Colombia goes into elections Sunday with a leftist looking to make history

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — At his final campaign rally before Colombia’s first-round presidential election on Sunday, Gustavo Petro gleefully noted that the powers that be are cringing at the thought that he could win.

“Of course they are scared,” Petro, a former left-wing-guerrilla-turned-politician, told thousands of supporters in Bogotá, the capital. “They’re scared because we’re going to kick them out of power.”

Polls place Petro as the clear front-runner and, if elected, he has pledged to bring major changes to Colombia that have upset the business class. But if none of the candidates garners more than half of the ballots on Sunday, as the polls are also predicting, the two top vote-getters will meet in a runoff on June 19.

Competition is rising toward a second round

The other main candidates are Federico Gutiérrez, a conservative former Medellín mayor, Rodolfo Hernández, a populist businessman and former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, and Sergio Fajardo, a centrist former Medellín mayor and former governor of Antioquia department.

Polls predict that in a second round, Petro would beat Gutiérrez or Fajardo. But some surveys place Petro in a statistical dead heat with Hernández, who has avoided debates and in-person campaign events in favor of social media videos. Still, he has moved up in recent polls and has connected to many Colombians with his pledges to eliminate corruption.

“I’m going to go after all the politicians who are thieves,” Hernández, 77, said Wednesday in an interview on Colombian TV. “They are not all thieves, but nearly all of them are.”

However, in the runup to the election it’s Petro who has made most of the headlines and has caused the most consternation among business leaders, the military and conservative voters in a nation that has never before elected a left-wing president.

He went from rebel fighter to presidential candidate

Petro once tried to fight his way to power as a member of the M-19 guerrilla group. The rebels signed a peace treaty in 1990 and since then, Petro has served in Congress and as mayor of Bogotá.

Now on his third run for the presidency, Petro, 62, hopes to join a growing number of leftists now governing much of Latin America, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

Petro promises to hike taxes on the rich to pay for anti-poverty programs. He wants to renegotiate trade agreements, including with the United States, he says, to better protect Colombia’s industries and agriculture. To forge a greener economy, he wants to phase out the production of oil, the country’s biggest export, and replace that income with tourism.

A business owner threatened employees who vote for Petro

But all this could provoke capital flight, business closures and massive unemployment, according to many business leaders, who are urging Colombians to reject Petro at the ballot box on Sunday.

“Without a doubt Colombia has problems. But that’s no reason to leap into the void or to risk radical change,” Miguel Cortés, one of Colombia’s most influential businessmen, said in a video message to voters.

Another business owner, Sergio Araujo, recently tweeted that he would fire any of his employees that voted for Petro. In an interview with the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, Araujo called Petro a “destroyer of businesses who has spent five decades fighting against free enterprise in Colombia.”

Some middle-class Colombians are also worried.

Roxanne Restrepo, who works in banking and finance in Bogotá, is nervous about Petro’s plan to borrow from private pension funds in order to expand retirement benefits for poor Colombians. And she’s not waiting for the election to take action.

“I’ve been sending some of my savings offshore and we’ve been searching to see if we can get Portuguese citizenship to see if we need to leave the country,” Restrepo says.

Petro has also picked fights with the Colombian army, suggesting last month that some of its top officers are working in cahoots with drug traffickers. That prompted a furious anti-Petro tirade on Twitter from army commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, even though under Colombia’s constitution the military is supposed to stay out of politics.

Former army Col. John Marulanda, who fought against Petro during the guerrilla war and now heads a national association of retired military officers, put it bluntly in an interview with NPR: “We don’t want an ex-guerrilla, a retired guerrilla being the president of Colombia. And if it happens, we declare ourselves in opposition.”

He could realign the country away from the U.S.

Marulanda and others also question Petro’s commitment to democracy.

For one thing, Petro intends to forge closer ties to the authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela. That poses a significant shift for Colombia, long closely aligned with the U.S. and a staunch critic of the government in Caracas. Because his Historic Pact political coalition would lack a majority in Congress, Petro has talked of passing economic laws by decree.

Not only “is he now proposing a radical change in the economy, but he’s actually pressing the nuclear button on what he could potentially do to democracy,” says Sergio Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis.

