© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A banner holds a picture of Colombia’s center-right presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernandez the day before the second round of presidential elections in Liberia, Colombia on June 18, 2022. Photo: Santiago Arcos/Reuters


By Nelson Bocanegra

BOGOTA/BUCARAMANGA (Reuters) – Colombians head to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president, choosing between a left-wing ex-guerrilla fighter pushing for deep social change and an eccentric construction magnate who has vowed to end corruption to fight it.

Candidates Gustavo Petro, who was once a member of the M-19 rebels, and Rodolfo Hernandez, who first garnered support through his TikTok videos, are technically tied in the polls.

Petro, the former mayor of the capital Bogota and current senator, has vowed to fight inequality with free university education, pension reforms and exorbitant taxes on unproductive land.

His proposals – notably banning new oil projects – alarmed some investors, despite his promise to honor ongoing contracts.

“We’re just one step away from the real change we’ve been waiting for our whole lives,” Petro wrote on Twitter (NYSE:). “There is no doubt, only certainty. We will make history.”

Petro, who is running for president for the third time, will be the first left-wing president of Colombia and will add the Andean nation to the list of Latin American countries that have voted for progressives in recent years.

Petro, 62, said he was tortured by the military when he was arrested for his involvement in guerrilla warfare, and that his potential victory made senior officials in the armed forces prepare for change.

Hernandez, who was mayor of Bucaramanga, was a surprise candidate in the run-off and promised to reduce the size of government and fund social programs by stopping corruption.

He also pledged to provide free drugs to addicts to combat drug smuggling.

Despite his anti-graft rhetoric, Hernandez himself faces a corruption investigation over allegations that he interfered with a garbage disposal tender to help a company his son had championed. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Hernandez – like Petro – has pledged to fully implement the 2016 peace deal with FARC rebels and to seek talks with still-active ELN fighters, though he accuses that group of kidnapping and killing his daughter Juliana in 2004.

The National Liberation Army denied any involvement and her body has not been found.

“The choice is easy,” said the 77-year-old, who has eschewed traditional election campaigns in favor of quirky posts and videos on social media: “Elect me someone who will be controlled by the same people as always, or elect me who will not be controlled by anyone.”

Hernandez pledged to respect the results, while Petro expressed doubts about the integrity of election officials.

The two men canceled campaign events because they said they were life-threatening.

Regardless of the winner, Colombia will open its first black female vice president in August — Petro Vice President Francia Marquez and Hernandez colleague Marlene Castillo, both of Afro-Colombian descent.

Colombian police said this week they are on high alert after exposing plans by extremist groups to commit vote-related violence.

About 39 million Colombians are entitled to vote.

Almost 55% of them participated in the first round, which, like the second, takes place on weekends.

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