Elections in Colombia: Gustavo Petro makes history with his presidential victory

Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Colombia will have a leftist president for the first time.

Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and veteran senator who has vowed to transform the country’s economic system, won Sunday’s election, according to preliminary results, setting Latin America’s third-most populous country on a radically new path.

Petro received more than 50 percent of the votes, with more than 99 percent of the polling stations informed. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernandez, a construction tycoon turned social media star who had hyped up the country with a platform that proposed stamping out corruption, got about 47 percent.

Shortly after the vote, Hernández conceded victory to Petro.

“Colombians, today the majority of citizens who voted, have done so by choosing the other candidate,” he told his supporters in Bucaramanga. “As I have repeatedly stated, I accept the result.”

Just over 58 percent of Colombia’s 39 million voters turned out to vote, according to official figures.

Petro’s victory reflects widespread discontent in Colombia, a country of 50 million people, in the face of rising poverty and inequality and widespread dissatisfaction over the lack of opportunities, issues that led hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate on the streets last year.

“The entire country is asking for a change,” said Fernando Posada, a Colombian political scientist, “and that is very clear.”

The victory is all the more significant because of the country’s history. For decades, the government fought the brutal leftist insurgency known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the stigma of the conflict made it difficult for a legitimate left to flourish.

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But the FARC signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016, laying down arms and opening space for a broader political discourse.

Petro had been part of another rebel group, the M-19, which demobilized in 1990 and became a political party that helped rewrite the country’s constitution.

In the first round of the elections, on May 29, both Petro and Hernández prevailed against Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of a large city who was backed by the conservative elite, which led to a second round.

Both had presented themselves as candidates from outside the ruling elite, saying they were up against a political class that has controlled the country for generations.

One of the factors that most distinguishes them is their vision of the root of the country’s problems.

Petro sees the economic system as broken, relying excessively on oil exports and the flourishing illegal cocaine business that he says has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He has called for all new oil exploration to be stopped, for other industries to be developed and for social programs to be expanded, while higher taxes are imposed on the rich.

“Today what we have is a result of what I call the exhaustion of the model,” Petro said of the current economic system in an interview, “the end result is brutal impoverishment.”

However, his ambitious economic plan has raised concerns. A former Minister of Finance qualified his energy plan of “economic suicide”.

Petro will take office in August, and will face pressing problems with global repercussions: the lack of opportunities and the increase in violence, which have led a record number of Colombians to emigrate to the United States in recent months; the high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, a critical barrier against climate change; and the growing threats to democracy, which are part of a trend throughout the region.

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He will face a deeply polarized society in which, according to polls, polls, a growing mistrust of almost every major institution prevails.

Petro’s arrival to the presidency could also change Colombia’s relationship with the United States.

For decades, Colombia has been Washington’s strongest ally in Latin America, a cornerstone of its security policy in the region. Throughout his campaign, Petro has promised to reassess that relationship, including crucial collaborations on drugs, Venezuela and trade.

In the interview, Petro said his relationship with the United States would focus on working together to tackle climate change, specifically stopping rapid erosion in the Amazon.

“There is a point of dialogue there,” he said. “Because saving the Amazon rainforest implies some instruments, some programs, that do not exist today, at least not with respect to the United States.”

Megan Janetsky collaborated with the reporting from Bucaramanga, Colombia, and Sofia Villamil y Genevieve Glatsky collaborated with the reporting from Bogotá.