BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Two anti-establishment candidates, Gustavo Petro, a leftist, and Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist, took the top two places in Sunday’s Colombian presidential election, dealing a stunning blow to Colombia’s dominant conservative political class.
The two men will participate in a runoff election on June 19, which will be one of the most sweeping elections in the country’s history. At stake is the country’s economic model, its democratic integrity and the livelihoods of millions of people plunged into poverty during the pandemic.
With more than 99 percent of the vote counted on Sunday night, Mr Petro got more than 40 percent of the vote, while Mr Hernández got just over 28 percent. Hernández defeated the establishment’s conservative candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, who had been in second place by more than four percentage points.
Hernández’s unexpected second place victory shows a nation hungry to elect someone who is not represented by the country’s mainstream conservative leaders.
The confrontation with Petro-Hernández, said Daniel García-Peña, a Colombian political scientist, pits “change against change.”
For months, polls have shown Mr Petro proposing an overhaul of the country’s capitalist economic model to the detriment of a conservative former mayor, Federico Gutiérrez.
It was only recently that Mr Hernández, who was active on a populist anti-corruption platform, started rising in the polls.
If Mr Petro ultimately wins in the next round of voting, it would mark a turning point for one of the most politically conservative societies in Latin America, and set Colombia on an unknown path.
In his post-election speech at a hotel near downtown Bogotá, Mr. Petro stood next to his vice presidential pick and said Sunday’s results showed that the political project of the current president and his allies “has been defeated.” “.
He then quickly warned about Mr Hernández, portraying a vote in front of him as a dangerous regression and challenging the electorate to take a gamble on what he called a progressive project, “a real change”.
Mr Petro’s rise reflects not only a left-wing shift in Latin America, but a fervor against incumbents that has gained momentum as the pandemic has increased poverty and inequality, reinforcing a sense that the economies of the region are mainly built to serve the elite.
That same anti-incumbent sentiment seemed to give Mr. Hernández a belated lift to the second round, pointing to the waning power of Uribismo, a harsh conservatism that has dominated politics in Colombia for the past two decades, named after its founder, former president. Alvaro Uribe.
On Sunday, supporters of Mr Petro spoke at polling stations across the country about that frustration and a renewed sense of hope.
“This is a historic moment for Colombia, we don’t want more continuity,” said Chiro Castellanos, 37, a Petro supporter in Sincelejo, a town near the Caribbean coast. “This marks a change, it’s a nationwide project that’s not just about Gustavo Petro.”
But in many places there was also fear of what that change might look like, advocating a more moderate approach.
“This country is in trouble,” said Myriam Matallana, 55, a supporter of Mr Gutiérrez, in Bogotá, the capital. But with mr. Petro, “would it be worse.”
Petro has vowed to transform Colombia’s economic system, which he says fuels inequality, by expanding social programs, halting oil exploration and shifting the country’s focus to domestic agriculture and industry.
Colombia has long been the United States’ strongest ally in the region, and a victory for Petro could spark a clash with Washington. The candidate has called for a reset of the bilateral relationship, including changes in handling the drug war and a re-examination of a trade deal.
The elections come as surveys show growing distrust in most of the country’s institutions, including Congress, political parties, the police, military, the press and the National Registrar’s Office, a key electoral body.
It also comes amid mounting violence, including a stay-at-home order issued earlier this month by a criminal group, which paralyzed a significant portion of the nation for at least four days.
Prior to the election, there was widespread concern that these factors would stifle the democratic process.
“If we stay at home and say ‘Everyone is corrupt’, we will achieve nothing,” said María Gañan, 27, who voted for Mr Hernández in Bogotá. “We want to change the history of the country.”
Relatively unknown until a few weeks ago, Mr Hernández labeled himself an anti-corruption candidate and has proposed rewarding citizens for reporting corruption by recruiting Colombians already living abroad to diplomatic positions, which he believes will save on travel and other expenses, and ban unnecessary parties at embassies.
“Today the land of politics and corruption is lost,” Mr Hernández wrote in a Facebook message to his supporters after Sunday’s results.
“Today the gangs who thought they could rule forever have lost,” he added.
But some of Mr Hernández’s proposals have been criticized as undemocratic.
In particular, he has proposed declaring a state of emergency for 90 days and suspending all judicial and administrative functions to crack down on corruption, leading to fears he could shut down Congress or suspend mayors.
Many voters are fed up with rising prices, high unemployment, low wages, rising education costs and increasing violence, and polls show that a clear majority of Colombians have an unfavorable view of the current conservative administration.
Candidates pushing for change have previously perished on the campaign trail in Colombia. Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have both received death threats, leading to increased security, including bodyguards with riot shields.
Nevertheless, the election was also marked by a broadening of the political tent.
In a matter of months, Ms. Márquez, an environmentalist who would be the country’s first black vice president if she won, has turned into a national phenomenon, imbuing the election with a gender, race, and class-conscious focus like few others. candidates in the history of the country.
Her popularity was overwhelmingly seen as a reflection of a deep desire of many voters – black, Indigenous, poor, rural – to see themselves in the highest halls of power.
She could have voted in the capital on Sunday. Instead, she chose to travel to the southwestern department of Cauca, where she grew up.
“Today we split the country’s history in two,” she said on Sunday, shortly after casting her vote. “Today, one of the none, the historically excluded, is rising to take a place in politics.”
Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil, Megan Janetsky and Genevieve Glatsky in Bogotá, and by Federico Rios in Suarez, Cauca.