Colombians voted in the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, with a leftist candidate poised to win for the first time in the country’s turbulent history.
The vote takes place in a tense atmosphere, a year after a brutal security crackdown on street protests fueled by deepening socioeconomic woes.
Polls opened at 8:00 am (1300 GMT) for eight hours of voting.
Just under 39 million of Colombia’s 50 million people are eligible to cast their ballot, though the recent abstention rate has been high, at around 50 percent.
Opinion polls show that many Colombians are pinning their hopes on Gustavo Petro, an ex-guerrilla and former mayor of Bogota, to address poverty, rural violence, urban crime and endemic corruption.
Petro, 62, is hoping to avoid a June 19 run-off against 47-year-old Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of second city Medellin who represents an alliance of right-wing parties.
To do so, Petro would need to garner more than 50 percent of first-round votes cast.
About 300,000 armed police and soldiers were deployed to keep the peace at 12,000 polling stations countrywide, under the watchful eye of observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union.
Ivan Duque — who beat Petro in a runoff election in 2018 — is leaving with record disapproval numbers. Colombian presidents serve only one four-year term.
Around 40 percent of Colombians today live in poverty, and the country has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, according to the World Bank.
The economy was hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and one in six city dwellers is unemployed.
The Duque government’s image was not helped by its internationally denounced response to weeks of anti-poverty protests last year that saw dozens of civilians killed.
“Colombia needs change,” office cleaner Petrona Guzman, 43, told AFP on the eve of the vote, in which she will make her mark for Petro.
“The rich have priority over us, the middle class. It has always been like that. The majority of people are lost.”
Petro, in his third presidential race, has promised to address poverty and to make Colombia’s economy more environmentally friendly, including by phasing out crude oil exploration.
Gutierrez’s focus has been on a “strong state” response to crime in the world’s biggest cocaine producer.
A key voter concern is a flare-up of rural violence, despite a 2016 peace agreement that officially ended a near six-decade civil conflict.
Areas abandoned by the now-defunct FARC guerrilla group became battlegrounds for control of drug and illegal mining resources between other armed groups, with civilians in the crossfire.
Petro, a former member of the M-19 urban rebel group that laid down arms in 1990, has vowed to pursue peace talks with the last remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, which were suspended under Duque.
Crime is a problem in the cities too, where residents complain of a rise in robberies they blame in large part on an influx of nearly two million migrants from neighboring Venezuela.
On Friday, Petro told voters the country had a choice “either to keep things as they are in Colombia, or change,” leaving behind “corruption, violence and hunger.”
In the same TV debate, Gutierrez agreed change was needed “but this change must happen safely… without putting at risk families, homes… jobs.”
In a country marked by a deep-rooted fear of the political left — associated with guerrilla groups that sowed decades of misery — the pushback against Petro has been fierce, with rivals seeking to paint him as a radical, Hugo Chavez-style populist.
In with an outsider chance in third place, according to opinion polls, is 77-year-old anti-corruption candidate Rodolfo Hernandez.
Three other candidates, each with support in the single-digits, complete the picture.
The campaign has been marred by suspicions of fraud following counting irregularities reported in a primary voting round in March, and Petro on Friday expressed fresh concerns about the software used by Colombia’s vote count body.
Petro and Gutierrez have both received death threats, as has the leftist’s running mate Francia Marquez, who could become Colombia’s first ever black woman vice-president.
In Colombia, five presidential contenders were slain in the twentieth century by political opponents, drug traffickers, or paramilitary groups.