Gustavo Petro: ex-rebel wins Colombia election to become nation's first leftist president

Win puts an end to stigmatisation of the country's left for its perceived association with armed conflict

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Colombia has elected its first leftist president after former rebel Gustavo Petro narrowly defeated a real estate millionaire in a run-off election.

Mr Petro, 62, won 50.48 per cent of the vote in his third attempt to win the presidency on Sunday, according to results released by election authorities. Political outsider Rodolfo Hernandez received 47.26 per cent.

As Colombians struggle with rising inequality, inflation and violence, voters punished long-governing centrist and right-leaning politicians in the first round of voting last month, and picked two outsiders for the run-off contest.

Mr Petro’s win in Latin America’s third most populous nation puts an end to Colombia’s long stigmatisation of the left for its perceived association with the country’s half-century of armed conflict.

The president-elect was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.

Mr Petro issued a call for unity during his victory speech on Sunday night and extended an olive branch to some of his harshest critics, saying all members of the opposition would be welcomed at the presidential palace “to discuss the problems of Colombia”.

“From this government that is beginning, there will never be political persecution or legal persecution; there will only be respect and dialogue,” he said.

He said he would listen to those who have raised arms as well as to “that silent majority of peasants, indigenous people, women, youth”.

The vote means Colombia will have a black woman as vice-president for the first time. Mr Petro’s running mate, Francia Marquez, 40, is a lawyer and environmental leader whose opposition to illegal mining resulted in threats and a grenade attack in 2019.

Colombia's president-elect Gustavo Petro and vice president-elect Francia Marquez celebrate in Bogota, Colombia, on Sunday. Bloomberg

Mr Hernandez, whose campaign was based on an anti-corruption fight, conceded his defeat shortly after results were announced.

“I accept the result, as it should be, if we want our institutions to be firm,” he said in a video on social media. “I sincerely hope that this decision is beneficial for everyone.”

Latin American countries Chile, Peru and Honduras elected leftist presidents in 2021. In Brazil, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election.

But the results were an immediate reason to fret for some voters, whose closest reference to a leftist government is the troubled neighbouring Venezuela.

“We hope that Mr Gustavo Petro complies with what was said in his government plan, that he leads this country to greatness, which we need so much, and that [he] ends corruption,” said Karin Ardila Garcia, a Hernandez supporter in the north-central city of Bucaramanga.

“That he does not lead to communism, to socialism, to a war where they continue to kill us in Colombia … [that] he does not lead us to another Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Chile.”

About 21.6 million of the 39 million eligible voters cast a ballot on Sunday. Abstentionism has been above 40 per cent in every presidential election since 1990.

Mr Petro will be officially declared winner after a formal count that will take a few days.

Updated: June 20, 2022, 6:45 AM