Gustavo Petro elected Colombia president: Who is ex-guerrilla leader who rose to top of political ranks?

Gustavo Petro elected Colombia president: Who is ex-guerrilla leader who rose to top of political ranks?

Gustavo Petro elected Colombia president: Who is ex-guerrilla leader who rose to top of political ranks?

Colombia will be governed by a leftist president for the first time after former rebel Gustavo Petro narrowly defeated a real estate millionaire in a runoff election that underscored people’s disgust with the country’s traditional politicians.

The election came as Colombians struggle with rising inequality, inflation and violence — factors that led voters in the election’s first round last month to punish long-governing centrist and right-leaning politicians and pick two outsiders for the runoff contest.

Let’s take a closer look at Petro, a former guerrilla who spent two years in jail before turning to politics.

Early life

Born into a modest family on Colombia's Caribbean coast, Petro embraced leftist politics as a teenager after the 1973 coup d'etat in Chile that unseated Marxist president Salvador Allende.

He joined the M-19 urban guerrilla group as a 17-year-old, but insisted afterwards that his role in Colombia's decades of civil war was as an organizer, never a fighter.

Petro was captured by the military in 1985 and claimed to have been tortured before spending almost two years in jail on arms charges.

He was freed and the M-19 signed a peace deal with the government in 1990. He has since served as a lower house legislator, senator and mayor.

Political career

A self-styled "revolutionary" warrior for the marginalised -- black and Indigenous people, the poor and the young -- Petro has vowed to address hunger and inequality.

The father of six is seen as a good orator, though not necessarily charismatic.

He is a map buff, and a keen social media user.

Petro, 62, was mayor of Bogota from 2012 to 2015 -- a stint that was not without controversy and gave birth to unflattering accounts of his management style and alleged despotic tendencies.

He has "a very impetuous and authoritarian temperament, and when he insisted on carrying out his proposals ... he did not know how to persuade the different sectors to put them into practice," said Daniel Garcia-Pena, Petro's adviser at the time.

Petro also garnered much criticism as mayor for a chaotic plan to nationalize rubbish collection.

Rodolfo Hernandez, presidential candidate with the League of Anti-Corruption Leaders, leaves a polling station after voting in the presidential election in Bucaramanga, Colombia. AP Photo/Mauricio Pinzon

Petro’s third attempt to win the presidency earned him 50.48 per cent of the votes Sunday, while political outsider Rodolfo Hernández got 47.26 per cent, according to results released by election authorities.

"He believes it's his destiny ... that he's the only person who can save Colombia," said a source close to the president-elect.

But 10.5 million people voted against him in the second round, in a country with a total population of some 50 million, underscoring a potentially bumpy road ahead.

"It should be well understood that a significant portion of the country did not want Petro to become president," Sergio Guzman, president of the Colombia Risk Analysis consultancy told AFP.

Radical populist

Petro's critics have sought to portray him as a radical populist who will bring about a Venezuela-style economic collapse.

File image of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. AP

He has, however, railed against the "banana republic" rule of Colombia's neighbour and vowed there would be no expropriation on his watch.

"I can't imagine Petro would pursue that for two reasons: his whole adult life has been looking for the big prize as Colombia president and he's smart enough to know Venezuela is a complete disaster," Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, told AFP.

In a country with a tradition of political killings, Petro is no stranger to death threats and travels in a convoy of a dozen armoured vehicles accompanied by police on motorcycles, an ambulance and snipers.

He has said he would reopen negotiations with Colombia's last guerrilla group, the ELN, and seek to peacefully dismantle the drug trade.

"This is a very ambitious plan, it's very important, however, because it's the only real exit route to the conflict," Elizabeth Dickinson, Colombia analyst at International Crisis Group in Bogota, told AFP.

Petro has made it his mission to address climate change, somewhat controversially by phasing out crude oil exploration -- a major income-earner for Colombia.

