Colombia elects former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro as first leftist president

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BOGOTA/BUCARAMANGA — Leftist Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement who has sworn sweeping social and economic change, won the Colombian presidency on Sunday, the first progressive to do so in the country’s history.

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Petro beat construction magnate Rodolfo Hernandez by a surprisingly wide margin of around 719,975 votes. The two had been technically tied in the polls before the vote.

Petro, a former mayor of the capital Bogota and current senator, has pledged to tackle inequality with free university education, pension reforms and high taxes on unproductive land. He won 50.5% to Hernandez’s 47.3%.

Petro’s proposals – including a ban on new oil projects – surprised some investors, despite promising to honor existing contracts.

Supporter Alejandro Forero, 40, who uses a wheelchair, cried as the results fell during the Petro campaign celebration in Bogota.

“Finally, thank God. I know he will be a good president and help those of us who are less privileged. This will change for the better,” said Forero, who is unemployed.

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The campaign was Petro’s third presidential bid and his victory adds the Andean nation to a list of Latin American countries that have elected progressives in recent years.

A fragmented congress, where a dozen parties have seats, will act as a check on Petro’s proposals, said Daniela Cuellar of FTI Consulting.

« Colombia’s institutional strength and rule of law appear strong enough for the country to maintain economic stability, » Cuellar said. « Also, campaigning is not governing, Petro’s policy will be more moderate. »

« Even though he tries to push through sweeping reforms, he doesn’t have the support of Congress to implement them, » she added.

Petro, 62, said he was tortured by the military when he was detained for his guerrilla involvement, and his potential victory has senior armed forces officials bracing for change.

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Petro’s running mate, Francia Marquez, a single mother and former housekeeper, will be the country’s first Afro-Colombian female vice president.

« Today I vote for my daughter – she turned 15 two weeks ago and only asked for one gift: that I vote for Petro, » security officer Pedro Vargas said on Sunday morning. , 48 years old, in the southwest of Bogota.

« I hope this man fulfills my daughter’s hopes, she has a lot of faith in her promises, » added Vargas, who said he never votes.

Petro also pledged to fully implement a 2016 peace accord with FARC rebels and to seek talks with the still active ELN guerrillas.

He had raised doubts about the integrity of the tally after irregularities in Congressional tallies in March and earlier on Sunday urged voters to check their ballots for any foreign marks that might invalidate them.

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Hernandez, who served as mayor of Bucaramanga, was a surprise run-off candidate.

He promised to cut government and fund social programs by ending corruption, as well as providing free narcotics to drug addicts.

Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, Hernandez is being investigated for corruption over allegations that he interfered in a waste management tender for a company his son lobbied for. He denied wrongdoing.

Hernandez, who bills himself as the “King of TikTok,” ran an untraditional campaign focused primarily on social media, repeatedly canceling media interviews and barely appearing in public in the 10 days before the vote.

He conceded defeat in a short video on social media.

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« As I said during the campaign, I accept the results of this election, » Hernandez said, adding that he hopes Petro will stick to his anti-corruption promises.

Disheartened supporters of Hernandez threw campaign balloons outside his headquarters in Bucaramanga.

Defense Minister Diego Molano told reporters on Sunday afternoon that the murder of an electoral volunteer in Guapi, Cauca province, was under investigation.

Sixty polling stations had to be moved due to heavy rain in parts of the country, the clerk said.

Some 22.6 million people voted, about 1.2 million more than in the first round. Some 2.3% of voters voted in protest, not supporting any of the candidates.

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