La Gaceta De Mexico - Left eyes historic presidential win as Colombians vote for 'change'

Left eyes historic presidential win as Colombians vote for 'change'
Left eyes historic presidential win as Colombians vote for 'change' / Photo: © AFP

Left eyes historic presidential win as Colombians vote for 'change'

Colombians headed to the polls Sunday in a first round of presidential elections with a leftist poised for victory for the first time ever, as voters clamor for "change."

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Polls opened at 8:00 am (1300 GMT) amid a tense atmosphere, a year after a brutal security crackdown on street protests fueled by deepening socioeconomic woes.

Opinion polls show that many Colombians are pinning their hopes on Gustavo Petro, an ex-guerrilla and former mayor of Bogota, to address poverty, rural violence, urban crime and endemic corruption in a country historically governed by the right.

"For many years the people who have run the country have torn it apart. We must change," said security guard Luis Hernan Alvarez, 59, who intends to vote for Petro in the capital Bogota, where rain greeted early voters.

"There is too much poverty. There are resources, but they are lost to corruption... We need new leaders," he told AFP.

About 39 million of Colombia's 50 million people are eligible to cast their ballot, though the recent abstention rate has been high, at around 50 percent.

About 300,000 armed police and soldiers were deployed to keep the peace, as voters headed to some 12,000 polling stations countrywide under the watchful eye of observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union.

Petro, 62, is hoping to avoid a June 19 run-off against 47-year-old Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of second city Medellin who represents an alliance of right-wing parties.

To do so, he would need to garner more than 50 percent of first-round votes cast.

- 'We all want change' -

Ivan Duque -- who beat Petro in a runoff election in 2018 -- leaves office with record disapproval numbers. Colombian presidents serve only one four-year term.

About 40 percent of Colombians live in poverty, and the country has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, according to the World Bank.

The economy was hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and one in six city dwellers is unemployed.

The Duque government's image was not helped by its internationally denounced response to weeks of anti-poverty protests last year that saw dozens of civilians killed.

"We all want change," said hotel porter Elison Beltran, 34, for whom the solution is 77-year-old anti-corruption candidate Rodolfo Hernandez, in with an outside chance in third place, according to opinion polls.

"These last years we have had governments that honestly have not been ideal for the country, and we have had much repression," Beltran told AFP.

Petro, in his third presidential race, has promised to address poverty and to make Colombia's economy more environmentally friendly, including by phasing out exploration for crude oil -- one of the country's main income generators.

Gutierrez's focus has been on a "strong state" response to crime in a country that is the world's biggest cocaine producer.

A key voter concern is a flare-up of rural violence between armed groups -- with civilians in the crossfire -- despite a 2016 peace agreement that officially ended a near six-decade civil conflict.

Petro, a former member of the M-19 urban rebel group that laid down arms in 1990, has vowed to pursue peace talks with Colombia's last guerrilla group, the ELN, which were suspended under Duque.

Crime is a problem in the cities too, where residents complain of a rise in robberies they blame in large part on an influx of nearly two million migrants from neighboring Venezuela.

- Pushback -

In a country marked by a deep-rooted fear of the political left -- associated with guerrilla groups that sowed decades of misery -- the pushback against Petro has been fierce, with rivals seeking to paint him as a radical, Hugo Chavez-style populist.

After voting in Bogota Sunday, Petro said: "There are only two alternatives: to leave things as they are in Colombia, which in my opinion is more corruption, more violence, more hunger. Or change Colombia and direct it towards... prosperity and democracy."

The campaign has been marred by suspicions of tampering following counting irregularities reported in a primary voting round in March.

Days before Sunday's vote, Petro expressed fresh concerns about the software used by Colombia's vote count body.

Petro and Gutierrez have both received death threats, as has the leftist's running mate Francia Marquez, who could become Colombia's first ever black woman vice-president.

Five presidential candidates were assassinated by opponents, drug traffickers or paramilitary groups in Colombia in the 20th century.