Colombian elections: Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernandez run for president

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BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombians are heading to Sunday’s election for high-stakes elections between two populist presidential candidates promising to fundamentally transform the country.

This is a presidential election unlike anyone else in the history of Colombia, which will experience a long but fragile democracy in Latin America’s third largest nation. This could mark the beginning of a dramatic change in the country’s economic model, the role of its government and its relations with other countries in the hemisphere – including the United States, their most important ally.

Voters called for a change in the status quo. They demand someone drastically different from right-wing President Ivan Duke. And for the first time, they will choose between two anti-establishment presidential candidates who ran without the support of the traditional political class that has ruled Colombia for generations.

Gustavo Petro, senator and former partisan who vows to reshape the economic system to raise the poor can become the country the first left-wing president, ending two centuries of center-right leadership. Rodolfo Hernandez, a wealthy businessman and outsider candidate who promises to eradicate corruption can send the country in an unpredictable way. Studies show that the two candidates are tied, which prepares the ground for a close race.

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“I don’t think we’ve had elections that are so close and where so much has been at stake for decades,” said Sandra Botero, a political scientist at Columbia University del Rosario. “No matter who wins, we seem to be in a critical moment.

The election marks another blow to the political establishment in Latin America, where voters have tried to punish current governments for the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. If Peter wins, it will lead to a wave of left-wing South Americans: rising poverty in Peru has helped drive Marxists village teacher Pedro Castillo for president last year. In Chile, the region’s free market model, voters elected a 36-year-old former student activist as president this year Gabriel Borich. And in Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, left-wing former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva leads to ousted President Jair Bolsonaro in October.

Many Colombians voting in the country’s capital on Sunday said they were desperate for something – anything – different from past presidents.

“We’ve been on the right and the far right for more than 200 years, and things are bad, bad, bad here,” said Henry Perdomo, a 60-year-old man who worked in the production moments after voting for Petro in a working-class neighborhood in the south. Bogota. – We need change.

But some of his neighbors feared what this change might bring. Blanca Elena Timon Diaz, 52, a house cleaner, worried that Petro would jeopardize her savings and “turn the country into Venezuela.” Her vote for Hernandez was, above all, a vote against the left.

“He doesn’t have much experience, but he will let me live in peace,” Timon said.

Campaigns on the left and right have accused electoral fraud, and the recent suspension of the counting of votes for legislation has further deepened mistrust in the country’s electoral system. There are growing fears that Sunday’s losing candidate could challenge the results and spark civil unrest a year after historic protests swept the country. In Bogota, some companies have begun gluing their windows in anticipation of possible violence.

“If you give people some minimal reason to take to the streets, they will,” said Juan Camilo Assero, 25, who works for an independent publishing company. “After all that happened last year, people are disappointed. But we hope to see this in the polls, not on the streets.

Police in riot gear stormed a rally on Wednesday, removing hundreds of protesters by truck.

The vote came after the most forced election cycle for more than a decade, with both campaigns facing death threats. At least 290 municipalities in Colombia are at “high and extreme risk” of armed violence around the election, the Colombian ombudsman’s office warned last week.

Voters choose between two competing visions for change in the country. Both candidates have tried to take advantage of widespread frustration in a country where more than 40 per cent of people live in poverty and almost half struggle to find enough food.

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Petro, the former mayor of Bogota running in his third presidential race, is proposing redistribution policies such as free higher education and a universal public health system. He says he will increase taxes on the 4,000 richest Colombians, while setting a minimum wage for single mothers. He plans to end new oil exploration and focus the country on renewable energy.

Hernandez, a former Bucaramanga mayor who has never held or run for national office, has vowed to tackle government corruption, cut spending and reduce the national deficit.

Both candidates proposed declaring a state of emergency to push through their agenda without congressional support. Both Peter and Hernandez were accused of authoritarian tendencies when they were mayors.

In Bogotá, Peter witnessed many staff departures and was criticized for refusing to listen to his advisers. In the middle town of Bucaramanga, the evil Hernandez was known for insulting his employees and was once removed for slapping a city councilor. Hernandez was also accused by the Colombian Attorney General of illegally distributing waste management contracts in favor of his son. (He denies the charges, but is scheduled to stand trial next month).

Each presidency could have profound implications for the rest of the hemisphere and could change the country’s role as the United States’ most stable partner in the region. Both candidates criticized the two countries’ joint war on drugs and supported some form of drug legalization. They noticed aerial fumigation of coca, the main cocaine plant. And they would revive diplomatic relations with Venezuela, a drastic change from the aggressive approach of the Duque administration against the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro.

Petro alarmed some US officials by proposing a change in the extradition treaty between the two countries and foreign trade agreements. Hernandez revealed few details about any of his policies, including his approach to diplomacy. “This is really a leap into the unknown in terms of bilateral relations,” said Kevin Whitaker, a former US ambassador to Colombia and now a member of the Atlantic Council.

The emotionally charged campaign is often played out on social media, through frequent scandals and attacks on Twitter, and in viral videos on Hernandez’s bizarre TikTok account.

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In Bucaramanga, Monica Cordero lives right next to a park renovated during Hernandez’s time as mayor, a project that has now become a center for crime and drug trafficking. Cordero continues to believe in Hernandez, a man she says “makes sure the money goes to the poor.”

“He always shows his face,” she said. – He is not a politician.

But for 48-year-old Luz Marina, Rios Hernandez is a “misogynist” who humiliates women. He is recorded saying that women should stick to raising children and that Venezuelan women are a “factory for making poor children.”

Rios is also not excited about Peter, but desperately wants a president who will find new solutions to improve the lives of families like hers.

She lost her job at a confectionery company during the pandemic and has not been able to find a job since. Her family had to cut back on food as food costs skyrocketed; a pound of meat that used to cost about $ 2 now costs $ 4, she said. Her teenage son had to take work on the weekends to pay for his bus to school.

“Either we will improve or we will get worse,” she said, “but we need a complete change.”

Diana Duran contributed to this article.

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