Colombia’s elections will be held on June 19 between two candidates opposed to the establishment, after voters on Sunday were unable to choose a president.
Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and former mayor of Bogotá, won the largest share of the vote, with 40%, but fell short of the 50% required to win and prevent a runoff. Petro’s second-round rival will be Rodolfo Hernández, a business mogul and social media arsonist who is seen as a conservative and populist underdog.
Voters in the South American country headed to the polls amid a polarized environment and growing discontent over rising inequality and inflation.
Hernández was a relative unknown until he exploded in the polls ahead of the election. His campaign – largely run on TikTok – has been criticized for being light on politics and heavy on anti-establishment populism. He got 28% of the vote on Sunday.
“Today the nation of workers, of honesty, won,” Hernández said in a speech posted to his Facebook page Sunday night. “Today the nation has won who does not want to continue, even one more day, with the same [people] it put us in the painful situation in which we find ourselves.
Federico Gutierrez, the right-wing former mayor of Medellín widely seen as a continuation of the current government of limited-term president Iván Duque, underperformed on Sunday, garnering just 23% of the vote. He could prove to be a kingmaker in the second round as his supporters are expected to move on to Hernández.
Petro, who has led the polls for months, came second in the 2018 election. He promised to make major adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, and change the way Colombia fights the drug cartels and other armed groups.
If he manages to beat Hernández in June, it would be the first time the South American nation has had a leftist president. Petro’s running mate Francia Márquez has already made history as the first black female running mate.
Petro voted in Bogotá, after first having to return home to retrieve the identity card he had forgotten and needed to vote, to cries of “Petro for President!” of his supporters.
“I believe in Colombia, the dream that is peaceful, beautiful, fair and full of work and knowledge,” Petro wrote in a brief handwritten letter posted on social media Sunday morning. “I believe it’s time to make dreams come true.”
Colombia’s fragile peace process with leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebels, who demobilized after signing a peace deal in 2016, ending decades of civil war that has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced 7 million people, was also in Sunday’s poll. people. State forces and their paramilitary allies contributed to the violence.
Petro is a strong supporter of the deal, while the defeated Gutierrez is seen as a sceptic. Hernández has pledged to support the deal, although critics say the septuagenarian businessman could change that stance as he seeks to build a right-wing coalition.
“We know that Petro stands with the poor,” Ana Romero, a student from Bogotá, said outside a polling station on Sunday afternoon. “Nobody knows anything about Rodolfo [Hernández].”
The vote took place on Sunday amid fears of political violence, although authorities reported that no major violent incidents were linked to the election. Márquez voted in his hometown in the conflict-ridden Cauca province, accompanied by police with bulletproof shields, while Petro campaigned behind a phalanx of bodyguards.
The National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing rebel group, announced a ceasefire ahead of Sunday’s vote, but other factions and criminal groups have regularly targeted political candidates and polling stations in recent years.
The resurgence of anti-establishment campaigns matches a public divided by social unrest. Last year, mass protests against inequality shut down cities across the country. A recent Gallup poll found that 75% of those polled felt their country was heading in the wrong direction. This dissatisfaction was felt at the ballot box.
“Colombians are demanding a change in the socio-economic paradigm that will dictate public policies for the next four years, but above all a change that gives them hope; hope for better days, a better social environment with less corruption and more equality,” said Silvana Amaya, senior analyst at risk consultancy Control Risks, ahead of the election.