Gustavo Petro becomes president of Colombia

Gustavo Petro narrowly won a runoff election over a political outsider millionaire and became the country’s first leftist president Sunday.

Petro, senator and third-time presidential candidate, got 50.5% of the vote while real estate magnate Rodolfo Hernandez had 47.3% of the vote with all ballots counted according to election authorities.

Petro’s victory was historic because it outlined a dramatic change in presidential politics for a country that has long marginalized the left for its perceived association with the armed conflict. Petro himself was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.

ʺToday is a day of celebration for the people. Let them celebrate their first time winning.ʺ Petro tweeted. ʺMay so many sufferings be cushioned in the joy that today floods the heart of the Homeland.ʺ

Petro extended an olive branch to his harshest critics in his victory speech, saying all members of the opposition will be welcomed at the presidential palace “to discuss the problems of Colombia.”

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

Outgoing Iván Duque, a conservative politician, congratulated Petro and quickly resigned after his defeat by Hernández.

“I accept the result, as it should be,” said Hernández in a video on social media. “I sincerely hope that this decision is beneficial for everyone.”

Colombians elected their first Black woman to be vice president in 2019. Francia Marquez is a lawyer and environmental leader who has been threatened and attacked with a grenade.

The victory of the vote was in response to widespread discontent over inequality, inflation, and violence. It came after voters in the first round of Latin America’s third-most populous nation elected two outsiders.

The leftist victory in Latin America has been fueled by voters’ desires for change. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s election.

“What I think the election of President Obama suggests is that there’s a shift in policy,” says Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at the International Crisis Group.

That was a reason to worry for some voters, whose closest reference point for the Venezuelan government is troubled neighboring Venezuela.

Karin Ardila García, a Hernández supporter in the north-central city of Bucaramanga, said “we hope that Mr. Gustavo Petro complies with what was said in his government plan, that he leads this country to greatness, which we need so much, and that (he) ends corruption.”

Only about 21.6 million voted in the presidential election Sunday, and about 40% of these voters chose to abstain from voting in all major elections since 1990.

Petro, 62, was confirmed to be the winner during an official count that took time to complete. The preliminary results have often matched the formal ones before.

Petro was congratulated by several heads of state on Sunday. So did a fierce critic, former President Álvaro Uribe. He remains a central figure in Colombian politics.

Most polls ahead of the runoff had indicated that Hernández and Petro were in a tight race since they came out on top of four other candidates in the initial May 29 election. Neither got enough votes to win outright and headed into the runoff.

During the initial round, Petro won forty percent of the votes while Hernández won twenty-eight percent. However, as soon as Hernández started to attract voters who oppose his ideas, the difference between each candidate got smaller.

Petro has proposed ambitious pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms and changes to how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. During his term in Congress, he will have to find a way to make them happen as there is a lack of majority support.

“People who support him have very high hopes, and they will be disappointed in the short-term when he doesn’t make changes as quickly as they want,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

“I think you might find a situation where he either has to strike some deals and give up a lot of his programs just to get some things passed or the whole country could be gridlocked,” said Isacson.

Petro wants to make diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Furthermore, he wants to make changes to Colombia’s relations with the United States by seeking a renegotiation of a free trade agreement and new solutions in the fight against drug trafficking.

The U.S. Secretary of State announced that they expect to work with Petro in the future.

Hernández is not affiliated with any major political party and has rejected alliances. His austere campaign, waged mostly on TikTok and other social media platforms, was self-financed and focused mainly on a fight against corruption. He believes that this fight is what hurts people and causes poverty.

Nearly four in five Colombian voters believe their country is heading in the wrong direction and disapprove of Duque, who was not eligible to run for reelection. The pandemic set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that three out of every ten Colombians lives on less than $89 a month last year.

“Rejection of politics as usual” is a reflection of the fact that the people are fed up with the same people as always, said Nataly Amezquita, a 26-year-old civil engineer waiting to vote. “We have to create greater social change. Many people in the country aren’t in the best condition.”

She said that she would cast a blank ballot; “I don’t like either of the two candidates. … Neither of them seem like good people to me.”

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