Colombia on Sunday held its first presidential election since a landmark peace accord ended a 50-year-old guerrilla war. The battle to lead the country now goes to a runoff next between two ideological opposites and the race is expected to be contentious.
Right-wing candidate Ivan Duque, a former senator, took first place, and will run against leftist Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogota and a one-time rebel. Of the 19 million votes cast, Duque won 39 percent — missing the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff. Petro received 25 percent.
Third-place finisher Sergio Fajardo, got nearly 24 percent of the vote, and his portion is likely to be decisive in the runoff. He has not indicated which candidate he will support.
Duque has had the support of former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term. Uribe is immensely popular for ordering devastating military attacks on Colombia's guerrilla groups during his two terms in office.
NPR's John Otis in Bogota reports that, "With Uribe's support, Duque shot to the top of the polls. Critics fear that Duque could become a kind of puppet president with Uribe pulling the strings. But Duque insists he's his own man."
Second-place finisher Petro and his populist "Humane Colombia" platform have drawn comparisons from critics to the late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who Petro once admired.
The Associated Press reports: Petro describes himself as a "strong adversary" of the neighboring country's current president, Nicolas Maduro, but his early ties to Chavez have dogged him throughout the campaign.
Whoever wins the runoff and becomes president will have a big say in the future of the peace agreement. The accord ended a war that killed 220,000 people and has vastly reduced violence. Petro supports the peace treaty but Duque has promised to rewrite it.
John Otis reports, "Duque claims that it's too lenient on former rebel fighters. For example, those accused of war crimes can avoid prison. And Duque's supporters can't stomach the fact that the treaty has given 10 former guerrillas seats in Colombia's congress."
Ramiro Bejarano, a columnist for El Espectador newspaper, tells The Associated Press that "Duque's 14-point advantage will be hard to surmount for Petro, whose main challenge is to convince voters he won't convert Colombia into another Venezuela."
While most polls have Duque the favorite to win the June 17 runoff, Petro shouldn't be counted out.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The American Civil War ended in 1865. That was a long time ago. Yet there is a case to be made that many of our elections since then have replayed some of the old Civil War divides. We mention this because Colombia just recently ended a 50-year-old guerrilla war, and its first presidential election since the peace accord replays some of their old divides. Two candidates made a runoff, one of them a former leftist guerilla, the other a right-wing candidate who does not like the peace deal at all. John Otis is in Bogota covering the election for NPR News.
Hey there, John.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Hey. It's good to be here, Steve.
INSKEEP: So the right-wing candidate, who I guess got the most votes - right? - Ivan Duque - largely unknown until recently, right?
OTIS: Yeah, that's correct, Steve. But Duque is a 41-year-old lawyer, very intelligent, very articulate. He spent a lot of his time at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington working on economic issues. But the rap on Duque is that he's young, he's got no managerial experience and served just four years in the Colombian Senate before launching his presidential campaign. What he does bring to the table is the support of former Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, and this is a major factor here because Uribe is a hero to many Colombians because during his two terms in office, he ordered devastating military attacks against Colombia's guerrilla groups. So with Uribe's support, Duque just shot to the top of the polls. Critics fear he could end up as a kind of a puppet president with Uribe pulling the strings. But Duque is, of course, insisting he's his own man.
INSKEEP: So you've got the one candidate who wants to be really tough on the rebels and is associated with this president who was really tough on the rebels, and then you have this former leftist guerrilla. Who's he?
OTIS: This is Gustavo Petro. He was, in fact, part of the M-19 guerrilla group, which disbanded almost 30 years ago. And in the past, Colombians would reject leftist politicians like Petro because, you know, they figured they were still closet guerrillas. But now that the major Colombian rebel group, the FARC, has disarmed under the peace treaty, it's opened up a lot more political space for leftists like Petro. Petro has promised to govern on behalf of the poor. But his critics are now trying to paint him as a dangerous radical who plans to, you know, adopt some of the same policies that have led to food shortages and hyperinflation in socialist Venezuela right next door. So things really are getting quite polarized here between the right and the left ahead of the second-round election.
INSKEEP: Well, are things so polarized that this peace deal, which is not very old, could come apart?
OTIS: That is a possibility, Steve. Petro strongly supports this peace treaty, but Duque's big showing on Sunday reflects a growing frustration among Colombians for the peace accord. It ended a war that killed 220,000 people and vastly reduced violence, but Duque claims it's too lenient on former fighters. For example, those accused of war crimes are going to be able to avoid prison under the pact, so Duque has promised to rewrite this treaty. Others think he might end up focusing on economic issues. But either way, he easily won the most votes Sunday, and polls place him as the favorite going into the runoff on June 17.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's reporter John Otis in Bogota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.