Bogota (AFP) – Colombians vote for a new president on Sunday in a milestone election, the first since a peace agreement with FARC rebels, which the conservative frontrunner wants to overhaul.
Forty-one year old Ivan Duque comfortably won the first round with nearly 40 percent of the vote, having campaigned on a pledge to rewrite the 2016 peace agreement signed by outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos.
Gustavo Petro, Duque’s 58-year-old opponent in what has come to resemble a referendum on the peace deal, wants to fully implement it.
“Whoever becomes president, the biggest challenge will be to adopt a clear position on the peace agreement because, for the moment, we are in limbo,” Fabian Acuna, professor of political science at Colombia’s Javeriana University, told AFP.
The world’s leading producer of cocaine, the country continues to battle armed groups vying for control of lucrative narco-trafficking routes in areas FARC once dominated.
Petro, a former guerrilla, is the first leftist to reach a presidential runoff in Colombia, and believes his presence shows the South American country has shed its suspicions of the left, tainted by 50 years of conflict.
“We have a country without FARC, which is building peace,” Santos, who will step down in August, said ahead of the poll. Making peace with FARC brought him the Nobel Peace Prize, though he is leaving office with record unpopularity in a country of 49 million people.
Duque is ready to step into the breach, riding on the coat-tails of his popular mentor, former president and now senator Alvaro Uribe, whose two-term presidency from 2002-2010 was marked by all-out war on the FARC.
– Poll leader –
The latest polls show Duque, a candidate for Uribe’s Democratic Center party, would beat Petro by between six and 15 points on Sunday.
A first-term senator, he has drawn together a broad coalition of support on the right, including conservatives, Christian parties, evangelical groups and the ultra right. More significantly, he has the backing of Uribe’s Democratic Center machine, which swept legislative elections in March.
Vehemently opposed to the peace deal, Duque says he would revise it in order to sentence guerrilla leaders guilty of serious crimes to “proportional penalties.” And he wants to cut off their access to Congress, enshrined in the agreement.
He has pledged to revive Colombia’s sluggish economy with business-friendly policies and has championed family values.
In the campaign’s home stretch, both candidates have concentrated on forming the alliances seen as critical to victory.
Supporters of centrist ex-Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo, who narrowly missed out to Petro in the first round with nearly 24 percent of the vote, will weigh heavily on the outcome.
Petro, a former member of the disbanded M-19 guerrilla group, says he will implement the agreement with FARC, which has transformed itself into a political party amid a struggle to integrate its 7,000 ex-combatants into civilian life.
On the economy, he wants to buy out land owned by the big agro-industrial companies and redistribute it to poor farmers to help address Colombia’s glaring inequalities.
Analysts believe Fajardo’s supporters are less likely to support Petro and his best bet may be to lure votes from the 47 percent of the electorate that did not turn out in the first round.
If elected, Duque will become Colombia’s youngest president since 1872. According to Andres Ortega of National University, he will “arrive with a very strong coalition in Congress,” where the right swept the polls in March legislative elections.
FARC withdrew from the presidential elections having suffered a pasting in its first elections as a political party in March, polling less than half a percent.
It still gets 10 seats in Congress as a result of the peace agreement, something Duque is intent on scrapping.