Petro and his many supporters want change

Petro claims such criticisms are unfair and has pointed out that President Iván Duque, who isn’t allowed to run for a second consecutive term, also passed economic laws by decree during the pandemic.

Frustrated over accusations from opposition candidates that he plans to seize private property if he wins the presidency, Petro held a news conference at a notary public where he signed a document pledging not to expropriate farms and businesses.

And in an interview with NPR last month, Petro denied that he had a radical agenda. He pointed out that the United Nations is urging countries to transition away from hydrocarbons and that raising taxes on the rich to help the poor is common sense in the wake of a pandemic that drove Colombia’s poverty rate from 35.7% to 42.5% in 2020.

“These are normal things,” Petro said, speaking on Zoom. But in Colombia “they are seen as leftist and revolutionary.”

Many frustrated Colombians agree with Petro.

They include Sara Gallego, 34, an athletic trainer who attended Petro’s closing campaign rally. She checked off a long list of the country’s woes — from unemployment to malnutrition — that she says have been ignored by President Duque and previous governments.

That’s why, she says, the traditional ruling elite has only itself to blame for Petro’s popularity.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Colombia may be on the verge of electing its first left-wing president. The frontrunner in Sunday’s balloting is Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla turned fighter turned politician. But as John Otis reports from Bogota, the candidate’s promises for radical change have alarmed many Colombians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUSTAVO PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At his final campaign rally before Sunday’s vote, Gustavo Petro gleefully noted that the powers that be in Colombia are cringing at the thought that he could become president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: “Of course they’re scared,” Petro told thousands of supporters in Bogota, the capital. “They’re scared because we’re going to kick them out of power.” Petro once tried to fight his way to power as a member of a guerrilla group called the M-19. The rebels signed a peace treaty in 1990. And since then, Petro has served in Congress and as mayor of Bogota. Now 62, he’s on his third run for the presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: If Petro wins, he would join the leftist presidents who now govern much of Latin America, including Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Petro promises to hike taxes on the rich to pay for anti-poverty programs. A protectionist, he wants to renegotiate free trade agreements. To forge a greener economy, he wants to phase out the production of oil, the country’s biggest export. But all this could provoke capital flight, business closures and massive unemployment, according to many business leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIGUEL CORTES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That’s Miguel Cortes, one of Colombia’s biggest businessmen, urging Colombians to vote for anyone but Petro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORTES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a video message to voters, Cortes said, “without a doubt, Colombia has problems, but that’s no reason to leap into the void or to risk radical change.” Another business owner threatened to fire any of his employees that voted for Petro. Some middle-class Colombians are also worried.

ROXANNE RESTREPO: I’ve been working all my life. I’m four years from my retirement.

OTIS: That’s Roxanne Restrepo, who works in banking and finance in Bogota. She worries about Petro’s plan to borrow from private pension funds in order to expand retirement benefits for poor Colombians. And she’s not waiting for the election to take action.

RESTREPO: I’ve been sending some of my savings offshore. And we’ve been searching to see if we can get Portuguese citizenship, to see if we need to leave the country.

OTIS: She’s also concerned about Petro’s commitment to democracy. For one thing, Petro intends to forge closer ties to the authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela. Sergio Guzman, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis, points out that because he would lack a majority in Congress, Petro has talked of passing economic laws by decree.

That freaked a lot of people out.

SERGIO GUZMAN: Yes, it did because not just is he now proposing a radical change in the economy, but he’s actually, you know, pressing the nuclear button on what he could potentially do to democracy.

OTIS: Petro has tried to reassure the doubters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Amid rumors that he plans to seize private property once in the presidency, he held a news conference at a notary public, where he signed a document pledging not to expropriate farms and businesses. And in an interview with NPR, Petro said he would pursue common-sense policies to tackle poverty, which shot up to 42% during the pandemic.

PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: “These are normal things,” Petro said, speaking on Zoom. “But in Colombia, they are seen as leftist and revolutionary.” Many frustrated Colombians agree with Petro. Polls show Petro with a large lead over five other candidates. However, if he fails to garner more than half of the ballots on Sunday, as polls are indicating, there will be a runoff between the two top candidates on June 19. John Otis, NPR News, Bogota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.