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Gustavo Petro, A Former Guerrilla, Has Won Colombia’s Presidential Election

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Former rebel Gustavo Petro narrowly defeated a political outsider millionaire in a runoff election on Sunday, ushering in a new era in Colombian politics by becoming the country’s first leftist president.

According to the results given by election authorities, senator Petro received 50.48 percent of the vote, while real estate billionaire Rodolfo Hernández received 47.26 percent, with practically all ballots counted.

Petro’s triumph signaled a sea turn in presidential politics in a country that has historically shunned the left because of its alleged ties to the armed conflict. Petro was a member of the now-defunct M-19 movement and received amnesty after serving time in prison for his role with the organization.

During his victory address, Petro called for unity and extended an olive branch to some of his sharpest detractors, saying that all members of the opposition are invited to visit the presidential palace “to solve Colombia’s problems.”

Shortly after the results were released, outgoing conservative President Iván Duque congratulated Petro, while Hernández immediately acknowledged defeat.

Colombia also elected its first African-American woman to the position of vice president. Francia Márquez, Petro’s running mate, is an environmentalist and lawyer whose resistance to illicit mining has resulted in threats and a grenade attack in 2019.

The election took place amid widespread discontent over rising inequality, inflation, and violence — factors that prompted voters in Latin America’s third-most populous country to reject long-ruling centrist and right-leaning politicians in favor of two outsiders in the first round of voting last month.

Petro’s election was the latest socialist political triumph in Latin America, fuelled by the desire for change among voters. In 2021, leftist presidents were elected in Chile, Peru, and Honduras, while former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is dominating polls in Brazil’s presidential race.

“What I think it illustrates is that the fear, hate, and stigmatization of the left as a method for winning people no longer works,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group.

However, for several voters, the results were an obvious cause for concern, as their closest analogy to a socialist government was problematic neighboring Venezuela.

On Sunday, around 21.6 million of the 39 million eligible voters cast ballots. Since 1990, Abstentionism has topped 40% in every presidential election.

Petro, 62, will be proclaimed the winner following a formal count, which will take a few days. In the past, preliminary results have always aligned with final results.

On Sunday, several heads of state congratulated Petro. Former President Alvaro Uribe, a strong critic, agreed, and he remains a key player in Colombian politics.

Since topping four other candidates in the initial May 29 election, polls had shown Petro and Hernández — both former mayors — were in a tight battle heading into the runoff. Neither candidate received enough votes to win outright, forcing a runoff.

In the first round, Petro received 40% of the vote and Hernández received 28%, but the gap swiftly decreased as Hernández began to recruit so-called anti-Petrista voters.

Petro has suggested sweeping pension, tax, health, and agricultural reforms, as well as revisions to Colombia’s counter-narcotics and armed-group policies. However, he will have a difficult time delivering on his pledges because he lacks a majority in Congress, which is required to implement reforms.

Petro has expressed interest in resuming diplomatic relations with Venezuela, which were suspended in 2019. He also wants to improve Colombia’s relationship with the United States by renegotiating a free trade pact and finding new ways to combat drug trafficking.

The Biden administration, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is looking forward to working with Petro.

Hernández, who gained his fortune in real estate, is not a member of any major political party and has shied away from forming alliances. His frugal campaign, which he ran primarily on TikTok and other social media platforms, was self-funded and centered on fighting corruption, which he blames for poverty and the loss of public resources that could have been spent on social initiatives.

According to polls, the majority of Colombians believe the country is on the wrong track and disapprove of Duque, who was not able to run for reelection. The pandemic knocked at least a decade off the country’s anti-poverty efforts. According to official statistics, 39% of Colombians lived on less than $89 a month last year.

“The people are fed up with the same individuals as always,” Nataly Amezquita, a 26-year-old civil engineer who is waiting to vote, said of the rejection of politics as usual. “We need to bring about more societal transformation. Many people in the country are not in good health.”

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