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In Colombia, a populist on the left and a populist on the right advance to the second round of June

Credit…Chelo Camacho/Reuters

Two anti-establishment candidates, Gustavo Petro, a leftist, and Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist, won the top two spots in Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, dealing a blow to the country’s dominant conservative political class.

The two men will face each other in a runoff election on June 19 that promises to be one of the biggest in the country’s history. At stake is the country’s economic model, its democratic integrity and the livelihoods of millions of people pushed into poverty during the pandemic.

The Petro-Hernández confrontation, said Daniel García-Peña, a Colombian political scientist, pits “change against change.”

Fifty-four percent of eligible voters turned out in the election, the same rate as in 2018, when Mr. Petro faced current president Iván Duque and a slate of other candidates.

The day was largely peaceful as millions of Colombians cast their ballots, despite growing unrest in parts of the country that have seen a resurgence of armed groups.

If Mr Petro wins the second round of elections next month, he will become Colombia’s first leftist president, a watershed moment for a nation that has long been ruled by a conservative establishment.

In his post-election speech at a hotel near central Bogotá, Mr. Petro stood next to his choice of vice-president and said Sunday’s results showed that the political project of the current president and his allies “was defeated”.

He then quickly issued warnings about Mr Hernández, portraying a vote for him as a dangerous step backwards and daring the electorate to take a chance on what he called a progressive project, “real change”.

His rise not only reflects a leftist shift across Latin America, but also 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 primarily to serve the elite.

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 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.

“Today the land of politics and corruption has lost,” Mr. Hernández wrote in a Facebook message to supporters after Sunday’s results. “Today the gangs that thought they could rule forever have lost.”

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 Mr. Iván Duque, who is widely considered to be part of the conservative party. establishment.

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 could claim fraud.

The country is also experiencing a rise in violence, undermining the democratic process. The Election Observation Mission described this pre-election period as the most violent in 12 years.

Mr. Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have both received death threats, leading to increased 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, Megan Janetsky and Genevieve Glatsky in Bogotá.

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion