Colombia faced with the presidential choice between leftist and populist

Bogotá Colombia — Colombians can count on one thing: the country’s presidential policy will change radically after Sunday’s second round of elections.

The contest in the South American country is running out of favorites and offers voters a choice between the man who could become the first leftist to lead the nation and a populist millionaire who promises to end corruption.

The guaranteed departure of centrist or right-wing presidents who have been in power for a long time has led both sides to play on people’s fears. Do you want a former rebel as president or an unpredictable businessman?

Polls show Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández – both former mayors – virtually tied since qualifying for the second round after the May 29 first round of elections in which they beat four other candidates. They did not argue among themselves, but a court ordered them Wednesday to do so.

Petro, a senator, is in his third bid to become president, and his biggest rival is not yet another candidate but the marginalization of the left by voters due to his perceived association with the country’s armed conflict. He was once a rebel in the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being imprisoned for his involvement with the group.

“Anyone but Petro,” read graffiti in northern Bogota, the capital he ruled in the mid-2010s. Petro, 62, won 40% of the vote in the month’s election last and Hernández 28%, but the difference quickly narrowed when Hernández began garnering the so-called anti-Petrist votes.

“The worst case scenario Petro could have faced is Rodolfo Hernández. Why? Because (Hernández) is proposing change, he’s also someone anti-establishment,” said Silvana Amaya, senior analyst at Control Risks. “What the Colombians have chosen in the first round are the two candidates who represent change. They are saying, and they are sending the message, that they are tired of the system. They are tired of the status quo and they are tired of traditional politicians telling them what to do.

If Petro wins, he would join the list of left-wing political victories in Latin America fueled by voters’ thirst for change at a time of deep dissatisfaction with economic conditions and widening inequality. Chile, Peru and Honduras have 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.

Petro has promised to make major adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, and to change the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups.

As mayor, he generated conflicting opinions. People praised his ambitious social projects but also criticized his ability to keep his promises and some improvised decisions. His tenure ended in controversy after the attorney general’s office impeached him and barred him from public office for 15 years for ‘very serious’ misconduct in carrying out a cleanup program from the city.

The dispute ended in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in 2020 found Colombia responsible for violations of Petro’s political rights.

He has tried to assure Colombians that he will not follow the path of some other left-wing leaders in the region who have changed term limit laws to stay in power.

“Rest assured that I will not be seeking re-election,” Petro recently said. He added that he “will respect the laws. …Listen carefully, this includes respecting the right to private property,” making it clear that he will not expropriate properties.

Meanwhile, Hernández, 77, is not affiliated with any major political party and, through an austere campaign conducted mostly on social media, he promises to cut wasteful government spending and crack down on corrupt officials. He rode a wave of disgust at the state of the country, overtaking more conventional candidates late in the campaign and shocking many when he finished second in the first-round contest.

Hernández got rich in real estate after growing up on a small farm. He says he covered the costs of his campaign rather than relying on donations.

He entered politics in 2015 when he ran for mayor of the north-central city of Bucaramanga and won against all odds. He resigned shortly before the end of his term after being suspended by the attorney general’s office for his alleged involvement in political activities, which public officials are not allowed to do.

“Some people think that if he was successful as a businessman, he could be successful as a politician and he could be successful in running the country,” Amaya said. “And he was very successful in cleaning up the financial situation of (Bucaramanga) when he was mayor. The problem is that he… doesn’t understand how the institutions work. Sometimes he has a very erratic, and he just says, “I don’t care how to do things or what you need to do things, just do it” and that could potentially disrespect the rule of law.

His strategist, Ángel Becassino, told The Associated Press that Hernández “is more wise than knowledgeable about things.”

“He’s a very restless man who’s very interested in…knowing things, having knowledge, but he’s a man who’s racked up miles that give him a standard of common sense that, let’s say, allows him to clearly identify where the problems are,” Becassino said.

Colombians are voting amid widespread discontent over rising inequality, inflation and violence.

A Gallup poll last month showed that 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of President Iván Duque, who was ineligible for re-election. A 2021 poll by Gallup found that 60% of respondents struggled to make do with their income.

The pandemic has set back the country’s poverty alleviation efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39% of Colombia’s 51.6 million people lived on less than $89 a month last year, a slight improvement from 42.5% in 2020.

Inflation in April hit its highest level in two decades. The Duque administration said April’s 9.2% rate was part of a global inflationary phenomenon, but the argument did nothing to tame discontent over rising food prices.

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Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

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