Colombia’s election stations opened for voting in a presidential race filled with uncertainty as former rebel Gustavo Petro and millionaire businessman Rodolfo Hernandez compete for power in a country saddled with widespread poverty, violence and other woes.
Abstention is expected to be high on Sunday as voters face a stark choice between electing their first-ever left-wing president or a maverick outsider dubbed the Colombian Donald Trump.
In Bogota, outgoing President Ivan Duque opened voting for Colombia’s 39 million voters at 8am (13:00 GMT). Polls will close at 4pm with early results expected a couple of hours after that.
Hernandez was among the early voters in the northern city of Bucaramanga, where he was mayor from 2016 to 2019.
It has been a tense campaign, with death threats against several candidates ahead of the first round last month, when Colombia’s traditional conservative and liberal powers were dealt a chastening defeat.
“These are the tightest elections in the country’s recent history,” said the Sunday edition of the El Tiempo daily.
There are fears a tight result could spark post-election violence and 320,000 police and military have been deployed to ensure security.
Michael Shifter, from the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank, said voters “are trying to figure out who is the lesser of two evils”.
The successor to unpopular conservative Duque will have to deal with a country in crisis, reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, recession, a spike in drug-trafficking-related violence and deep-rooted anger at the political establishment.
Almost 40 percent of the country lives in poverty while 11 percent are unemployed.
Colombians’ anger spilled over into mass anti-government protests in April 2021 that were controversially met by a heavy-handed response from the security forces.
Opinion polls in the lead-up to the election have been inconclusive, although abstention is expected to be 45 percent with up to another five percent undecided.
Petro comfortably topped the first round of voting with 40 percent, 12 points ahead of Hernandez.
However, Petro’s past as a radical leftist urban fighter in the 1980s – during which time he spent two years in prison on arms charges – has left many Colombians fearful.
He has been in politics since his M-19 group made peace with the state in 1990 and formed a political party.
Some say the former mayor of Bogota would turn Colombia into another authoritarian populist socialist state like neighbouring Venezuela.
Petro, 62, says the country needs social justice to build peace after a six-decade multi-faceted conflict involving leftist rebels, the state, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels.
Petro, who is popular with many young people, named environmentalist feminist Francia Marquez, 40, as his running mate.
His could become the latest leftist political victory in Latin America fuelled by voters’ desire 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 presidential election.
‘Dialogue and agreements needed’
Just a few months ago, Hernandez, 77, was a virtual unknown outside of Bucaramanga. His austere campaign, waged mostly on TikTok and other social media platforms, was self-financed.
But his unconventional policies and a series of gaffes, not least when he seemingly mistook Adolf Hitler for Albert Einstein in a radio interview, have caught attention.
Although he also named a woman, academic Marelen Castillo, 53, as his running mate, he recently said a woman’s place was in the home.
But it is his lack of political experience or a programme that worries many.
“As a businessman he’s used to resolving conflicts in a direct and quick way, but the exercise of governance requires dialogue, agreements, [and] long meetings to find common ground,” said Patricia Ines Munoz, an expert at the Pontifical Javerian University.
That is something he will have to do if elected, given he has almost no representation in congress.
What has attracted voters to Hernandez has been his anti-corruption stance – although he faces a corruption investigation of his own from his mayorship.
“Between theft, luxury and waste, a billion a week disappears, we will put an end to that from day one,” he said.
Silvia Otero Bahamón, a political science professor at the University of Rosario, said although both candidates are populists who “have an ideology based on the division between the corrupt elite and the people”, each sees their fight against the establishment differently.
“Petro relates to the poor, the ethnic and cultural minorities of the most peripheral regions of the nation,” Otero said, while Hernández’s supporters are “more ethereal; they are the people who have been let down by politicking and corruption. It is a looser community, which the candidate reaches directly via social networks.”