Colombia, facing an uncertain ballot between two radical models of change

Two radical promises of change and an uncertain and potentially explosive outcome: Colombians will elect a president between the leftist Gustavo Petro and the independent millionaire Rodolfo Hernández, who defeated the traditional parties to promise a new political era.

Tied in the intention to vote, Petro (62 years old) and Hernández (77) will dispute the succession of the unpopular Iván Duque in the ballot this Sunday.

On May 29, the senator and former guerrilla won with 40% of the support compared to 28% for the construction tycoon, but the measurements anticipate a “finish vote.”

“A very tight result is going to affect the governance of either of the two,” says Luisa Lozano, a political scientist at the University of La Sabana.

And unleash -he warns- the discontent “in the streets” that burned in 2019, 2020 and 2021 with bloody and massive protests that already reflected a society in transformation in the second most unequal country on the continent, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The two candidates became entangled in a dirty and aggressive campaign. The electorate has already expressed its boredom and will now decide whether to install the left in power for the first time or an eccentric without a party who promises to banish corruption.

change and punishment

Petro and Hernández embody the popular desire for change and the punishment of the elites that historically ruled this country with a six-decade armed conflict, the largest cocaine production in the world, and a polarized society that was impoverished by the pandemic.

However, their programs and forms are opposed.

Petro is an economist who is running for the presidency for the third time. He took up arms against the State and signed peace in 1990. Later he stood out as an opposition congressman and became mayor of Bogotá (2012-2015), where he garnered opponents for his “authoritarian” style and the chaotic plan to nationalize garbage collection.

“I will not come to the government to seek personal revenge (…) nor will I think of confiscating or undermining” private property, he promised in the face of the fears aroused among powerful sectors by an unprecedented leftist government with a former guerrilla at the head of the economy and the military forces. Petro feared a fraud on his part.

His rival is an engineer who made his fortune as a builder and moneylender. He was mayor of Bucaramanga (2016-2019), a city of 600,000 inhabitants where he is very popular for his self-confidence, austerity and for having cleaned up public finances. In this campaign he landed as a millionaire ‘outsider’, very active on TikTok who surprisingly took the right out of the ballot.

“You can vote for the one who is going to take the money out of your pockets or for me, who is going to put the money in the pockets of all of you,” he says.

Hernández, who unifies his proposal to cut bureaucracy and fight corruption, is called to trial for irregularities in a contract during his time as mayor. Unpredictable, he often retracts his intemperate sayings.

“Both are equally uncertain and risky, because they have shown to be impulsive in making decisions,” observes Germán Prieto, a political scientist at the Javeriana University.

As vice-presidential candidates, they chose two women of Afro roots. The environmentalist Francia Márquez accompanies Petro and the conservative academic Marelen Castillo is Hernández’s binomial.

challenges

The next president will have to give answers to a country of 50 million inhabitants where poverty reaches 39%, unemployment at 11.1% and informality at 44.5%.

Violence has also gained ground with several armed groups financed by drug traffickers, hundreds of social leaders assassinated, thousands of displaced people and insecure borders. The 2016 peace agreement with the FARC rebels eased without extinguishing the conflict.

Faced with the multiple challenges, Petro intends to strengthen the State, increase taxes on the rich, reform the pension and health system and stop oil exploration to favor clean energy. Without ensuring majorities, he has an important bench to carry out his projects in Congress.

His opponent, on the other hand, appeals to capitalism and austerity. Hernández received the support of the forces that detest Petro, but in principle he would not have parliamentary support. He also faces a corruption trial that could remove him from the presidency while he defends himself before the Supreme Court. Until recently unknown to public opinion, Castillo would take office.

Petro represents a “dramatic change, anti-structure, anti-system, anti-traditionalism” but Hernández “has taken those flags from him,” says analyst Lozano.

And on the external front, only one certainty: Colombia, hand in hand with Petro, would for the first time get on the train of the left that travels through Latin America from time to time.

Hernández, on the other hand, is indifferent to foreign policy.

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