Left eyes historic presidential win as Colombians vote for change

Publicado: 29/05/2022

Bogota (AFP) -

Colombians clamoring for 'change' voted Sunday in a first round of presidential elections with a leftist poised for a historic victory.

Polls closed at 4:00 pm (2100 GMT) after eight hours of voting in a tense atmosphere one year after a brutal security crackdown on street protests fueled by deepening socioeconomic woes.

Opinion polls showed many Colombians pinning their hopes on 62-year-old Gustavo Petro, a onetime guerrilla and former mayor of Bogota, to address poverty, rural violence, urban crime and endemic corruption in a country historically governed by rightist elites.

'For many years the people who have run the country have torn it apart. We must change,' said security guard Luis Hernan Alvarez, 59, a Petro voter in the capital.

'There is too much poverty. There are resources, but they are lost to corruption,' he told AFP. 'We need new leaders.'

In the morning, dissidents of the disbanded FARC guerrilla group detonated three explosive devices in the southeast, where armed groups are engaged in running battles with drug gangs in a country long plagued by violence.

A soldier was wounded but the defense ministry said there was no impact on voting.

At Cucuta on the Venezuelan border, hundreds of Colombians who live on the other side were prevented from crossing into their country, chanting 'We want to vote and flashing their identity cards at security forces.

Only those registered to vote at polling stations on the border were being allowed through. The two countries have no diplomatic ties.

Some 300,000 armed police and soldiers were deployed to keep the peace, with observers from the Organization of American States and European Union on the ground.

Petro is hoping to avoid a June 19 run-off against 47-year-old Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of second city Medellin who represents an alliance of right-wing parties.

To do so, he would need to garner more than 50 percent of first-round votes cast.

- 'We all want change' -

Ivan Duque -- who beat Petro to the presidency in 2018 -- leaves office with record disapproval numbers after a constitutionally limited single, four-year term.

About 40 percent of Colombia's 50 million people live in poverty, and the country has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, according to the World Bank.

Problems were worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, and one in six city dwellers is unemployed.

The Duque government's image was not helped by its internationally denounced response to weeks of anti-poverty protests last year that saw dozens of civilians killed.

'We all want change,' said hotel porter Elison Beltran, 34, for whom the solution is 77-year-old anti-corruption candidate Rodolfo Hernandez, with an outside chance in third place, according to opinion polls.

Petro, in his third presidential race, has promised to address poverty and make Colombia's economy more environmentally friendly, including by phasing out exploration for crude oil -- one of the country's main income generators.

A focus of Gutierrez has been on a 'strong state' response to a flare-up of violence in spite of a 2016 peace agreement that officially ended a near six-decade civil conflict in the world's biggest cocaine producer.

Crime is a problem in the cities too, where residents complain of a rise in robberies they blame largely on an influx of nearly two million migrants from Venezuela.

- Pushback -

In a country marked by a deep-rooted fear of the political left -- associated with guerrilla groups that sowed decades of misery -- the pushback against Petro has been fierce, with rivals seeking to paint him as a radical, Hugo Chavez-style populist.

After voting in Bogota, Petro said: 'There are only two alternatives: To leave things as they are in Colombia, which in my opinion is more corruption, more violence, more hunger. Or change Colombia and direct it towards... prosperity and democracy.'

For his part, Gutierrez reiterated a commitment to constructing 'a different country, without hunger, without corruption, without violence.'

The campaign has been marred by suspicions of tampering following counting irregularities reported in a primary voting round in March.

Petro and Gutierrez have both received death threats, as has the leftist's running mate Francia Marquez, who could become Colombia's first ever black woman vice president.

Colombia's Interior Minister Daniel Palacios said on Twitter that officials had received 584 complaints of 'possible or alleged electoral irregularities.'

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