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Two outsider candidates for president head to runoff in Colombia

A Colombian citizen with a girl on his shoulders casts his vote during the first round election for president on Sunday. (Getty Images)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombians on Sunday gave a lead to a leftist presidential candidate for the first time in the country’s history, a vote that paved the way for an unusual runoff race between two populist, anti-establishment candidates promising radical change in the third-largest nation in Latin America.

Gustavo Petro, a 62-year-old senator and former leftist guerrilla, rode a wave of support from young and poor voters frustrated with high levels of unemployment, inflation and violence in one of the most unequal societies in the region. With the preliminary count nearly complete, Petro had won about 40 percent of the first-round vote on Sunday, falling far short of the majority he needed to become president outright.

Instead, he will face off in a second round on June 19 with an outsider candidate who catapulted in the polls at the last minute: Rodolfo Hernández, a brash, 77-year-old engineer and wealthy businessman who pledges to root out corruption and has drawn comparisons to former U.S. president Donald Trump. Hernández, a former mayor of the midsize city of Bucaramanga, won about 28 percent of the votes.

Hernández claimed a four-point lead over Federico Gutiérrez, the center-right candidate and former Medellín mayor seen by many as a continuation of incumbent President Iván Duque. Until recently, Gutiérrez was widely expected to compete against Petro in a second round.

Now, in a country historically led by the political elite, Colombians will choose between two candidates who are far from it. One is a leftist former rebel long reviled by the establishment in a conservative country still reeling from armed conflict. The other is a wild card businessman who was once suspended as mayor for slapping a city councilman in the face. Gutiérrez announced Sunday night that he will support Hernández in the runoff. It could prove to be a tight race, analysts say, a contest between two very different visions of change for the country.

Speaking before a crowd of supporters Sunday night, Petro said the results proved that the “political project” of the Duque administration “has been defeated.”

“It is the end of an era,” Petro said, standing onstage beside his running mate, Francia Márquez, who could become Colombia’s first Black vice president. “From this moment on, we must define what kind of change we want.”

Hernández, speaking in a video address, said the results reflected a country “that doesn’t want to keep going for one more day with the same people, the same people who have led us to the painful situation we’re in today.”

It will be a kind of presidential election unheard of in Colombia. But it follows a pattern across a region ravaged by the economic assault during the pandemic: Voters are fed up with incumbent governments they feel have failed to meet the needs of the people. They are desperate for something different, and they are getting it.

In Peru, a surge in poverty helped propel Marxist rural schoolteacher and political neophyte Pedro Castillo to the presidency last year. In Chile, the free-market model of the region, voters this year chose 36-year-old former student activist Gabriel Boric. And in Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads polls to unseat President Jair Bolsonaro in October.

“There is a desire everywhere to castigate those who are in power,” said Alberto Vergara, a political scientist at the University of the Pacific in Peru. This is especially true in Colombia, where over half the population is experiencing food insecurity, 40 percent are living in poverty and 78 percent said in a recent survey that their country was moving in the wrong direction.

“This didn’t start two years ago, this started 200 years ago,” said Marta Bautista, 59, who stood in line to vote Sunday in a working-class area in Suba, in northern Bogotá. “The same people have been in charge, the same people have been robbing us.”

She spoke about her son-in-law’s hardware store that has struggled to stay afloat. She began to cry as she described how much harder it had become for many to eat, to afford a pound of meat that has doubled in cost in the past two years. “I hurt for my country, I hurt for my kids, I hurt for my grandkids,” she said. “I want a change.”

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“Change” was the word heard over and over at the polls in the Colombian capital on Sunday. For Bautista and many others in line, change could only happen with a Petro presidency. But others, like nurse Tibisay Contreras, 50, saw that change in Hernández.

“He is not the same as always,” Contreras said of the outsider candidate. She was afraid of Petro, whose policies she felt were too radical. “Rodolfo has never been part of the political machine. I want to try someone different, someone who is not corrupt.”

