The left hopes for a historic victory in the “elections of change” in Colombia

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Bogotá (AFP) – Colombians go to the polls on Sunday in a deeply polarized election that could see a leftist – and ex-guerrilla – become president for the first time in the history of this country plagued by violence and inequality.

A year after a brutal security crackdown on street protests fueled by worsening socio-economic problems, many voters are pinning their hopes on former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro to bring much-needed change.

With promises to correct a litany of social ills, Petro, 62, leads opinion polls, with Federico Gutierrez, 47, representing an alliance of right-wing parties, in second place.

“This is an election for change in Colombia,” said Michael Shifter, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

“There’s just a lot of frustration, a lot of anger and I think Petro took advantage of that,” he told AFP.

But in a country marked by deep-rooted fear of the political left – coupled with guerrilla groups that have sown decades of misery – the crackdown on Petro has been fierce, with rivals seeking to paint him as a radical, Hugo Chavez -populist style.

Federico Gutierrez, representing an alliance of right-wing parties in Colombia’s presidential election, is greeted by supporters after speaking at a press conference in Bogota on May 25, 2022 Juan BarretoAFP

In some quarters, “there is a deep, deep fear of a Petro and what he would represent… Colombians are terrified of becoming another Venezuela,” Shifter said.

Even senior military officers have broken a constitutionally mandated political silence to take on a perceived leftist threat.

“The temperature is high in this election,” Shifter said.

“Discontent and Mistrust”

The campaign has been marred by suspicions of fraud following reported counting irregularities during a primary poll in March.

Both Petro and Gutierrez have received death threats, as has leftist running mate Francia Marquez, who could become Colombia’s first black female vice president.

Francia Marquez, pictured here in a mural, could become Colombia's first-ever black female vice president
Francia Marquez, pictured here in a mural, could become Colombia’s first-ever black female vice president Raúl ARBOLEDA AFP

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

Incumbent President Ivan Duque – who beat Petro in a runoff election in 2018 – leaves with a record number of disapprovals. Colombian presidents have only one term.

“The main (voter concern) is just kind of the core economic issues, access to education, services…inequality,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

There was also anger against an “exclusive elite class in Colombia who wanted to maintain this system because it serves their interests but to the detriment of the vast majority of the population”, she told the newspaper. AFP.

About 40% of Colombia’s 50 million people live in poverty and the country has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, according to the World Bank.

Indigenous and black Colombians are the worst off.

Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine
Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine Raúl ARBOLEDA AFP

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

For Jorge Restrepo, a professor at the University of Javeriana, the main feelings driving voters this time are “discontent and distrust”.

Crime and violence

Another major concern is the violence that has erupted again despite a 2016 peace deal that formally ended nearly six decades of civil conflict.

Areas abandoned by the now defunct FARC guerrillas have become battlegrounds for the control of drugs and illegal mining resources between armed groups holding rural communities under siege.

Petro, a former member of the urban rebel group M-19 who laid down his arms in 1990, has pledged to continue peace talks with the last remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, which were suspended under Duque.

Gutierrez, for his part, promised a “strong state” response to the delinquency of the world’s largest cocaine producer.

Crime is also a problem in the cities, where residents complain of a rise in theft and other violent property crime which they attribute in large part to an influx of nearly two million migrants from neighboring Venezuela. .

Whoever wins the election will have a long inbox of challenges, including restarting Latin America’s fourth-largest economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Petro has proposed shifting to a greener economy by phasing out crude oil extraction, while Gutierrez wants to boost private investment.

Young people, who tend to favor Petro according to opinion polls, will be crucial to Sunday’s result, analysts say.

But as a demographic, they tend to avoid the polls in a country where the overall abstention rate has hovered around 50%.

If no candidate receives half of the votes cast, a second round between the first two candidates will take place on June 19.

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