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Uncertainty reigns as Colombia votes between ex-guerrilla and maverick

BOGOTA (AFP) – Colombia’s election stations opened for voting yesterday in a presidential race filled with uncertainty, as ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro and millionaire businessman Rodolfo Hernandez vie for power in a country saddled with widespread poverty, violence and other woes.

Abstention is expected to be high as voters face a stark choice between electing their first ever left-wing president or plumping for a maverick outsider dubbed the Colombian Donald Trump.

In Bogota, outgoing President Ivan Duque opened voting for Colombia’s 39 million voters.

Polls will close at 4pm, with early results expected a couple of hours after that.

Hernandez was amongst the early voters in the northern city of Bucaramanga, where he was mayor from 2016 to 2019.

It has been a tense campaign, with death threats against several candidates ahead of the first round last month, when Colombia’s traditional conservative and liberal powers were dealt a chastening defeat.

People vote during the presidential runoff election at a polling station in Bucaramanga, Colombia. PHOTO: AFP

“These are the tightest elections in the country’s recent history,” said the yesterday edition of the El Tiempo daily.

There are fears a tight result could spark post-election violence and 320,000 police and military have been deployed to ensure security. The successor to unpopular conservative Duque will have to deal with a country in crisis, reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, recession, a spike in drug-trafficking related violence and deep-rooted anger at the political establishment. Almost 40 per cent of the country lives in poverty while 11 per cent are unemployed.

That anger spilled over into mass anti-government protests in April 2021 that were controversially met by a heavy-handed response from the security forces.

Opinion polls in the lead up to the election have been inconclusive, although abstention is expected to be 45 per cent with up to another five percent undecided.

“I feel very bewildered,” Camila Araque, a 29-year-old lawyer in Bogota, told AFP. “I don’t like either of the two options as president.”

Michael Shifter, from the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said voters “are trying to figure out who is the lesser of two evils”.

Petro comfortably topped the first round of voting with 40 per cent, 12 points ahead of Hernandez.

But Petro’s past as a radical leftist urban guerrilla in the 1980s – during which time he spent two years in prison on arms charges – has left many Colombians fearful.

He has been in politics since his M-19 group made peace with the state in 1990 and formed a political party. “The worry comes from the experience of leftist governments in the region,” said Munoz, “not just among citizens but also the business and economic sectors.”