Hernández could prove to be a formidable threat to Petro in the second round, analysts say. Both candidates will be forced to try to capture voters from the establishment they both campaigned against. While he’s run on a platform attacking corruption among the political elite, Hernández will have to recover voters from the right wing and “everything that means, with the entire political class behind him,” said Yann Basset, a political scientist at Bogotá’s Rosario University. Petro, meanwhile, will have to show he’s part of a “reasonable change.”

As a longtime politician, senator and former mayor of Bogotá, will Petro suddenly become the establishment candidate? Alfonso Prada, head of debates for Petro, said Saturday that the campaign will instead focus on connecting Hernández to the conservative political establishment that will likely rally around him. On Sunday night, some prominent members of Duque’s party were already announcing their support of the former Bucaramanga mayor.

Sunday’s vote followed the most tense and volatile election cycle in more than a decade. Election observers recorded more than 580 acts of violence against political and social leaders ahead of the election. Weeks before the vote, the Clan del Golfo cartel shut down much of the rural north of the country in retaliation for the extradition of their leader to the United States. Recent assassination threats against Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, led the campaigns to tighten security.

On Sunday, representatives from several campaigns expressed concern about what they saw as election irregularities, heightening fears that a losing candidate could question the legitimacy of the election results in June.

Last year, cities across Colombia erupted in massive protests for months, initially in response to a controversial tax reform. Police responded with brutal force, killing at least two dozen people. Many of those on the streets were young people like Alejandra Sandoval, a 19-year-old gastronomy student from Soacha.

“We had hoped for more change, for less violence and fewer deaths,” said Sandoval. On Sunday, she participated in her first presidential election, hoping that a vote for Petro would bring the change to Colombia that demonstrators like her had long demanded.

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For decades, elections here focused on the core issue of war. But this year, security is further down the list of voter priorities, according to Silvia Otero, a political scientist at the University del Rosario in Colombia. Many voters have more immediate concerns, such as the economy, inequality and corruption.

Petro promises to transform an unequal society through redistributive policies such as universal free higher education and a minimum wage for single mothers. He says he would raise taxes on the 4,000 wealthiest Colombians. He proposes ending new oil exploration and moving the country toward renewable energy. He envisions a country, and a “progressive axis” in the region, built on industrialization instead of on extracting natural resources. “Latin America needs a new agenda,” he told The Washington Post.

His candidacy has generated panic among the Colombian conservative political and financial establishment. Some warn a Petro presidency would strain relations with the United States. Others say he will not be able to keep his promises with a divided legislature.

Hernández, meanwhile, offers an alternative that appeals to both the anti-Petro and anti-establishment vote. He is known by some as “the engineer from Santander” and by others as the “old guy from TikTok,” a popular former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga. As mayor, he managed to root out some key sources of corruption in the city.

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But he is also facing charges from Colombia’s attorney general’s office accusing him of improperly giving out contracts for waste management as mayor. He has pleaded not guilty and is due to face trial soon. He is also known for making shocking comments. During an interview in 2016, he described himself as “a follower of a great German thinker, Adolf Hitler.” He later said he confused Hitler with Albert Einstein.

Hernández rejects the right-wing label but has embraced support from conservative voters. Asked by The Post about comparisons to former president Donald Trump, he laughed. He acknowledged that they share a tendency to be “direct.”

He seemed uncertain when asked about specific policies. Pressed about whether he would support aerial fumigation or manual eradication of coca, the base plant for cocaine, he responded that he had to look into which one was cheaper. He argued it wasn’t necessary for a president to know each department of the country well, “because all of those who know it, what did they do? Where did they take the country?”

Hernández predicted he would win because his fervent base knows he is “the only one who is capable of removing the thieves from power.” He then went on to describe his effect on supporters as “messianic,” and compared them to the “brainwashed” hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, who destroyed the twin towers.

Asked if likening his supporters to terrorists was problematic, he rejected the premise. “What I’m comparing is that after you get into that state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.”

Diana Durán contributed to this report.