Colombians are calling it the most important election in decades.
On Sunday, the third largest country in Latin America goes to the polls to choose a new president. At stake is the country’s economic model, its democratic integrity and the livelihoods of millions of people plunged into poverty amid the pandemic.
“There is always a tendency to say, ‘these are the most important elections that have ever taken place’,” said Elisabeth Ungar, a longtime Colombian political analyst, “but I honestly believe that on this occasion, so many things are going to be defined”.
Polls show Gustavo Petro, a senator and former member of a rebel group, in the lead against two former right-wing mayors, Federico Gutiérrez and Rodolfo Hernández. If no candidate obtains more than 50%, a second round will take place on June 19 between the first two.
If Mr Petro wins, he would become Colombia’s first leftist president, marking a watershed moment in a nation that has long been ruled by a conservative establishment.
His rise reflects not only a leftist shift across Latin America, but an anti-incumbent fervor that has deepened as the pandemic has deepened poverty and inequality, intensifying the sense that the region’s economies are built. mainly to serve the elite.
“We believe in real political and social change,” said Diego Guzmán, 25, a university student who described his vote for Mr Petro as a rejection of “the ruling political class”.
Petro has pledged to transform Colombia’s economic system, which he says fuels inequality, by expanding social programs, stopping oil exploration and shifting the country’s focus to agriculture and tourism. national industry.
Colombia has long been the United States’ strongest ally in the region, and Mr. Petro is calling for a reset of the relationship, including changes in the approach to the war on drugs and a reconsideration of a bilateral trade deal that could lead to a clash with Washington.
Mr Gutiérrez, who is backed by much of the conservative establishment, is pushing for modest tweaks to the status quo, including allocating more money to local governments.
Mr Hernández, who was relatively unknown before starting to rise in the polls in the final days of the campaign, is pushing a populist anti-corruption platform but has sounded the alarm with his plan to declare a state of urgency to achieve its goals.
Many voters are fed up with rising prices, high unemployment, low wages, rising education costs and rising violence, and polls show that a clear majority of Colombians have a unfavorable opinion of the current president, Iván Duque, who is widely considered part of the conservative establishment.
Still, some Colombians say they see a vote for Mr. Petro as a risk – but are willing to take it. “It scares me more that we continue to be ruled by the same old politicians,” said Helena Osorio, 25, a nurse who earns just above minimum wage.
Not everyone agrees. Juan Sebastián Rey, 21, a political organizer who supports Mr. Gutiérrez, said he considered Mr. Petro a bad leader.
“I am very afraid of Gustavo Petro, not because of his governmental plans or his ideas, but because of his character.”
The election comes as polls show growing distrust of the country’s institutions, including the country’s national registrar, an electoral body. The Registrar missed the initial tally in a March Congressional vote, raising concerns that losing candidates in the presidential vote may claim fraud.
The country is also experiencing an upsurge in violence, undermining the democratic process. The Electoral Observation Mission, a local group, called this most violent pre-election period for 12 years.
Mr. Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have both received death threats, which has heightened security, including bodyguards holding riot shields.
Despite these dangers, the election reinvigorated many Colombians who had long felt their voice was not represented at the highest levels of power, instilling a sense of hope in the election. That sense of optimism is partly inspired by Ms. Márquez, a former housekeeper and environmental activist who would be the country’s first black vice president if her ticket won.
His campaign has focused on fighting systemic injustice, and his most popular slogan, “vivir sabroso”, means, roughly, “to live richly and with dignity”.
The report was provided by Sofia Villamil and Megan Janetsky in Bogotá.