Bogota, Colombia – In presidential and legislative elections, Colombian voters signalled they want change, solidifying a left-wing former guerrilla member’s lead in the presidential race, and splitting the country’s Congress between right and left.
Centrists, meanwhile, lost out across the board, signifying the country’s deep political divide.
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With most of the results tallied on Monday morning, leftist and former M-19 guerrilla member Gustavo Petro was the definitive winner in presidential primaries, gaining double the votes of any of his competitors.
“We’re at the gates of winning the presidency,” said Petro in a speech Sunday night after polls had closed.
The Latin American country appeared to be following a regional trend, following the tracks of countries like Chile, Peru and Honduras that have turned away from traditional leaders in favour of alternative candidates.
“We want change. That’s the most important thing,” voter Sarita Zapata Casas, a 22-year-old actress, told Al Jazeera as she left a Bogota polling station. “Because if the country continues like it is, we’re going to run ourselves into the ground.”
Election results also reflected the deep divisions in the country, with Petro’s right-wing challenger Federico “Fico” Gutierrez garnering enough support to pose a significant threat, and Congress divided – making it difficult for whoever wins the presidential race to build a coalition.
Petro, campaigning under the progressive coalition Pacto Historico, lost the presidency in 2018 to right-wing President Ivan Duque. Since then he has gained traction with voters on a platform that promises to more fairly distribute wealth, curtail oil and gas extraction, use tourist revenues to replace fuel profits and implement Colombia’s stalled peace process.
Petro received more than four million votes, with his coalition earning even more, but not a congressional majority. Gutierrez, a civil engineer who has run on job creation and has claimed to be “the opposite of Petro” garnered around two million votes.
Centrist Sergio Fajardo, with a little over 700,000 votes, reflected Colombia’s deep divisions.
Both candidates stand as the opposition to Petro, and in the eyes of many Colombians represent a traditional elite that historically has commanded power.
Petro also has establishment roots, but is viewed more as an “outsider”, explained Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“Colombians are fed up with this sort of politics as usual,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera. “All of the candidates from the traditional parties … have been marked and really affected by this disillusionment.”
The three candidates will square off in the presidential election on May 29th with a handful of others who did not compete in the primaries, including Ingrid Betancourt, a former hostage of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the May vote, the two leading candidates will head to a June runoff election.
‘Unheard of’ victory
Whoever wins will replace incumbent President Ivan Duque, a historically unpopular leader, disapproved by about 75 percent of the country, according to a poll by marketing and research group Invamer.
Duque had been handpicked by former right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, a deeply controversial figure supported by a right-wing base that approved his strong-armed tactics against leftist guerrillas.
Duque won the presidency in 2018 with nearly 54 percent of the vote on a platform opposing the 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebel group that ended more than five decades of war.
But economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, state violence against mostly peaceful protesters last year – and rising armed violence in the countryside exacerbated by Duque’s failure to implement the peace agreement – have turned voters against him.
In a largely conservative-leaning country, it opened the door for left-wing Petro to make what Dickinson called “an unheard of” victory in Sunday’s vote.
“Clearly the country’s centre of gravity leans a little bit more to the left now,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “[But] “traditional parties are alive and well.”
In one controversial race, the son of a former paramilitary boss got a congressional seat intended for conflict victims.
Dickinson noted that fear of armed-group violence on election day was averted by a ceasefire called by the country’s largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Electoral observers have raised concerns about upticks in violence in the lead-up to May’s presidential election.
As they did in 2018, right-wing groups have been stirring divisive themes, trying to create fear in more conservative Colombians by highlighting Petro’s past as a guerrilla fighter and his socialist tendencies.
Gutierrez, who most closely represents that bloc, responded to his rival’s success with a note of bitterness Sunday night, saying “a change cannot mean a leap into the void”.
Monica Rodriguez, 56, voted for Gutierrez. “My country has tipped toward this candidate [Petro], and the way I see it, they’re wrong,” she told Al Jazeera just after she voted on Sunday. “Today, the future of my country is being decided.”
Petro’s agenda has also spooked foreign investors wary of his proposal to move away from oil and gas, which could have significant consequences on the country’s economy.
Yet despite the divisions, Rodriguez echoed leftist voter Zapata in her belief in the need for change and unity moving forward.
“Since our country’s origins … we’ve been divided into two sides. And we’ve always fought,” she said. “My country is not going to be fixed by just a president. All of us have to fix it. If we were just to band together on something, we’d be able to move forward as a country.”
But the problem, Rodriguez said, is the same as always: “We don’t know how.”