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Colombia elections: Voters head to polls demanding change

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombians headed to the polls on Sunday to vote in the first round of an uncertain presidential election that could deliver a historic repudiation of the status quo.

A frustrated and struggling young portion of the electorate is backing Gustavo Petro, a senator and former guerrilla trying to become the first leftist president in the country’s history. His rise has been fueled by widespread discontent with the outgoing term-limited administration of President Iván Duque, who critics say has done little to improve the security or economic challenges in the country during his four years in office. Petro, 62, has led in polls for months, but is unlikely to win a majority of votes in the first round, meaning he would face a rival in a runoff on June 19.

For much of the campaign, it appeared that Petro would head to a second round with Federico Gutiérrez, a center-right former mayor of Medellín who has sought to capture the votes of the political establishment. But recent polls have shown a late surge for outsider candidate Rodolfo Hernández, a brash, 77-year-old civil engineer and businessman with a populist anti-corruption message that has gained a following on TikTok.

That would set the stage for a second round between two anti-establishment candidates, a contest unheard of in a country historically led by the political elite.

“This didn’t start two years ago, this started 200 years ago,” said Marta Bautista, 59, who stood in line to vote Sunday in a working-class neighborhood in Suba, in Bogotá’s north. “The same people have been in charge, the same people have been robbing us.”

She spoke about her son-in-law’s hardware store that has struggled to stay afloat. She began to cry as she described how much harder it had become for many to eat, to afford a pound of meat that has doubled in cost in the past two years.

“I hurt for my country, I hurt for my kids, I hurt for my grandkids,” she said. “I want a change.”

“Change” was the word heard over and over at the polls in the country’s capital on Sunday. For Bautista and many others in line, change could only happen with a Petro presidency. But others, like nurse Tibisay Contreras, 50, saw that change in Hernández.

“He’s not the same as always,” Contreras said of the outsider candidate. She was afraid of Petro, whose policies she felt were too radical. “Rodolfo has never been part of the political machine. I want to try someone different, someone who isn’t corrupt.”

Colombia has seen increasing violence from armed criminal groups more than five years after it signed historic peace accords with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Election observers say it’s been the most volatile election cycle in a dozen years; they’ve recorded 581 acts of violence against political and social leaders in the pre-electoral period. Weeks before the vote, the Clan del Golfo cartel shut down much of the rural north of the country in retaliation for the extradition of their leader to the United States. Recent assassination threats against Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, led the campaigns to tighten security.

Concern is growing, meanwhile, that losing candidates will question the legitimacy of the election results.

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U.S. Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash. joined by 22 House colleagues, urged the Biden administration to convey the country’s support for free and fair elections in Colombia, a key U.S. ally in the region. “As the first round of voting approaches,” they wrote, “these shared democratic values have come increasingly under threat.”

The vote could prove a sharp rebuke of the politically conservative establishment that has governed Colombia for more than two centuries. It comes amid a wave of discontent in a region still recovering from the economic assault of the pandemic as it faces soaring inflation and widening inequality.

“All of this has been undermining the patience of the people,” said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Peru.

In Peru, a surge in poverty helped propel Marxist rural schoolteacher and political neophyte Pedro Castillo last year to the presidency. In Chile, the region’s free-market model, voters this year chose 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric. And in Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads polls to unseat President Jair Bolsonaro in October.

“There’s a desire everywhere to castigate those who are in power,” Vergara said.

This is especially true in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. More than half the population is experiencing food insecurity, 40 percent are living in poverty and 78 percent said in a recent survey that their country was moving in the wrong direction.

Last year, cities across Colombia erupted in massive, months-long protests, initially in response to a controversial tax reform. Police responded with brutal force, killing at least two dozen people. Many of those on the streets were young people like Alejandra Sandoval, a 19-year-old gastronomy student from Soacha.

“We had hoped for more change, for less violence and fewer deaths,” said Sandoval. On Sunday, she participated in her first presidential election, hoping that a vote for Petro would bring the change to Colombia that demonstrators like her had long demanded.

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For decades, elections here focused on a core issue: War. But this year, security is further down the list of voters’ priorities, according to Silvia Otero, a political scientist at Colombia’s University del Rosario. Many voters have more immediate concerns: The economy, inequality, corruption.

Petro promises to transform an unequal society through redistributive policies such as universal free higher education and a minimum wage for single mothers. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians. He proposes ending new oil exploration and moving the country toward renewable energy. He envisions a country — and a “progressive axis” in the region — built on industrialization, not on extracting natural resources. “Latin America needs a new agenda,” he told The Washington Post.

His candidacy has generated panic among Colombia’s conservative political and financial establishment. Some warn a Petro presidency would strain relations with the United States. Others say he won’t be able to keep his promises with a divided legislature.

Gutiérrez, his main rival for most of the campaign, says Petro’s policies would turn Colombia into a broken socialist state akin to neighboring Venezuela. Known here as “Fico,” Gutiérrez, 47, promises “a country in order and with opportunities.” He has tried to distance himself from the unpopular Duque administration in part by suggesting proposals that hew closer to center.

“Where there is no state there is no legality,” he told The Post. “But the state does not only mean the presence of more police or more troops. … It comes through education, through opportunities.”

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For some voters, a vote for Gutiérrez was a vote against Petro.

“The countries who have taken on these leftist policies have been tremendous failures,” said Camilo Pinilla, a 38-year-old economist who voted Sunday in Bogotá for Gutiérrez. He described some of Petro’s policies as “perverse.”

Hernández, meanwhile, offers an alternative that appeals to both the anti-Petro and anti-establishment vote. He’s known by some as “the engineer from Santander” and by others as the “old guy from TikTok,” a popular former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga. As mayor, he managed to root out some key sources of corruption in the city. But he was temporarily suspended in 2018 when he was captured on video slapping a city councilman in the face.

Hernández rejected the right-wing label but embraced support from conservative voters. Asked by The Post about comparisons to former president Donald Trump, he laughed. He acknowledged that they share a tendency to be “direct.”

Hernández predicted he would win because his fervent base knows he is “the only one who is capable of removing the thieves from power.” He then went on to describe his effect on supporters as “messianic,” and compared them to the “brainwashed” hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, who destroyed the twin towers.

Asked if likening his supporters to terrorists was problematic, he rejected the premise. “What I’m comparing is that after you get into that state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.”

Diana Durán contributed to this report.

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