Colombians describe it as the most important election in decades.
Latin America’s third-largest country heads to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president. At stake are the country’s economic model, its democratic integrity and the livelihoods of millions of people that have been pushed into poverty amid the pandemic.
“One always tends to say, ‘This is the most important election that has ever happened,'” said Elizabeth Ungar, a longtime Colombian political analyst, “but I honestly think on this occasion a lot will be decided.”
Opinion polls show Gustavo Pietro, a senator and former member of a rebel group, leading against two former mayors from the right, Federico Gutierrez and Rodolfo Hernandez. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, a run-off will be held on June 19 among the top two contestants.
If Mr Petro wins, he would become Colombia’s first left-wing president, marking a watershed moment in a country that has long led a conservative establishment.
His rise reflects not only a leftward shift across Latin America, but also an anti-presidential fervor that has gained strength as the pandemic has deepened poverty and inequality, intensifying feelings that the region’s economies are built too often to serve the elite.
“We believe in real political and social change,” said Diego Guzmán, 25, a university student, who described his vote for Mr. Pietro as a rejection of the “dominant political class”.
Mr Petro has pledged to change Colombia’s economic system, which he says is fueling inequality, by expanding social programs, halting oil drilling and shifting the country’s focus to agriculture and local industry.
Colombia has long been the strongest ally of the United States in the region, and Mr. Petro calls for a reset in the relationship, including changes in the drug war’s approach and a reconsideration of a bilateral trade agreement that could lead to a clash with Washington.
Mr. Gutierrez, backed by much of the conservative establishment, is pushing for modest adjustments to the status quo, including channeling more money to local governments.
Mr. Hernandez, who was relatively unknown before he began rising in the polls in the campaign’s closing days, is pushing a populist anti-corruption program but has raised concerns about his plan to declare a state of emergency to achieve his goals.
Many voters are fed up with rising prices, high unemployment, low wages, high education costs and escalating violence, and polls show a clear majority of Colombians have an unfavorable view of the current president, Ivan Duque, who is largely seen as part of the Prefectural institution.
However, some Colombians say they consider voting for Mr Pietro a risk – but are willing to take it. “It scares me the most that we are still ruled by the same old politicians,” said Helena Osorio, 25, a nurse who earns just above minimum wage.
Not everyone agrees. Juan Sebastian Rey, 21, a political organizer who supports Mr Gutierrez, said he considers Mr Pietro a weak leader.
“I am very afraid of Gustavo Pietro, not because of his government plans or ideas, but because of his character.”
The elections come as opinion polls show a growing mistrust of state institutions, including the country’s National Registrar, an electoral body. The registrar erred in the initial count in the March congressional vote, leading to fears that losing candidates in the presidential vote would declare fraud.
The country is also experiencing an uptick in violence, undermining the democratic process. Election Observation Mission Local Group Call This run-up to the elections is the most violent in 12 years.
Mr. Petro and his deputy, Francia Marquezboth received death threats, which increased security, including bodyguards carrying riot shields.
Despite these risks, the elections revived many Colombians who had long believed that their votes were not represented at the highest levels of power, giving the elections a sense of hope. This sense of optimism is inspired in part by Ms. Marques, a former housekeeper and environmental activist who would be the country’s first black vice president if she won her ticket.
Her campaign focused on fighting systemic injustice, and her most popular slogan, “vivir sabroso,” roughly means, “live a life of riches and dignity.”
Contribute to reporting Sophia Villamil And the Megan Janitsky in Bogota.