He was also accused of playing a "dangerous" game by regularly evoking potential fraud in the lead up to Sunday's vote, and on the day itself.

Win puts end to Colombia’s stigmatisation of Left

Petro’s win in Latin America’s third most populous nation was more than a defeat of Hernández. It puts an end to Colombia’s long stigmatization of the left for its perceived association with the country’s half century of armed conflict. The president-elect was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.

Petro issued a call for unity during his victory speech Sunday night and extended an olive branch to some of his harshest critics, saying all members of the opposition will be welcomed at the presidential palace “to discuss the problems of Colombia.”

“From this government that is beginning there will never be political persecution or legal persecution, there will only be respect and dialogue,” he said, adding that he will listen to those who have raised arms as well as to “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth.”

The vote is also resulting in Colombia having a Black woman as vice president for the first time. Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, 40, is a lawyer and environmental leader whose Opposition to illegal mining resulted in threats and a grenade attack in 2019.

Hernández, whose campaign was based on an anti-corruption fight, conceded his defeat shortly after results were announced.

“I accept the result, as it should be, if we want our institutions to be firm,” he said in a video on social media. “I sincerely hope that this decision is beneficial for everyone.”

Petro’s showing was the latest leftist political victory in Latin America fuelled by voters’ desire for change. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election.

Brazil's former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Getty Images

But the results were an immediate reason to fret for some voters whose closest reference to a leftist government is the troubled neighbouring Venezuela.

“We hope that Gustavo Petro complies with what was said in his government plan, that he leads this country to greatness, which we need so much, and that (he) ends corruption,” said Karin Ardila García, a Hernández supporter in the north-central city of Bucaramanga. “That he does not lead to communism, to socialism, to a war where they continue to kill us in Colombia. ... (H)e does not lead us to another Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Chile.”

About 21.6 million of the 39 million eligible voters cast a ballot Sunday. Abstentionism has been above 40 per cent  in every presidential election since 1990.

Petro, 62, will be officially declared winner after a formal count that will take a few days.

Historically, the preliminary results have coincided with the final ones.

Several heads of state congratulated Petro on Sunday. So did a fierce critic, former President Álvaro Uribe, who remains a central figure in Colombia’s politics.

Polls ahead of the runoff had indicated Petro and Hernández — both former mayors — were in a tight race since they topped four other candidates in the initial May 29 election. Neither got enough votes to win outright and headed into the runoff.

Petro won 40 per cent  of the votes in the initial round and Hernández 28 per cent, but the difference quickly narrowed as Hernández began to attract so-called anti-Petrista voters.

Petro has proposed ambitious pension, tax, health and agricultural reforms and changes to how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. But he will have a tough time delivering on his promises as he does not have a majority in Congress, which is key to carrying out reforms.

“The people who do support him have very high hopes, and they are probably going to be disappointed pretty quickly when he can’t move things right away,” said Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

“I think you might find a situation where he either has to strike some deals and give up a lot of his programs just to get some things passed or the whole country could be gridlocked,” Isacson added.

Petro is willing to resume diplomatic relations with Venezuela, which were halted in 2019. He also wants to make changes to Colombia’s relations with the US by seeking a renegotiation of a free trade agreement and new ways to fight drug trafficking.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration looks forward to working with Petro.

 

File image of the US secretary of state Antony Blinken. AFP

‘Fed up’

Polls say most Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and disapprove of President Iván Duque, who was not eligible to seek re-election. The pandemic set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade. Official figures show that 39 per cent of Colombia’s lived on less than $89 a month last year.

The rejection of politics as usual “is a reflection of the fact that the people are fed up with the same people as always,” said Nataly Amezquita, a 26-year-old civil engineer waiting to vote. “We have to create greater social change. Many people in the country aren’t in the best condition.”

But even the two outsider candidates left her cold. She said she would cast a blank ballot: “I don’t like either of the two candidates. ... Neither of them seems like a good person to me.”

With inputs from agencies

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