Former Rebel Wins Colombia Presidential Election

BOGOTA, Colombia — Former rebel Gustavo Petro narrowly won a runoff election over a political outsider millionaire Sunday, ushering in a new era of politics for Colombia by becoming the country’s first leftist president.

Petro, a senator in his third attempt to win the presidency, got 50.48% of the votes, while real estate magnate Rodolfo Hernández had 47.26%, with almost all ballots counted, according to results released by election authorities.

Petro’s victory underlined a drastic change in presidential politics for a country that has long marginalized the left for its perceived association with the armed conflict. Petro, who was previously a rebel for the now-defunct M-19 organization was jailed after he was implicated in that group.

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“Today is a day of celebration for the people. Let them celebrate the first popular victory,” Petro tweeted. “May so many sufferings be cushioned in the joy that today floods the heart of the Homeland.”

Petro issued a call for unity during his victory speech and extended an olive branch to some of his harshest critics, saying all members of the opposition will be welcomed at the presidential palace “to discuss the problems of Colombia.”

“From this government that is beginning, there will never be political persecution or legal persecution, there will only be respect and dialogue,” he said, adding that he will listen to not only those who have raised arms but also to “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth.”

Outgoing conservative President Iván Duque congratulated Petro shortly after results were announced, and Hernández quickly conceded his defeat.

“I accept the result, as it should be, if we want our institutions to be firm,” Hernández said in a video on social media. “I sincerely hope that this decision is beneficial for everyone.”

The vote came amid widespread discontent over rising inequality, inflation and violence — factors that led voters in the election’s first round last month to turn their backs on long-governing centrist and right-leaning politicians and choose two outsiders in Latin America’s third-most populous nation.

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Petro’s showing was the latest leftist political victory in Latin America fueled by voters’ desire for change. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election.

“What I do think it shows is that the strategy of fear, hate and stigmatization toward the left no longer works as a policy to win voters,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the firm International Crisis Group.

However, some voters were worried about the outcome because it was a direct reference to a leftist government in troubled Venezuela.

Colombia is in a new age of politics.

“We hope that Mr. Gustavo Petro complies with what was said in his government plan, that he leads this country to greatness, which we need so much, and that (he) ends corruption,” said Karin Ardila García, a Hernández supporter in the north-central city of Bucaramanga. “That he does not lead to communism, to socialism, to a war where they continue to kill us in Colombia. … (He) does not lead us to another Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Chile.”

About 21.6million of the 39.3 million eligible voters cast their ballots Sunday. In every election, Abstentionism exceeded 40% since 1990.

Petro, aged 62, will officially be declared the winner following a formal count. It will take several days. The preliminary results are always the same as the final.

Numerous heads of states congratulated Petro for his victory on Sunday. So did a fierce critic, former President Álvaro Uribe, who remains a central figure in Colombia’s politics.

Supporter celebrating former leftist rebel Gustavo Petro’s victory in the runoff presidential election held in Cali (Colombia) on June 19, 2022.

Andres Quintero/AP

Polls ahead of the runoff had indicated Petro and Hernández — both former mayors — were in a tight race since they topped four other candidates in the initial May 29 election. The runoff was won by neither of them, as they did not receive enough votes.

Petro won 40% of the votes in the initial round and Hernández 28%, but the difference quickly narrowed as Hernández began to attract so-called anti-Petrista voters.

Petro is proposing ambitious tax, pension and health reforms as well changes in Colombia’s fighting against drugs cartels. He will be unable to keep his promises because he doesn’t have the majority of Congress. This is crucial for implementing reforms.

“The people who do support him have very high hopes, and they are probably going to be disappointed pretty quickly when he can’t move things right away,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

Gridlock threatens new leader

“I think you might find a situation where he either has to strike some deals and give up a lot of his programs just to get some things passed or the whole country could be gridlocked,” Isacson added.

Petro wants to resume diplomatic relationships with Venezuela. These relations were stopped in 2019 He also wants to make changes to Colombia’s relations with the United States by seeking a renegotiation of a free trade agreement and new solutions in the fight against drug trafficking.

Antony Blinken (US Secretary of State) stated that Petro is a priority for the Biden government.

Hernández, who made his money in real estate, is not affiliated with any major political party and rejected alliances. He waged his austere campaign mostly via TikTok or other social media platforms. It was self-financed, based mainly on a fight to corruption which Hernandez blames for poverty, and loss of resources available for social programs.

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Most Colombians feel the country has gone in the wrong way and polls show that most disapprove Duque’s reelection bid. The pandemic set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39% of Colombia’s live on less than $89 a month last year.

The rejection of politics as usual “is a reflection of the fact that the people are fed up with the same people as always,” said Nataly Amezquita, a 26-year-old civil engineer waiting to vote. “We have to create greater social change. Many people in the country aren’t in the best condition.”

She was not impressed by the candidates from outside. She said she would cast a blank ballot: “I don’t like either of the two candidates. … Neither of them seems like a good person to me.”

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