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In Colombia, a Leftist and a Right-Wing Populist Head for June Runoff

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Two anti-establishment candidates, Gustavo Petro, a leftist, and Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist, captured the top two spots in Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, delivering a stunning blow to Colombia’s dominant conservative political class.

The two men will compete in a runoff election on June 19 that is shaping up to be one of the most consequential in the country’s history. At stake is the country’s economic model, its democratic integrity and the livelihoods of millions of people pushed into poverty during the pandemic.

With more than 99 percent of the ballots counted on Sunday evening, Mr. Petro received more than 40 percent of the vote, while Mr. Hernández received just over 28 percent. Mr. Hernández beat by more than four percentage points the conservative establishment candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, who had been polling in second place.

Mr. Hernández’s unexpected second-place victory shows a nation hungry to elect anyone who is not represented by the country’s mainstream conservative leaders.

The Petro-Hernández face-off, said Daniel García-Peña, a Colombian political scientist, pits “change against change.”

For months, polls have shown Mr. Petro, who is proposing an overhaul of the country’s capitalist economic model, leading against a conservative former mayor, Federico Gutiérrez.

It was only recently that Mr. Hernández, running on a populist, anti-corruption platform, had begun rising in the polls.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez celebrating in Bogotá on Sunday night. Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

If Mr. Petro ultimately wins in the next round of voting, it would mark a watershed moment for one of the most politically conservative societies in Latin America, and it would set Colombia on an uncharted path.

In his postelection speech at a hotel near the center of Bogotá, Mr. Petro stood beside his vice-presidential pick and said Sunday’s results showed that the political project of the current president and his allies “has been defeated.”

He then quickly issued warnings about Mr. Hernández, painting a vote for him as a dangerous regression, and daring the electorate to take a chance on what he called a progressive project, “a true change.”

Mr. Petro’s rise reflects not just a leftist shift across Latin America, but also an anti-incumbent fervor that has gained strength as the pandemic has deepened poverty and inequality, intensifying feelings that the region’s economies are built mostly to serve the elite.

That same anti-incumbent sentiment appeared to give Mr. Hernández a late lift into the runoff, and pointed to the waning power of Uribismo, a hard-line conservatism that has dominated politics in Colombia for the last two decades, named for its founder, former president Álvaro Uribe.

At polling stations around the country on Sunday, supporters of Mr. Petro spoke to that frustration, and to a renewed sense of hope.

“This is a historic moment for Colombia, we don’t want more continuity,” said Chiro Castellanos, 37, a Petro supporter in Sincelejo,a city near the Caribbean coast. “This marks a change, it’s a countrywide project that is not just about Gustavo Petro.”

But in many places there was also fear of what that change might look like, and calls for a more moderate approach.

“This country is in trouble,” said Myriam Matallana, 55, a supporter of Mr. Gutiérrez, in Bogotá, the capital. But with Mr. Petro, “it would be worse.”

Rodolfo Hernández after voting in Bucaramanga, Colombia, on Sunday.Credit…Reuters

Mr. Petro has vowed to transform Colombia’s economic system, which he says fuels inequality, by expanding social programs, halting oil exploration and shifting the country’s focus to domestic agriculture and industry.

Colombia has long been the United States’ strongest ally in the region, and a win for Mr. Petro could set up a clash with Washington. The candidate has called for a reset of the bilateral relationship, including changes to the approach to the drug war and a re-examination of a trade agreement.

The election comes as surveys show growing distrust in most of the country’s institutions, including congress, political parties, the police, the military, the press and the national registrar, a key electoral body.

It also comes amid rising violence that included a stay-at-home order issued by a criminal group earlier this month that paralyzed a sizable part of the nation for at least four days.

Ahead of the election, there was widespread concern that these factors would stifle the democratic process.

The election comes as surveys show growing distrust in most of the country’s institutions, including congress, political parties, the police, the military, the press and the national registrar, a key electoral body.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

“If we stay at home and say, ‘Everyone is corrupt,’ we’re not going to accomplish anything,” said María Gañan, 27, who voted for Mr. Hernández in Bogotá. “We want to change the history of the country.”

Mr. Hernández, who was relatively unknown before until just a few weeks ago, branded himself as an anti-corruption candidate, and has proposed rewarding citizens for reporting corruption, appointing Colombians already living abroad to diplomatic positions, which he says will yield savings on travel and other expenses, and banning unnecessary parties at embassies.

“Today the country of politicking and corruption lost,” Mr. Hernández wrote in a Facebook message to his supporters following Sunday’s results.

“Today, the gangs who thought that they could govern forever have lost,” he added.

But some of Mr. Hernández’s proposals have been criticized as undemocratic.

Specifically, he’s proposed declaring a state of emergency for 90 days and suspending all judicial and administrative functions in order to address corruption, leading to fears that he could shut down Congress or suspend mayors.

Election Day in Suarez, north of Cauca, in Colombia.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Many voters are fed up with rising prices, high unemployment, low wages, rising education costs and surging violence, and polls show that a clear majority of Colombians have an unfavorable view of current conservative administration.

Candidates pushing change have been killed on the campaign trail in Colombia before. Mr. Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have both received death threats, prompting increased security, including bodyguards holding riot shields.

Yet the election was also marked by a broadening of the political tent.

In a matter of months, Ms. Márquez, an environmental activist who would be the country’s first Black vice president if she won, has morphed into a national phenomenon, infusing the election with a gender, race and class-conscious focus like few other candidates in the country’s history.

Her popularity has been viewed overwhelmingly as a reflection of a deep desire by many voters — Black, Indigenous, poor, rural — to see themselves in the highest halls of power.

On Sunday, she could have voted in the capital. Instead, she chose to travel to the southwestern department of Cauca, where she grew up.

Francia Márquez, the left’s vice-presidential candidate, voting in her hometown Suarez, North of Cauca, in Colombia. Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

“Today we are splitting the country’s history in two,” she said on Sunday, shortly after casting her ballot. “Today, one of the nobodies, the historically excluded, is standing up to occupy a place in politics.”

Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil, Megan Janetsky and Genevieve Glatsky in Bogotá, and by Federico Rios in Suarez, Cauca.

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