Bogota Colombia: Colombians will vote for a new president on Sunday in an election fraught with uncertainty as former guerrilla Gustavo Petro and millionaire businessman Rodolfo Hernandez vie for power in a country saddled with widespread poverty, violence and other problems. Turnout is expected to be high as voters face a stark choice between electing their first leftist president or rooting for a dissident outsider dubbed the Colombian Donald Trump.
“What we have now in the country are doubts, uncertainties,” Patricia Ines Munoz, a specialist at the Pontifical Universidad Javeriana, told AFP. It has been a tense campaign, with death threats against several candidates ahead of last month’s first round, when Colombia’s traditional conservative and liberal powers suffered a poignant defeat.
There are fears that a tight result on Sunday could trigger post-election violence. Conservative president Ivan Duque’s successor will have to deal with a country in crisis, suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, recession, a rise in drug-related violence and a deep-rooted anger within the political establishment.
Almost 40 percent of the country lives in poverty, while 11 percent are unemployed. This anger spilled over into mass anti-government protests in April 2021, which were controversially crushed by security forces. Opinion polls before the election were inconclusive, although abstention is expected to be 45%, with up to another 5% undecided. “I feel very confused… I don’t like either option as president,” Camila Araque, 29, a lawyer in Bogotá, told AFP.
Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank says voters “are trying to figure out who is the lesser of the two evils.” Petro comfortably led the first round of voting with 40 percent, 12 points ahead of Hernandez. But Petro’s background as a radical left-wing urban guerrilla in the 1980s — when he spent two years in prison on gun charges — has many Colombians fearful. He has been in politics since his M-19 group made peace with the state in 1990 and formed a political party.
“The concern comes from the experience of leftist governments in the region,” Munoz said, “not just among citizens, but also the business and economic sectors.” Some believe that the former mayor of Bogotá would turn Colombia into another authoritarian populist socialist state like neighboring Venezuela. “This borders on hysteria,” Shifter said, but “it’s understandable because … more than any other Latin American country, Venezuela’s tragedy and nightmare impacted Colombia,” creating “terror … may they be next.”
Petro, 62, says the country needs social justice to build peace after a multifaceted six-decade conflict involving left-wing rebels, the state, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels. “In other words, less poverty, less hunger, less inequality, more rights. If you don’t, violence proliferates,” he told Radio Caracol on Friday.
Petro named environmental feminist Francia Marquez, 40, as his running mate. This helped to attract young voters. Meleidy Perez, 21, who works for a charitable foundation, told AFP she will vote for Petro because “he is supporting us in what we young people want, which are, first and foremost, opportunities.”
Just a few months ago, Hernandez was practically a stranger outside the northern city of Bucaramanga, where he was mayor from 2016-19. But his unconventional policies and a series of gaffes, most notably when he apparently confused Adolf Hitler with Albert Einstein in a radio interview, drew attention. This week, he leaked a video of the 77-year-old man enjoying a party on a private yacht in Miami alongside several scantily clad much younger women. Though he also named a woman, academic Mirelen Castillo, 53, as his running mate, he recently said a woman’s place was in the home.
But it’s his lack of political or program experience that worries many. “As a businessman, he is used to resolving conflicts directly and quickly, but the exercise of governance requires dialogue, agreements, long meetings to find common ground,” said Muñoz.
This is something he will have to do if elected, as he has almost no representation in Congress. “I’m straight, I speak the truth, I don’t calculate the consequences,” he told Caracol TV on Friday. What attracted voters to Hernandez was his anti-corruption stance — though he faces a corruption investigation from his mayor’s office.
“Between theft, luxury and waste, a billion a week disappears, let’s end it from day one,” he promised. Polls will open to Colombia’s 39 million voters at 8 am (1 pm GMT) and close eight hours later, with early results expected a few hours later. – AFP