One of the candidates is Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime senator who is trying to become Colombia’s first-ever leftist president, calling for a transformation of the economic system.
The other is Rodolfo Hernández, a construction mogul who has become the country’s most disruptive political phenom in a generation, galvanizing voters largely through his outsized social media presence with promises of “total austerity.” ” and a scorched earth approach to corruption.
At stake in Sunday’s presidential election is the fate of Latin America’s third-largest country, where poverty and inequality have risen during the pandemic and where polls show growing distrust of nearly every major institution. Last year’s anti-government protests sent hundreds of thousands onto the streets in what became known as the “national strike”, the shadow of which hangs over Sunday’s vote.
“The whole country is crying out for change,” said Fernando Posada, a Colombian political scientist, “and it’s absolutely clear.”
The candidates enter the election virtually tied in the polls, and the result could be so close it takes days to determine a winner.
Whoever ultimately achieves a victory will be tasked with tackling the country’s most pressing problems and their global repercussions: lack of opportunity and rising violence, which have driven record numbers of Colombians to migrate to the states States in recent months; high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, an essential buffer against climate change; and growing threats to democracy, which are part of a trend in the region.
Both candidates inspire anger and hope in voters, and the election has divided families, dominated national conversation and brought a glossary of internet memes that form a snapshot of the national mood: Mr. Hernández calling his skeptics of “crazy people” on TikTok; Mr. Petro promoting a jingle encourage a spin on the illicit practice of vote buying.
“You fool them first,” the refrain goes, referring to the country’s political establishment, “take their money – and vote for Petro!”
Both candidates say they are running against a conservative elite that has controlled the country for generations.
Among the factors that set them apart most is what they see as the root of Colombia’s problems.
Mr Petro believes the economic system is broken, overly dependent on oil exports and a thriving, illegal cocaine trade which he says has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. It calls for a halt to all new oil exploration, a shift to developing other industries and expanding social programs, while imposing higher taxes on the wealthy.
“What we have today is the result of what I call ‘model burnout’,” Petro said in an interview, referring to the current economic system. “The end result is brutal poverty.”
His ambitious economic plan, however, has raised concerns. A former finance minister called its “economic suicide” energy plan.
Mr. Hernández does not want to overhaul the economic framework, but says it is ineffective because it is plagued by corruption and frivolous spending. He called for merging ministries, eliminating some embassies and sacking inefficient government employees, while using the savings to help the poor.
“The feeling they have,” he said of his followers, “is that I have the ability to take on the political cabal, to drive them out of power to demand the rights of the poorest “.
His critics say he is proposing a brutal form of capitalism that will harm the nation.
Mr. Petro is accused by former allies of an arrogance that leads him to ignore advisers and struggle to build teams. Mr. Hernández is accused of being vulgar and overbearing, and has been charged with corruption, with a trial scheduled for July 21. He claims to be innocent.
Regardless of the outcome, the country will for the first time have a black woman as vice president: Francia Márquez, an environmental activist on Mr. Petro’s list, or Marelen Castillo, a former university administrator who is running on Mr. Petro’s list. Hernandez.
In May, during the first round of voting, Yojaira Pérez, 53, in the northern department of Sucre, described his vote for Mr. Petro as a kind of retaliation, reflecting the mood of an electorate who helped boost the candidacies of both men. competing on Sunday.
“We have to punish the same old politicians who were dominant in Colombia,” she said, “who wanted to govern and manage Colombia like it was a puppet, like we were their puppets.”