Polling stations in Colombia have been open to vote in an uncertain presidential race as former rebel Gustavo Petro and millionaire businessman Rodolfo Hernandez compete for power in a country plagued by widespread poverty, violence and other woes.
Abstentions are expected to be very high on Sunday, as voters face a strict choice between electing their first left-wing president or an unusual outsider named Colombian Donald Trump.
In Bogota, outgoing President Ivan Duque opened the ballot for 39 million Colombian voters at 8 a.m. (1 p.m. GMT). The election will close at 16:00, with early results expected a few hours later.
Hernandez was among the first voters in the northern city of Bucaramanga, where he was mayor from 2016 to 2019.
It was a tense campaign of death threats against several candidates before the first round last month, when Colombia’s traditional conservative and liberal forces suffered a painful defeat.
“This is the narrowest election in the country’s recent history,” the Sunday edition of the daily El Tiempo said.
There are fears that a tough result could lead to post-election violence, and 320,000 police and military personnel have been deployed to ensure security.
Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank said voters were “trying to figure out which is the lesser of two evils”.
The successor to the unpopular conservative Duke will have to deal with a country in crisis from the coronavirus pandemic, the recession, a surge in drug-related violence and deep-seated anger at the political establishment.
Almost 40 percent of the country lives in poverty and 11 percent are unemployed.
Colombians’ anger spilled over into mass anti-government protests in April 2021, which were met with mixed reactions from security forces.
Public opinion polls at the beginning of elections are inconclusive, although the abstentions are expected to be 45 percent with up to another five percent undecided.
Petro successfully led the first round of voting with 40 percent, 12 points ahead of Hernandez.
However, Peter’s past as a radical left-wing fighter for the urban regime in the 1980s – during which he spent two years in prison on arms charges – has led many Colombians to fear.
He was inside politics since his M-19 group made peace with the state in 1990 and formed a political party.
Some say the former mayor of Bogota would turn Colombia into another authoritarian populist socialist state like neighboring Venezuela.
Petro, 62, says the country needs social justice to build peace after six decades of multilateral conflict involving left-wing insurgents, the state, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels.
Petro, who is popular with many young people, said environmental feminist France Marquez, 40, was his candidate.
His may become the last left-wing political victory in Latin America, fueled by voters’ desire for change. Chile, Peru and Honduras have elected left-wing presidents in 2021, and in Brazil, former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election.
“Dialogue and agreements needed”
Just a few months ago, 77-year-old Hernandez was a virtual unknown outside of Bucaramanga. His rigorous campaign, conducted mainly on TikTok and other social media platforms, was self-funded.
But his unconventional policies and a series of blunders, not least when he seemingly confused Adolf Hitler with Albert Einstein in a radio interview, attracted attention.
Although he also named a woman, 53-year-old Academician Marelen Castillo, as his candidate, he recently said the woman’s place was at home.
But the lack of political experience or program worries many.
“As a businessman, he is used to resolving conflicts directly and quickly, but exercising governance requires dialogue, agreements, [and] long meetings to find a common language, “said Patricia Ines Munoz, an expert at the Pontifical Javerian University.
This is something he will have to do if he is elected, given that he has almost no representation in Congress.
What drew voters to Hernandez was his anti-corruption stance – although he faces his own investigation into corruption by his town hall.
“Between theft, luxury and waste, billions disappear every week, we will end this from day one,” he said.
Sylvia Otero Bahamon, a professor of political science at the University of Rosario, said that although both candidates are populists who “have an ideology based on the division between the corrupt elite and the people,” everyone sees their struggle against the establishment differently.
“Petro refers to the poor, ethnic and cultural minorities in the nation’s most peripheral regions,” Otero said, while Hernandez supporters are more ethereal; they are the people who have been deceived by politicking and corruption. It’s a freer community that the candidate can reach directly through social media. “