Voters have cried out for a change from the status quo. They’re demanding someone drastically different from the right-wing incumbent, Iván Duque. And for the first time, they will choose between two anti-establishment presidential candidates who ran without the backing of the traditional political class that has governed Colombia for generations.
Gustavo Petro, a senator and former guerrilla member who vows to reshape the economic system to lift up the poor, could become the country’s first leftist president, bringing an end to two centuries of center-right leadership. Rodolfo Hernández, a wealthy businessman and outsider candidate who pledges to root out corruption, could send the country down an unpredictable path. Polls show the two candidates tied, setting the stage for a tight race.
“I don’t think we’ve had an election that is this close, and where so much is at stake, for decades,” said Sandra Botero, a political scientist at Colombia’s University del Rosario. “Regardless of who wins, we seem to be standing at a critical juncture.”
The election marks yet another blow to the political establishment in Latin America, where voters have sought to punish incumbent governments for the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. If Petro wins, it would add to a wave of South American countries looking left: In Peru, a rise in poverty helped propel Marxist rural schoolteacher Pedro Castillo to the presidency last year. In Chile, the free-market model of the region, voters this year chose as president 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric. And in Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads polls to unseat President Jair Bolsonaro in October.
Many Colombians voting in the country’s capital on Sunday said they were desperate for something — anything — different from the presidents of the past.
“We’ve been subjected to the right and the extreme-right for more than 200 years … and things here are bad, bad, bad,” said Henry Perdomo, a 60-year-old who works in manufacturing moments after he voted for Petro in a working-class neighborhood in Bogotá’s south. “We need a change.”
But some of his neighbors feared what that change could bring. Blanca Elena Timón Diaz, 52 who used to work cleaning houses, worried that Petro would jeopardize her savings and “turn the country into Venezuela.” Her vote for Hernández was, more than anything, a vote against the left.
“He doesn’t have much experience, but he’ll let me live in peace,” Timón said.
Campaigns on the left and the right have made accusations of electoral fraud, and a recent lapse in a legislative vote count further deepened mistrust in the country’s electoral system. Fears are mounting that the losing candidate on Sunday could contest the results and spark civil unrest one year after historic protests swept the country. In Bogotá, some businesses began boarding up their storefronts in anticipation of possible violence.
“If you give people any minimal reason to go to the streets, they’ll do it,” said Juan Camilo Acero, 25, who works at an independent publishing company. “After everything that happened last year, people are frustrated. But hopefully we’ll see that in the polls and not in the streets.”
On Wednesday, police in multiple cities detained activists who stood on the front lines of last year’s protests, accusing them of threatening to disturb public order around the elections.
The vote came after the most violent election cycle in more than a decade, in which both campaigns faced assassination threats. At least 290 municipalities in Colombia are at “high and extreme risk” of armed violence surrounding the election, Colombia’s ombudsman’s office warned last week.
Voters are choosing between two competing visions of change for the country. Both candidates have sought to tap into widespread frustration in a country where more than 40 percent of people are living in poverty and nearly half are struggling to find enough to eat.
Petro, the former mayor of Bogotá running in his third presidential race, proposes redistributive policies such as free higher education and a universal public health-care system. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians while establishing a minimum wage for single mothers. He plans to end new oil exploration and move the country toward renewable energy.
Hernández, the former mayor of Bucaramanga who has never held or run for a national office, pledges to tackle government corruption, cut costs and reduce the national deficit.
Both candidates have suggested declaring states of emergency to push through their agendas without the support of Congress. And both Petro and Hernández were accused of authoritarian tendencies in their time as mayors.
In Bogotá, Petro oversaw a slew of staff departures and was criticized for refusing to listen to his advisers. In the midsize city of Bucaramanga, the foul-mouthed Hernández was known for insulting his employees and was once suspended for slapping the face of a city councilman. Hernández was also charged by Colombia’s attorney general with improperly giving out waste management contracts to benefit his son. (He denies the accusations but is scheduled to face trial next month).
Either presidency could have profound implications for the rest of the hemisphere, and could reshape the country’s role as the United States’ most stable partner in the region. Both candidates have criticized the two countries’ shared war on drugs and have supported some type of drug legalization. They’ve criticized aerial fumigation of coca, the base plant for cocaine. And they would revive diplomatic relations with Venezuela, a drastic shift from the Duque administration’s aggressive approach against the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro.
Petro has worried some U.S. officials by proposing a change in the extradition treaty between the two countries and in foreign trade agreements. Hernández has revealed few details about any of his policies, including his approach to diplomacy. “It’s really a leap into the unknown in terms of the bilateral relationship,” said Kevin Whitaker, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia and now a fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The emotionally-charged campaign has often played out on social media, through frequent scandals and attacks on Twitter and in viral videos on Hernández’s quirky TikTok account.
In Bucaramanga, resident Monica Cordero lives right next to a park renovated during Hernández’s time as mayor, a project that has now become a hub for crime and drug deals. Cordero continues to believe in Hernández, a man she says “makes sure the money goes to the poor.”
“He always shows his face,” she said. “He’s not a politician.”
But to Luz Marina Ríos, 48, Hernández is a “misogynist” who puts down women. He has been recorded saying that women should stick to raising children and that Venezuelan women are a “factory for making poor children.”
Ríos isn’t thrilled with Petro either, but she’s desperate for a president who will find new solutions to improve the lives of struggling families like hers.
She lost her job at a confection company during the pandemic, and hasn’t been able to find work ever since. Her family has had to cut back on meals as food costs have skyrocketed; a pound of meat that used to cost about $2 now costs $4, she said. Her teenage son has had to pick up work on the weekends to pay for his bus to school.
“We’ll either fix ourselves or we’ll get worse,” she said, “but we need a total change.”
Diana Durán contributed to this article.