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Hawkish Duque poised to become Colombia’s next president

Ivan Duque, candidate of the Democratic Center party, greets supporters after voting during a presidential runoff election in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, June 17, 2018. Voters will choose between Duque and Gustavo Petro, a former leftist rebel and ex-Bogota mayor. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Ivan Duque, the young conservative protege of a powerful former Colombian president, was poised Sunday to become the country’s next president after promising to roll back a still fragile peace accord.

The 41-year-old Duque captured 54 percent of the votes, putting him more than 12 points ahead of leftist former guerrilla Gustavo Petro in a tense election runoff that divided many Colombians during a critical juncture in the nation’s history. More than 97 percent of polling stations were reporting results.

The prematurely graying Duque galvanized voters by promising to change parts of the accord with leftist rebels but not “shred it to pieces.” He would be the youngest president in Colombia in more than a century.

“I’ve come here to fulfill a dream,” Duque said outside his voting center Sunday. “For Colombia to be governed by a new generation, one that wants to govern for all and with. One that unites the country and turns the page on corruption.”

The new president will inherit a country still scarred by more than five decades of bloody conflict and grappling with soaring coca production. Former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are struggling to reinsert themselves in civilian life in a nation where many people remain hesitant to forgive. Vast swaths of remote territory remain under the control of violent drug mafias and residual rebel bands.

“Undoubtedly, for the peace process, this is an important test,” said Patricia Munoz, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogota.

It was the first presidential election since the signing of the peace agreement ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict and was as much about the accord as it was deeply entrenched issues such as corruption and inequality.

Petro galvanized young voters and drew millions to public plazas with his fiery speeches vowing to improve the lives of poor, disenfranchised Colombians.

And though he failed to catch Duque, his candidacy marked the biggest ballot box success for a leftist presidential contender in Colombia’s history. Conservative candidates dominated Colombia’s elections during years of conflict in which leftist politicos were stigmatized amid fears of potential ties to guerrilla causes.

“I don’t think there is a single Colombian who thinks things are going well today,” Petro said after casting his ballot with his young daughter in hand.

Colombia’s peace process to end years of conflict between leftist rebels, the state and right-wing paramilitary groups that left more than 250,000 people dead is considered largely irreversible. More than 7,000 rebels have surrendered their weapons and started new lives as farmers, community leaders and journalists. Last year the rebels launched a new political party and will soon occupy 10 seats in congress.

But peace remains contentious and Duque pledged throughout his campaign to make changes that would deliver “peace with justice.” Through constitutional reform or by decree, he could proceed with proposals such as not allowing ex-combatants guilty of crimes against humanity to take political office until they have served time.

The current agreement allows most rebels to avoid jail, a sore point for many Colombians. Duque’s detractors warn that his victory could throw an already delicate peace process into disarray.

Duque is the son of a former governor and energy minister who friends say has harbored presidential aspirations since he was a child. The father of three almost two decades ago entered the public sector as an adviser to then Finance Minister President Juan Manuel Santos, who is the current president. Duque later moved to Washington, where he spent more than a decade at the Inter-American Development Bank, first as an adviser for three Andean countries and later as chief of the institution’s cultural division.

It was during that time that Duque formed a close relationship with former President Alvaro Uribe, an influential conservative man who is both adored and detested by legions of Colombians.

Duque’s low-profile life as a Washington suburbanite came to end in 2014, when with Uribe’s backing he was elected to Colombia’s Senate. Seated beside his mentor in the opulent Senate chamber, Duque earned a reputation as a like-minded security hawk who did his homework and earned the respect of colleagues across the political spectrum.

He quickly climbed the ranks of Uribe’s Democratic Center party, clenching the group’s presidential nomination just four years later.

Through his campaign, Duque was dogged with accusations that he would be little more than a puppet for Uribe, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Though praised for boosting Colombia’s economy and weakening the FARC, Uribe presided over the government at a time when military officers killed thousands of civilians who were then dressed up as rebels to inflate body counts in exchange for vacations and bonus pay.

Critics fear Uribe will use his leverage over his star pupil to retaliate against political enemies and sideline investigations against him and his family for suspected ties to right-wing paramilitaries.

Duque’s supporters say that he will chart his own course and that Uribe won’t be a frequent guest at the presidential residence.

However he proceeds, Duque’s tough stance on the nation’s peace accord could be tested once he is draped in the presidential sash. Though he could implement changes by decree or constitutional reform, he would likely encounter pushback against any major changes that would imperil an agreement that took four years to negotiate and has widespread international support.

“The outlook today indicates the peace process is not reversible,” said Munoz, the political science professor. “We have a society that does not want the FARC to return to armed conflict.”

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Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.

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