By Jaime Ortega Carrascal
Bogota, May 23 (EFE).- Six candidates will square off in Sunday’s presidential election in Colombia, a contest in which a popular appetite for change has given former guerrilla Gustavo Petro the lead in the polls and a golden opportunity to become the Andean nation’s first leftist head of state.
In a country beset by a decades-old armed conflict and drug trade and where corruption, poverty and inequality triggered a wave of social protests last year, Petro has found fertile ground for his message of societal transformation.
“The reason why Gustavo Petro has been leading the polls is that he personifies the clearest expectations for change because he’s a person people don’t perceive as a member of the political establishment,” Sandra Borda, a political analyst and professor at this capital’s University of Los Andes, told Efe.
Since kicking off his campaign, that current senator, former M-19 guerrilla, ex-Bogota mayor, three-time presidential candidate and standard-bearer of the leftist Historic Pact alliance has enjoyed the lead in voter preference.
But while it had appeared until just a few days ago that he would be facing off against Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, ex-mayor of the country’s second city, Medellin, and candidate of the rightist Team for Colombia alliance, the picture has suddenly become more muddied.
The presidential race has undergone an 11th-hour shift with the rapid rise in the polls of civil engineer and businessman Rodolfo Hernandez, a populist independent whose vehement anti-corruption message has put him within striking distance of second place and the possibility of taking on Petro in a potential June 19 runoff.
Hernandez’s candidacy got a key boost on Friday when Ingrid Betancourt, a former hostage of leftist guerrillas and a centrist candidate who was the only woman in the race, decided to abandon her presidential bid and throw her weight behind a man she says is solely capable of rooting out entrenched corruption.
The big question now is how high Hernandez’s ceiling is and whether he can first derail Gutierrez’s presidential hopes and then Petro’s.
THE FEAR OF PETRO
Referring to his leftist rival, Gutierrez has cautioned Colombians that change cannot be a “leap into the abyss.”
He has tried to spark fears about a Colombia under the leadership of Petro, who has sought to distance himself from his past sympathetic remarks about late Venezuelan leftist leader Hugo Chavez and the need for expropriating private enterprises.
“There’s a part of that fear that I think is unfounded, which is this idea the right has tried to disseminate that Petro will turn Colombia into Venezuela, which is a big exaggeration,” the analyst said.
She added, however, that some old remarks by Petro indicate he is not “completely committed to the country’s institutions” or the rule of law.
“I don’t think you can classify him necessarily as an authoritarian figure, (someone) who’s going to do away with the country’s institutions, but I’d say his commitment to those institutions is ambiguous and is intentionally ambiguous because he knows that those institutions are in part what people are fed up with,” Borda said.
Petro, however, has not been wishy-washy about his vow to stop awarding oil exploration contracts, put Colombia on a path to “a productive, non-extractivist economy” and transition the nation to clean energy.
That platform has spooked markets considering that oil production makes up 5 percent of the Andean nation’s gross domestic product and crude accounts for 55 percent of its exports.
By contrast, Gutierrez’s rhetoric centered on “the defense of democracy and freedoms,” including ensuring a free market for companies, has made him the darling of the business sector.
Hernandez, the former mayor of the north-central city of Bucaramanga, is banking on his flagship anti-corruption issue taking him all the way to the Casa de Nariño presidential palace.
CENTER IN DISARRAY