BOGOTA, Colombia — When Gustavo Petro launched his bid for Colombia’s presidency, he was a long shot in a crowded field of candidates: a leftist former guerrilla who had run unsuccessfully for the post once before and served a turbulent term as mayor of Bogota.
Now, capping a political career that started when he was a teenage organizer for urban militants, Petro, 58, has risen to a strong second place in presidential polls ahead of Colombia’s election Sunday. The latest surveys show him narrowing the lead of Iván Duque, the candidate of a controversial right-wing political party, to less than 10 points.
Petro appears unlikely to win, according to the polls, this month or in a June 17 runoff in the probable event that none of the five candidates receives a majority in the first round. But his surprising strength in the campaign has revealed sharp polarization at a transformative time for Colombia, the United States’ closest ally in Latin America.
“Really, on the left, we’ve never had a solid presidential candidate,” said Oscar Palma, a professor of Colombian politics at Rosario University in Bogota, the capital. “When one looks at the presidential candidates, they’re like a type of monarchy — families that have had power historically in Colombia.”
No hard leftist has come close to reaching the presidential palace since 1948. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a charismatic populist, seemed in line at that point to win executive office. Then an assassin shot him on a Bogota street, sparking a massive riot and a period of violence that laid the groundwork for 50 years of Colombian civil war.
A historic peace accord ratified in late 2016 brought the conflict between government forces and insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to a fragile close. But the pact has lacked public support. Violence persists in some places, and Colombia’s cultivation of coca, from which cocaine is derived, has hit record levels, even after more than 20 years and $10 billion in U.S. aid to combat drugs and related violence.
As term-limited President Juan Manuel Santos, champion of the peace accords, prepares to hand over the reins, Colombian voters are supporting drastically different visions for the future of their country.
Experts dismiss comparisons between Petro and Gaitán. Unlike Petro, Gaitán was a legendary orator with broad popular support.
But Petro does come from Gaitán’s tradition. His mother was a supporter of the slain politician, he told the Colombian newspaper El Espectador in 2011 after his first unsuccessful presidential campaign. He recalled an early memory of his father weeping over a newspaper showing the dead body of renowned revolutionary Che Guevara.
He defied his Catholic schoolmasters by reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and drew inspiration from the victories of Cuban and Vietnamese communist revolutionaries, he told El Espectador.
Petro was recruited at 17 by the 19th of April Movement, better known as M-19, a leftist guerrilla group made up mostly of students and intellectuals.
He never saw combat but became a leader in the group. After years on the run, he was captured by the Colombian army at 25. He said he was tortured, then locked up for 18 months.
Upon release, he embarked on a political career that has included terms in both legislative chambers and a tumultuous stint as mayor of Bogota. He never garnered widespread popular support and won only Bogota, the most liberal Colombian city, in the 2010 presidential election, in which he finished fourth overall with 9 percent of the vote.
“I am frankly surprised that he’s doing this well,” said Adam Isacson, a longtime Colombia expert and director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
The Colombian media has echoed that surprise. Pundits marvel that Petro’s brand has caught on after Colombians watched the leftist revolution of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez slowly spiral into catastrophe next door.
Petro has praised Chávez, who died in 2013, but has distanced himself from the current Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro. His political opponents have charged that he espouses the political philosophy of Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro and have warned that Colombia would face an imminent breakdown if he were elected.
The candidate of a party called Humane Colombia, Petro does not propose any overtly revolutionary policies. He plans to raise taxes on unused land held by large owners, hoping to encourage them to sell to the state but stopping short of expropriation. He wants to let poor rural farmers trade unproductive plots for more-fertile land.
He criticizes the traditional military approach to combating drugs in Colombia and advocates closer cooperation with rural farmers who rely on the coca crop.
“Colombia doesn’t have a foreign policy,” Petro said at a March news conference. “It’s an appendix of the foreign policy of the United States, derived from its subordination to anti-drug policies by the aid it receives.”
He opposes expansion of oil production in Colombia, proposing avocados as a substitute for petroleum exports.
But he may owe his success more to what he stands against than what he stands for, according to Yann Basset, director of the Observatory of Political Representation at Rosario University.
The front-runner in the presidential race, Duque, hails from the Democratic Center, a political party founded by former president Álvaro Uribe. During this presidential campaign, Uribe was pressed to assert that the relatively inexperienced Duque, 41, “is not my puppet.”
Uribe, whose political philosophy is known as “uribismo,” stands for military and paramilitary warfare against the insurgents, close ties with the United States and the ruthless eradication of drugs. His presidency from 2002 to 2010 left bitterness in areas where his counterinsurgency and anti-drug campaigns were waged, Basset said, and those areas are now inclined to vote against Uribe’s legacy.
Interior parts of Colombia that were more peaceful during Uribe’s time often view the war on the insurgents as a success and support the Democratic Center.
“It’s a question of whether to ratify the uribista project and its history or try to put those years of war behind us,” Basset said. Petro “was able to be the champion of anti-uribismo from the start.”
During Uribe’s presidency, Petro, then a senator, was among his leading antagonists, strongly denouncing the president and leading a crusade to expose his ties to paramilitary groups.
Uribe spearheaded the campaign against the 2016 peace accords, which were narrowly rejected in a referendum before being approved by the legislature. If the Democratic Center wins the presidency, most experts agree that the many lingering commitments to the peace accords will move down the list of government priorities.
The minority (49.8 percent) of Colombians who supported the peace terms in the 2016 vote have largely rallied behind Petro, alarmed by the prospect that the agreement could collapse.
“There is a fear in the country that this ends up being a return to war . . . that the disillusionment of the former FARC militants drives them toward other armed groups,” said Palma, the Rosario University professor.