In Colombian elections, a leftist candidate could make history: NPR

Participants at a closing campaign rally for presidential candidate Gustavo Petro in Bogotá, Colombia. Petro is leading in the polls for Sunday’s election, but is expected to advance to a runoff in June.

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Participants at a closing campaign rally for presidential candidate Gustavo Petro in Bogotá, Colombia. Petro is leading in the polls for Sunday’s election, but is expected to advance to a runoff in June.

Andrés Cardona/Bloomberg/Getty Images

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — At his last campaign rally ahead of the first round of Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, Gustavo Petro gleefully noted that the powers that be were backing down at the thought that he might win.

“Of course they are scared,” Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla-turned-politician, told thousands of supporters in the capital, Bogotá. “They are afraid because we are going to oust them from power.”

Polls put Petro at the top of the list and, if elected, he has pledged to bring about major changes in Colombia that have upended the business class. But if neither candidate wins more than half the vote on Sunday, as polls also predict, the top two voters will meet in a runoff on June 19.

Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro speaks during a presidential debate at the time newspaper in Bogotá on Monday, ahead of the May 29 first round of elections.

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Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro speaks during a presidential debate at the time newspaper in Bogotá on Monday, ahead of the May 29 first round of elections.

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Competition mounts for a second round

The other main candidates are Federico Gutiérrez, former conservative mayor of Medellín, Rodolfo Hernández, populist businessman and former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, and Sergio Fajardo, former centrist mayor of Medellín and former governor of the department of Antioquia.

Polls predict that in the second round, Petro would beat either Gutiérrez or Fajardo. But some surveys put Petro at a statistical stalemate with Hernández, who has avoided debates and in-person campaign events in favor of social media videos. Yet he has risen in recent polls and connected with many Colombians with his promises to root out corruption.

Colombian presidential candidates Federico Gutiérrez (left) and Rodolfo Hernández hold signs during a debate in Bogotá on April 20.

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Colombian presidential candidates Federico Gutiérrez (left) and Rodolfo Hernández hold signs during a debate in Bogotá on April 20.

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“I will sue all politicians who are thieves,” Hernández, 77, said in an interview on Colombian television on Wednesday. “Not all of them are thieves, but almost all of them are.”

However, as the election approached, it was Petro who grabbed the headlines and caused the most consternation among business leaders, military and conservative voters in a country that had never elected a left-wing president.

He went from rebel fighter to presidential candidate

Petro once tried to fight his way to power as a member of the M-19 guerrilla group. The rebels signed a peace treaty in 1990 and since then Petro has served in Congress and as mayor of Bogotá.

Now on his third run for president, Petro, 62, hopes to join a growing number of leftists now rule much of Latin America, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

Petro promises to raise taxes on the rich to pay for poverty programs. He wants to renegotiate trade agreements, including with the United States, he says, to better protect Colombian industries and agriculture. To forge a greener economy, he wants to phase out oil production, the country’s biggest export, and replace that income with tourism.

A business leader threatened employees who vote for Petro

But all of this could lead to capital flight, business closures and massive unemployment, according to many business leaders, who are urging Colombians to reject Petro at the polls on Sunday.

“Without a doubt, Colombia has problems. But that’s no reason to jump into the void or risk radical change,” said Miguel Cortés, one of Colombia’s most influential businessmen. , in a video message to voters.

Another business owner, Sergio Araujo, recently tweeted that he would fire any of his employees who voted for Petro. In an interview with the Colombian magazine WeekAraujo called Petro “a business destroyer who has spent five decades fighting free enterprise in Colombia.”

Some middle-class Colombians are also worried.

Roxanne Restrepo, who works in banking and finance in Bogotá, is concerned about Petro’s plan to borrow from private pension funds to boost pension benefits for poor Colombians. And it does not wait for the elections to act.

“I sent part of my savings abroad and we looked into whether we could obtain Portuguese nationality to see if we had to leave the country,” Restrepo said.

Petro has also fought with the Colombian army, suggesting last month that some of his senior officers were working in cahoots with drug traffickers. This prompted a furious anti-Petro tirade on Twitter from the army commander General Eduardo Zapateiroeven though, under the Colombian constitution, the military is supposed to stay out of politics.

Former Army Col. John Marulanda, who fought against Petro during the guerrillas and now leads a national association of retired military officers, put it bluntly in an interview with NPR: “We don’t do not want an ex-guerrilla, a retired guerrilla to be the president of Colombia, and if that happens, we declare ourselves in opposition.

He could realign the country away from the United States

Marulanda and others also question Petro’s commitment to democracy.

On the one hand, Petro intends to forge closer ties with the authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela. This represents a significant change for Colombia, long aligned with the United States and ardent critic of the government in Caracas. Because his Historic Pact political coalition would not have a majority in Congress, Petro talked about passing economic laws by executive order.

Not only “is he now proposing radical change in the economy, but he is actually pressing the nuclear button on what he could potentially do to democracy,” says Sergio Guzmán, director of consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis.

Petro and his many supporters want change

Supporters of presidential candidate Gustavo Petro attend a closing campaign rally in Zipaquirá, Colombia on May 22, a week before the elections.

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Supporters of presidential candidate Gustavo Petro attend a closing campaign rally in Zipaquirá, Colombia on May 22, a week before the elections.

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Petro says such criticism is unfair and pointed out that President Iván Duque, who is not allowed to run for a second consecutive term, has also passed economic laws by decree during the pandemic.

Frustrated by accusations from opposition candidates that he planned to seize private property if he wins the presidency, Petro held a press conference at a notary public where he signed a document pledging not to expropriate farms and businesses.

And in an interview with NPR last month, Petro denied having a radical agenda. He pointed out that the United Nations urges countries to move away from hydrocarbons and that raising taxes on the rich to help the poor makes good sense following a pandemic that pushed Colombia’s poverty rate down by 35 .7% to 42.5% in 2020.

“These are normal things,” Petro said, speaking on Zoom. But in Colombia, “they are considered leftists and revolutionaries”.

Many frustrated Colombians agree with Petro.

Among them was Sara Gallego, 34, a sports trainer who attended Petro’s closing campaign rally. She ticked off a long list of the country’s woes – from unemployment to malnutrition – which she said were ignored by President Duque and previous governments.

That’s why, she says, the mainstream ruling elite has only themselves to blame for Petro’s popularity.

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