BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Voters cast ballots on Sunday in a presidential election between five candidates who offer starkly different proposals for modernizing a country that, until recently, was locked in a half-century-long guerrilla conflict.
aWhoever wins will lead a resource-rich nation that is a U.S. ally in the war on drugs and a bulwark of stability in Latin America despite bordering chaotic Venezuela and its own long struggle against drug and guerrilla violence. Results are expected late Sunday.
But Colombians are not in a celebratory mood, even though the guns of the FARC rebel group have gone silent since President Juan Manuel Santos brokered peace in 2016 and won a Nobel Peace Prize for the effort.
Instead, polls show that voters want their leaders to tackle issues they believe were not a priority as peace was being negotiated, including unemployment, corruption, crime and the crisis in neighboring Venezuela. Enough voters are disillusioned with establishment politicians that one candidate, a former guerrilla, Gustavo Petro, is running second in the polls, giving the left its first real shot at winning the presidency.
“In many past elections, war was the No. 1 issue,” said Daniel Castellanos of the Cifras y Conceptos polling firm in Bogotá. “Now, for most Colombians, the issue of the armed conflict is secondary.”
Dr. Rodolfo Vega, a cardiologist in Bogotá who voted, reeled off how he wants the new government to improve the economy, fight crime and make education more accessible for the working classes. The peace pact isn’t a priority for him.
“For me, the most important thing is health care. I’m a doctor,” he said. “Patients feel they’re not getting good care, there aren’t enough hospital beds. Medicines are too costly.”
Frustration over a sluggish economy has cost the president support. Mr. Santos’s peace accord—now centered on reintegrating former rebels into society—has also hurt him. Many Colombians believe it provides too many benefits for 7,000 rebel fighters who disarmed. A Datexco poll from April shows that 72% of voters disapprove how Mr. Santos is running the country. He is constitutionally barred from reelection.
That is despite real advances by the Santos administration, which built roads and airports, reduced poverty and is leading Colombia into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club for rich nations.
The leading candidate, Sen. Ivan Duque has criticized Mr. Santos over his handling of the peace process, drug-related violence in rural areas and over Venezuela, which has generated an exodus of 1 million people into this country.
Mr. Duque, 41, is a polished, American-educated lawyer who worked at the inter-American Development Bank in Washington and is backed by Colombia’s most influential politician, former President Alvaro Uribe. More than 41% of the electorate say they will support the conservative Mr. Duque, according to an Ivamer poll conducted from May 12 to May 16, with Mr. Petro coming in second with 29.5% support.
A third-place candidate, Sergio Fajardo, who helped reduce violence in Medellín as mayor, has 16.3% support, while Mr. Santos’s former vice president, German Vargas, is fourth, according to Ivamer. In fifth place is Humberto de la Calle, who was chief negotiator in the peace pact with the rebels.
None of the hopefuls is likely to get the more than 50% of the vote needed to win outright, meaning that the two candidates who get the most votes on Sunday would go to a runoff on June 17.
Alvaro Ochoa, 67, who works for an oil service company in the north of Colombia, likes the work Mr. Fajardo did in Medellín and believes that Mr. Petro has some valid proposals. But he voted for Mr. Duque, in part because he is backed by Mr. Uribe, who remains popular for having rolled back guerrilla gains during eight years in office that ended in 2010.
“I looked into Duque in Google because I’m one of those people who really researches,” said Mr. Ochoa. “He’s a guy who’s had important jobs and done them well. He’s structured. And he’s young.”
Mr. Duque has gained momentum not just by criticizing the peace pact but by warning that Mr. Petro would enact populist policies—such as expropriating private property—that could replicate some of Venezuela’s problems here. Mr. Petro says the criticism is unfair.
Supporters of Mr. Petro, 58, a former Bogotá mayor, say they are enthralled by his speeches, in which he rails against the political class and promises to heap attention on the poor. The former guerrilla was close to Venezuela’s late strongman, Hugo Chávez, but has distanced himself from the current president, Nicolás Maduro.
“He’s a person who fought for his ideas, and that’s a good thing,” Marlene Redondo, who runs a small store in a working class district here, said of Mr. Petro. “We always elected the same ones, the same politicians.”
At a housing development that Mr. Petro helped make a reality here, Nicolás Martínez, 80, said that another leader wouldn’t have made the effort to help people like him. He and others in the development were displaced from conflict zones.
“The big shots, the rich people, they don’t want us near them,” said Mr. Martínez. “Petro could be a president who would look out for the people who suffer most.”
—John Otis in Bogotá contributed to this article.
Write to Juan Forero at [email protected]
Source : WSJ