Colombians began voting for a new president on Sunday in what promised to be a close competition between two candidates with very different anti-establishment outlooks.
Gustavo Petro is a former Marxist guerrilla fighter and former mayor of Bogotá who, if elected, would be the first true left-wing leader in Colombia’s modern history. It promises a radical overhaul of the economy and nothing less than a social revolution, with much greater spending on education and health.
His proposals, which include a ban on oil exploration, surface mining and fracking, have baffled investors who say they could thwart what has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies. the fastest in Latin America.
His only opponent is Rodolfo Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman who was the wildcard in the election. Standing as an independent and funding his own campaign, his populist anti-corruption message has struck a chord with Colombians who are fed up with their political elite.
Whoever wins will likely lead Latin America’s third-most populous nation down a very different path than it has followed in recent decades.
For the past four years, Colombia has been ruled by a conservative government that is now deeply unpopular. Incumbent President Iván Duque is not eligible for re-election and his party, which has dominated national politics, is in decline.
“The outcome of this polarizing and competitive election will be key in shaping the country’s future for years to come,” said Alberto Ramos, head of Latin American research at Goldman Sachs.
Recent polls have suggested the two candidates are technically tied, with Hernández ahead no more than 1 or 2 percentage points.
Petro easily won the first round last month with 40% to Hernández’s 28%. But fears of a radical left-wing Petro government are strong. Conservative voters whose candidates failed to make the runoff are expected to line up behind Hernández — not necessarily out of conviction, but simply to keep the left out.
“I’m nervous,” Mónica Miranda, 28, said after voting for Petro shortly after polls opened in Bogotá. “I never doubted who I would vote for – there’s no way I’m going to vote for a man like Rodolfo Hernández – but it’s going to be really, really close.”
Colombian assets and the peso rallied after the first round as Petro’s chances of victory appeared to dwindle, but have since retreated as the gap between the two contenders has narrowed.
“When polls and local pundits say the race is too close to announce, it makes more sense to leave political analysis to the market,” said Luis Ramos, senior Colombian analyst at the Andean asset management firm LarrainVial.
“Our latest review of Colombia’s 10-year credit default swaps, corporate bonds and local equities suggests that the market sees the scales tipped in favor of a Petro win.”
Many observers say that if Petro loses – and especially if the result is close – he will contest the vote. He and his team have regularly questioned the neutrality and efficiency of the Colombian electoral authorities. Some of his supporters said they would take to the streets if they saw evidence of fraud. Thousands of soldiers and police were deployed to polling stations to maintain calm.
Muni Jensen, a former Colombian diplomat and senior adviser to business strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group, said Petro, who is running in his third and possibly final presidential bid, had “sown the seed of fraud in anticipation of a close call on behalf of Rodolfo”.
“I think if there’s a small margin between Rodolfo and Petro, in favor of Rodolfo, it’s going to get really complicated and there’s a lot of nervousness in Colombia about what might happen,” she said. declared.
Hernández said he would accept the result, although some analysts believe he too could cry foul if he loses narrowly.
To complicate matters, he faces a corruption case that must be judged at the end of July, just days before the new president takes office.
Any decision to challenge the vote would mark a significant break with Colombian tradition. Despite its long and bloody civil conflict and drug-related violence, the country has enjoyed remarkable electoral stability for decades, avoiding the dictatorships, impeachments and revolving door governments that plague Latin America.
Since 1958, it has held 16 presidential elections, one every four years, as regular as clockwork, electing 14 different presidents, all of whom passed power peacefully at the end of their term. No other major country in the region can boast such a record.
This year’s election took place against a backdrop of heightened insecurity across the country of 50 million people.
Both candidates say they have received credible death threats. The state ombudsman has identified about 300 municipalities — more than a quarter of the country — where there is a “high” or “extreme” risk of violence on election day.