about greater social change. Many people in the country are not in the best of conditions.”

But two outside candidates also put him in cold storage. She said she would vote a blank: “I don’t like either of the two candidates. … Neither of them seems to me to be a good person.”

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García Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

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