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Colombian ex-guerrilla leader beats millionaire

June 20, 2022

Voters in Colombia decided between leftist Gustavo Petro and businessman Rodolfo Hernandez, whose sudden rise prompted comparisons with Donald Trump.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez surrounded by supporters in Bogota
Colombian President-Elect Gustavo Petro and his running mate Francia Marquez celebrated their victory in BogotaImage: Fernando Vergara/AP Photo/picture alliance

Left-wing ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro has achieved a narrow victory in Colombia's presidential election.

Polls opened for the second round of the Latin American nation's presidential election on Sunday, with former guerrilla leader Petro facing surprise rival Rodolfo Hernandez, a 77-year-old businessman who managed to build up a nationwide political following by relying on TikTok and Facebook.

The race between Petro and Hernandez was the tightest in the country in recent memory.

Colombian presidential election results shown on a TV screen
Gustavo Petro won Colombia's presidential election by over 700,000 votesImage: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Petro beat Hernandez by more than 700,000 votes, becoming the South American country's first left-wing president and joining a raft of other countries on the continent that have elected left-leaning candidates.

After the results, Petro tweeted, "Today is a day of celebration for the people. Let them celebrate the first popular victory. May so many sufferings be cushioned in the joy that today floods the heart of the Homeland."

He issued a call for unity during his victory speech and extended an olive branch to some of his harshest critics. 

"From this government that is beginning there will never be political persecution or legal persecution, there will only be respect and dialogue," he said, adding that he will listen to not only those who have raised arms but also to "that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth."

Hernandez conceded defeat in a video posted on social media.

"Colombians, today the majority of citizens have chosen the other candidate. As I said during the campaign, I accept the results of this election," Hernandez said. "I sincerely hope that this decision is beneficial for everyone."

EU, US congratulate Petro

The United States congratulated "the people of Colombia for making their voices heard in a free and fair presidential election." "We look forward to working with President-Elect Petro to further strengthen the U.S.-Colombia relationship and move our nations toward a better future," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

The EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the result which he said had been free and fair according to the EU's monitoring mission. "The elections in Colombia mark a clear change, Colombians have been voting for political change, looking for a more inclusive and more egalitarian society ... I wish the best for the Colombian president-elect," Borrell said.

Some 39 million people were eligible to vote in Colombia, a country where nearly 40% live below the poverty line and 11% are unemployed.

With the two anti-establishment candidates vying for the presidency, Sunday's ballot was seen as a powerful rebuke to the country's conservative elite and current president, Ivan Duque.

Petro wants to 'make history'

The 62-year-old Petro, a leftist with a reform agenda, comfortably won the initial vote last month by securing some 40.4% of the ballots. The result is a sensation on its own, as a large part of Colombia's population harbors a deep distrust of both his policies and his past in the now-defunct M-19 urban rebel group, which included two years in prison on arms charges.

But his supporters point to Petro's plans to redistribute pensions, make public universities free and tackle the country's inequality and poverty. He has also said he will put a stop to new oil and gas projects.

Leftist Gustavo Pedro tops Colombia vote

"We're one step from achieving the real change we have waited for all our lives," Petro said. "We are going to make history."

Hernandez banks on TikTok

Perhaps more surprising was that Petro faced Hernandez on Sunday. The former mayor of the northern city of Bucaramanga, who presents himself as a political outsider, managed to win over 28% of the initial vote and edge out conservative candidate Federico Gutierrez for a chance to go against Petro in the second round.

Moreover, Hernandez had managed to close the gap between himself and Petro in the intervening weeks. The millionaire entrepreneur relied on TikTok and Facebook to reach potential voters. His wealth and unorthodox campaign strategy has prompted comparisons with former US President Donald Trump.

Hernandez has pledged to tackle corruption, despite facing an investigation for allegedly favoring his son's company in a waste management tender during his time as mayor of Bucaramanga. He has also promised to provide free narcotics to addicts in a bid to fight drug traffickers.

"The election is simple. Vote for someone who is controlled by the same people as always or vote for me, who isn't controlled by anyone," Hernandez said ahead of Sunday's vote.

But the electorate might have taken issue with videos that recently surfaced online showing the 77-year-old partying on a private yacht with several younger women. Others might have been turned off by Hernandez's history of gaffes, most notably when he declared himself an admirer of "the great German thinker Adolf Hitler" in 2016. He later corrected himself by saying he was really talking about Albert Einstein.

Colombia's dream of lasting peace

Petro’s victory hailed

Gustavo Petro's election also sparked joy among fellow left-leaning Latin American leaders.

"Your victory validates democracy and ensures the path towards an integrated Latin America in this time when we demand maximum solidarity amongst brother peoples," said Argentina's President Alberto Fernandez on Twitter. 

Chile's President Gabriel Boric said Petro's victory was a "joy for Latin America." 

Peru's Pedro Castillo said he looked forward to working with an ally. "We are united by a common feeling that seeks improved collective, social and regional integration for our peoples," he said. 

"Latin American integration is strengthened," added Bolivia's Luis Arce. 

Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Petro's success could heal the wounds in a country in which political assassinations are not uncommon. "Today's triumph can be the end of this curse and the awakening for this brotherly and dignified people," said Lopez Obrador. 

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has a fraught relationship with outgoing conservative Colombian President Ivan Duque, was jubilant. "The will of the Colombian people has been heard, it went out to defend the path to democracy and peace," he said.

Miguel Diaz-Canel, the president of Cuba, spoke of his hope for "advancing the development of bilateral relations for the wellbeing of our peoples."

ab, dj, ss, si/sri (AFP, Reuters, AP)