BOGOTA, Colombia. For the first time, Colombia will have a leftist president.
Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime legislator, won Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, galvanizing voters frustrated by decades of poverty and inequality under conservative leaders with promises to expand welfare programs, tax the wealthy and abandon an economy he called overly dependent. from fossil fuels.
His victory puts the third largest country in Latin America on a dramatically uncertain path as it faces rising poverty and violence that has sent record numbers of Colombians to the border with the United States; high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, a key buffer against climate change; and a growing distrust of key democratic institutions that has become a trend in the region.
Mr. Petro, 62, received more than 50 percent of the vote, with more than 99 percent counted on Sunday night. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernandez, the construction magnate who energized the country with his scorched anti-corruption platform, won just over 47 percent of the vote.
Shortly after the vote, Mr. Hernandez conceded to Mr. Petro.
“Colombians, today the majority of citizens have chosen another candidate,” he said. “As I said during the campaign, I accept the results of this election.”
Mr. Petro took the stage on Sunday evening, accompanied by his running mate, Francia Marquez, and his three children. The crowded stadium went crazy, people were standing on chairs and holding phones in their hands.
“This story that we are writing today is a new story for Colombia, for Latin America, for the whole world,” he said. “We’re not going to betray this electorate.”
He promised to rule with what he called a “politics of love” based on hope, dialogue and understanding.
Just over 58 percent of Colombia’s 39 million voters took part in the vote, according to the agency. official data.
The win means that Ms. Marquez, an environmental activist who emerged from poverty and became a prominent social justice activist, will become the nation’s first black vice president.
The victory of Mr. Petro and Ms. Marquez reflects the anti-establishment fervor that has spread across Latin America, exacerbated by the pandemic and other longstanding challenges, including lack of opportunity.
“The whole country is begging for change,” said Colombian political scientist Fernando Posada, “and it’s crystal clear.”
In April, Costa Ricans elected Rodrigo Chávez, a former World Bank official and political outsider who took advantage of popular discontent with the incumbent party, as president. Last year, Chile, Peru and Honduras voted for left-wing leaders who ran against right-wing candidates, extending a significant multi-year shift in Latin America.
As a candidate, Mr. Petro inspired a generation that is the most educated in Colombia’s history, but is also dealing with 10 percent annual inflation, a 20 percent youth unemployment rate and a 40 percent poverty rate. His rallies often drew young people, many of whom said they felt betrayed by decades of leaders who made grandiose promises but delivered little.
“We’re not happy with the mediocrity of past generations,” said Larry Rico, 23, a Petro voter at a polling station in Ciudad Bolívar, a poor neighborhood in Bogotá’s capital.
Mr. Petro’s victory is all the more significant given the country’s history. For decades, the government has battled a violent left-wing insurgency known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the stigma of conflict has prevented the legitimate left from flourishing.
But FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, laying down their arms and opening up space for a broader political discourse.
Mr. Petro was a member of another rebel group called M-19, which demobilized in 1990 and became a political party that helped rewrite the country’s constitution. Eventually, Mr. Petro became the country’s influential opposition leader, known for denouncing human rights violations and corruption.
On Sunday in an affluent part of Bogota, Francisco Ortiz, 67, a television director, said he also voted for Mr. Petro.
“It has been a long time since we had this opportunity for change,” he said. “Whether the situation will improve, I don’t know. But if we stick to the same, we already know what we’ll get.”
A victory could also be a test of the United States’ relationship with its strongest ally in Latin America. Traditionally, Colombia has been the cornerstone of Washington’s policy in the region.
But Mr. Petro has criticized what he calls the United States’ failed approach to the war on drugs, saying it is focusing too much on destroying the coca crop, the main product of cocaine, and not enough on rural development and other measures.
Mr. Petro said he supported some form of drug legalization, that he would renegotiate the existing trade deal with the United States to benefit Colombians more, and that he would repair relations with the authoritarian government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, all of which could create conflict with the US .
About two million Venezuelan migrants have fled to Colombia in recent years amid an economic, political and humanitarian crisis.
Mr. Petro, in an interview earlier this year, said he thought he could work well with President Biden’s government, adding that his relationship with the United States would focus on working together to combat climate change, in particular stopping the rapid erosion of the Amazon.
“There is a point for dialogue here,” he said. “Because saving the Amazon rainforest includes some tools, some programs that don’t exist today, at least not in the United States. In my opinion, this is a priority.”
Both Mr. Petro and Mr. Hernandez defeated Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of a large city who was supported by the conservative elite, in the first ballot on May 29, sending them to the second round.
Both men declared themselves anti-establishment candidates, saying they were running against the political class that had controlled the country for generations.
Among the factors that set them apart the most was how they saw the root of the country’s problems.
Mr. Petro believes the economic system is broken, overly dependent on oil exports and a thriving illicit cocaine business, which he says has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He calls to stop all new oil research and move on to the development of other industries.
He also said he would introduce a guaranteed job with a basic income, transition the country to a public health system, and expand access to higher education, in part by raising taxes on the wealthy.
“What we have today is the result of what I call model exhaustion,” Mr. Petro said in an interview earlier this year, referring to the current economic system. “The end result is severe poverty.”
However, his ambitious economic plan raised concerns. One former finance minister called his energy plan is “economic suicide”.
Mr. Hernandez was reluctant to overhaul the economic structure, but said it was inefficient, riddled with corruption and frivolous spending. He called for the amalgamation of ministries, the abolition of some embassies and the dismissal of inefficient civil servants, and used savings to help the poor.
One of Hernandez’s supporters, Niliya Mesa de Reyes, 70, a retired ethics professor who voted in a wealthy area of Bogota, said Mr. Petro’s left-wing politics and his past with the M-19 scared her. “We are thinking about leaving the country,” she said.
Mr. Petro’s critics, including former allies, accuse him of arrogance that causes him to ignore advisers and struggle to reach consensus. When he takes office in August, he will face a deeply polarized society, where opinion polls show growing distrust in almost every major institution.
He promised to be president of all Colombians, not just those who voted for him.
Sunday at the school polling station in Bogotá Ingrid Forrero, 31, said she noticed a generational divide in her community, with the youth supporting Mr. Petro and the older generation supporting Mr. Hernandez.
She is referred to by her own family as “little rebel” due to her support for Mr. Petro, whom she says she supports due to his education policies and income inequality.
“Young people are more inclined towards revolution,” she said, “to the left side, towards change.”
Megan Janetsky provided reporting from Bucaramanga, Colombia, while Sophia Villamil and Genevieve Glatsky provided reporting from Bogotá.