Former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro has won the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections. The former mayor of the capital Bogotá won 40.3 percent of the votes, as the electoral authority announced on Sunday (local time) after the preliminary count of almost all polling stations. The non-party candidate Rodolfo Hernández came to 28.1 percent. The two strongest candidates will meet in the runoff on June 19.
“Today is about change,” Petro said after the release of the election results. “An era comes to an end. Now it’s about shaping the future.” If Petro also prevails in the second round, it would be the first time in the recent history of the South American country that a leftist would move into the Casa de Nariño government palace in Bogotá. Colombia is traditionally conservative. Although social inequality is enormous, left-wing politics has always been discredited by the violence of guerrilla groups in decades of civil war.
The millionaire building contractor Hernández was mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, but has few political connections in Bogotá. In the event of an election victory, the populist promises a lean government and a determined fight against corruption. The current conservative head of state, Iván Duque, was not allowed to stand again because the constitution does not provide for re-election.
Petro and Hernández each campaigned with Afro-Colombian candidates for vice president. Francia Márquez, alongside Petro, is a human rights activist and environmentalist from the Cauca region, which has been hard hit by the violence. In 2018 she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize for her fight against illegal gold mines in her home country.
Hernández’ running mate Marelen Castillo, on the other hand, comes from university life. The 53-year-old scientist from Cali first studied biology and chemistry, later earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering and a doctorate in education in the USA. Before running for vice-candidate, she ran two private Catholic universities.
For decades, Colombia suffered from a bloody civil war between left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and state security forces. 220,000 people died and millions were displaced. In 2016, the government signed a peace treaty with the left-wing FARC guerrillas, and hopes for an upswing were high. But violence is back, especially in rural areas. 300,000 police officers and soldiers were deployed on Sunday to protect voters, poll workers and candidates.
The future head of state of Colombia faces enormous challenges. The second most populous country after Brazil and the USA’s most important ally in South America is suffering from the consequences of the corona pandemic, inflation, social injustice and violence. In the event of an election victory, Petro wants to change the market-liberal economic model, increase corporate taxes and reduce the exploitation of natural resources.