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Left takes first round in Colombian presidential vote



Publicado: 29/05/2022

Bogota (AFP) -

Colombians clamoring for 'change' gave a leftist ex-guerrilla a historic lead Sunday in a first round of presidential elections that will culminate in a runoff against a populist outsider in June.

With more than 98 percent of votes counted, preliminary results showed 62-year-old Gustavo Petro, a former Bogota mayor, leading with 40.3 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Rodolfo Hernandez, a 77-year-old millionaire.

In a surprise surge, Hernandez edged out rightwinger Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of second city Medellin who pollsters had expected to finish in second place.

Petro did not achieve the more than 50 percent result required to avoid the June 19 runoff.

Polls closed Sunday 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.

More than 8.4 million Colombians voted for Petro on Sunday, hoping he is the man to address poverty, rural violence, urban crime and endemic corruption in a country historically governed by rightist elites.

Hernandez, not aligned to a political party, garnered 5.9 million votes and Gutierrez 5.0 million.

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.

- '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, one of Hernandez's voters.

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.

Among Hernandez's proposals: closing embassies to pay off student loans and making a visit to the sea at least once in life a right for all Colombians.

- 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.'

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

Petro and Gutierrez had 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.'

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.

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