Gustavo Petro wins the election and becomes the first leftist leader of Colombia.
The third-largest country in Latin America takes a sharply different path after the former rebel and long-time senator won.
Colombia will have a president from the left for the first time.
Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime lawmaker, won Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday. His promises to expand social programs, tax the rich, and move away from an economy he says is too dependent on fossil fuels rallied voters who had been unhappy with conservative leaders for decades of poverty and inequality.
His victory puts the third-largest country in Latin America on a very uncertain path. Poverty and violence are getting worse, which is sending a record number of Colombians to the U.S. border. There is also a lot of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, which is a key buffer against climate change, and more and more people in the region don’t trust key democratic institutions.
Mr. Petro, who is 62, got more than half of the votes, and by Sunday evening, more than 99 percent of the votes had been counted. Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate who ran against him and promised to get rid of corruption by any means necessary, won just over 47 percent of the vote.
Not long after the vote, Mr. Hernández gave up and gave Mr. Petro his vote.
“Today, most Colombians have chosen the other candidate,” he told them. “I accept the results of this election, as I said during the campaign,”
On Sunday night, Mr. Petro took the stage with his choice for vice president, Francia Márquez, and three of his own children. People stood on chairs and held their phones in the air in the crammed stadium.
“This is a new story for Colombia, for Latin America, and for the whole world,” he said. “We won’t lie to the people who voted for us.”
He promised to lead with what he has called “the politics of love,” which is based on hope, dialogue, and understanding.
Official numbers show that just over 58% of the 39 million people who could vote in Colombia did so.
With this win, Ms. Márquez, who came from poverty to become a well-known activist for social justice and the environment, will become the country’s first Black vice president.
The fact that Mr. Petro and Ms. Márquez won shows that there is a lot of anger against the establishment in Latin America. This anger has been made worse by the pandemic and other long-term problems, like a lack of opportunities.
Fernando Posada, a political scientist from Colombia, said, “It is very clear that the whole country wants change.”
Rodrigo Chaves, a former employee of the World Bank and a political outsider, was elected president of Costa Rica in April. He took advantage of people’s dissatisfaction with the party in power to win the election. Last year, voters in Chile, Peru, and Honduras chose leftist candidates over right-leaning ones. This was part of a big change that has been going on for years in Latin America.
As a candidate, Mr. Petro had energized the most educated generation in Colombian history. However, this generation also has to deal with 10% annual inflation, 20% youth unemployment, and a 40% poverty rate. Many young people at his rallies said they felt betrayed by decades of leaders who made big promises but didn’t follow through.
Larry Rico, 23, a Petro voter at a polling station in Ciudad Bolvar, a poor neighborhood in Bogotá, the capital, said, “We’re not happy with the mediocrity of past generations.”
The history of the country makes Mr. Petro’s win even more important. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were a brutal leftist insurgency that the government fought for decades. The stigma of the war made it hard for a legitimate left to grow.
But in 2016, the FARC signed a peace deal with the government. They put down their weapons and made it possible for more people to talk about politics.
Mr. Petro was part of a different rebel group called the M-19, which stopped fighting in 1990 and turned into a political party that helped rewrite the country’s constitution. Mr. Petro eventually became a strong leader in the country’s opposition, known for speaking out against violations of human rights and corruption.
Francisco Ortiz, 67, a TV director who lives in a wealthy part of Bogotá, said on Sunday that he had also voted for Mr. Petro.
“We haven’t had a chance to change like this in a long time,” he said. “I don’t know if things will get better. But if we do the same thing, we already know what will happen.”
The US’s relationship with its best ally in Latin America could also be put to the test by the win. Washington’s policy in the region has been built around Colombia for a long time.
But Mr. Petro has criticized what he calls the U.S.’s failed approach to the drug war. He says that the U.S. has put too much emphasis on getting rid of coca crops, which are the main ingredient in cocaine, and not enough on rural development and other things.
Mr. Petro has said that he supports some kind of legalization of drugs, that he will renegotiate a trade deal with the U.S. to make it better for Colombians, and that he will improve relations with Venezuela’s authoritarian government. All of these things could put him in conflict with the U.S.
In the past few years, about two million Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.
In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Petro said that he thought he could work well with President Biden’s government. He also said that his relationship with the U.S. would focus on working together to deal with climate change, especially to stop the Amazon from eroding quickly.
“There’s a place to talk about that,” he said. “Because saving the Amazon rainforest would require some tools and programs that don’t exist right now, at least in the US. It’s the most important thing, in my opinion.”
Federico Gutiérrez was a former mayor of a big city who was backed by the conservative elite. Both Mr. Petro and Mr. Hernández beat him in the first round of voting on May 29, which sent them to a runoff.
Both men said they were running against a political class that had run the country for generations.
One of the things that made them different was how they saw the cause of the country’s problems.
Mr. Petro thinks the economy is broken because it depends too much on oil exports and a thriving, illegal cocaine business, which has made the rich richer and the poor poorer, according to him. He wants to stop all new oil exploration and put the focus on building up other industries.
He has also said that he will guarantee work with a basic income, change the country’s health care system to one that is run by the government, and make higher education more available, in part by raising taxes on the rich.
Mr. Petro said in an interview earlier this year that the current economic system is the result of what he called “the depletion of the model.” “In the end, it leads to a harsh poverty.”
His ambitious plan for the economy, on the other hand, has caused some worry. His energy plan was called “economic suicide” by a former minister of finance.
Mr. Hernández didn’t want to change the way the economy works, but he did say that it wasn’t working well because it was full of corruption and wasteful spending. He had asked for ministries to be merged, some embassies to be closed, and ineffective government workers to be fired. The money saved would then be used to help the poor.
One Hernández supporter, Nilia Mesa de Reyes, 70, a retired ethics professor who voted in a wealthy part of Bogotá, said that Mr. Petro’s leftist policies and his past with the M-19 scared her. She said, “We are thinking about leaving the country.”
Critics of Mr. Petro, including some of his former allies, have said that he is too proud, which makes him ignore his advisers and make it hard for him to reach a consensus. When he takes office in August, he will have to deal with a society that is very divided and where most major institutions are losing people’s trust, according to polls.
He has promised to be the president of all Colombians, not just those who voted for him.
At a high school in Bogotá that was turned into a polling place on Sunday, 31-year-old Ingrid Forrero said she saw a divide between young and old people in her community, with young people voting for Mr. Petro and older people voting for Mr. Hernández.
Her own family calls her the “little rebel” because she supports Mr. Petro. She says she likes him because of his policies on education and income inequality.
“Young people are more likely to want revolution, the left, and a change,” she said.