“I’ve come here to fulfill a dream,” Duque said outside his polling center. “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.”
As people lined up at 11,000 polling stations to cast ballots, from the Amazon to the cosmopolitan streets of Bogota and Medellin on Sunday, Duque, was leading in every major poll.
Preaching a tougher line on guerrillas, crime and the drug war, he painted his opponent Gustavo Petro, 58, as a dangerous leftist who would turn the country into a Colombian version of socialist Venezuela.
Petro described himself as a left-wing moderate and Duque as a far-right warmonger who would reignite national tensions. Petro’s backers said they sensed a major political upset brewing in a country that has long served as a bastion of conservative politics.
“Colombia has never really had a democracy, but an oligarchy of the same upper-class families,” said Fabrizio Guevara, a 26-year old graphic designer who voted in central Bogota on Sunday. “Petro offers a different way.”
Duque and Petro were the top two vote getters in the first round of the election, held May 27.
Petro energized 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 more than 8 million votes marked the biggest ballot box success for a leftist presidential contender in a country where leftist politicos have long been stigmatized over fears of potential ties to guerrilla causes.
“Perhaps as time passes people will be less scared about voting for left-wing politicians,” said Jorge Gallego, a professor at Colombia’s Rosario University. “Although with this result, it’s proven that Colombia is still a right-wing country.”
Petro took his loss in stride, refusing to call it a defeat and saying that “for now” he and his supporters won’t form a government – echoing the words used by socialist revolutionary Hugo Chavez following his failed 1992 coup against Venezuela’s government. Six years later Chavez was elected president, setting the stage for a surge of the left throughout Latin America.
He challenged Duque to break with his hardline allies and promised to transform his considerable following into a vocal opposition that would push for social reforms and stand by the peace accord.
“Those eight million Colombians are not going to let Colombia return to war,” Petro said to a thunderous applause from supporters chanting “Resistance!”
Colombia’s peace process to end a conflict that left more than 250,000 people dead is considered largely irreversible. Most of the more than 7000 rebels who have surrendered their weapons have 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 Duque inherits a growing problem: the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ELN was long Colombia’s second-largest guerilla group, but now it is the largest, having muscled into many zones abandoned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which signed a peace deal in 2016.
Duque has called for “structural changes” to the accord, for which outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some fear this could deliver a deathblow to the fast-deteriorating peace process and spark a new wave of violence at a time when killings in Colombia’s post-conflict zones are surging anew.
Colombians backing Duque said they supported his tougher line.
“The peace accord was a lie,” said Rodrigo Pimentel, 72, a Bogota doctor who voted for Duque. “Internationally, everyone was in favour of it. But not here. How can the same people who killed so many, who were narco-traffickers, sit in our Congress?”
Through constitutional reform or by decree, he could proceed with proposals such as not allowing ex-combatants behind grave human rights abuses to take political office until they have confessed their war crimes and compensated victims.
The current agreement allows most rebels to avoid jail, a sore point for many.
“The rebels are going to get 10 seats in congress without having made reparations to victims or turned over information on drug trafficking routes,” said Felipe Ramirez, 29, a veterinarian who voted for Duque. “That’s a bad precedent because other criminal groups will want the same.”
Duque’s detractors warn that his victory could throw an already delicate peace process into disarray.
“I think it will set up a big constitutional battle,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
Duque is the son of a former governor and energy minister who friends say has harboured presidential aspirations since he was a child.
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 cultural division. Educated at Washington DC’s American and Georgetown universities, Duque spent years living in Chevy Chase, Maryland. American officials see him as a reliable partner who may bring back the controversial practice of forced coca eradication with aerial spraying, which has been banned since 2015 because of its health risks.
It was during that time that Duque forged a close relationship with former President Alvaro Uribe, the torchbearer of conservatives who is both adored and detested by legions of Colombians.
With Uribe’s backing, Duque was elected to Colombia’s Senate in 2014. 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.
Throughout 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.
Colombia is Washington’s leading ally in Latin America, making the stakes high for the United States.
“You could call him a ‘DC Colombian,’ ” said Juan Felipe Celia, a Colombia expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank.
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