Colombians arrive this Sunday exhausted and stunned. The strangest campaign that is remembered in the country has left a feeling of unreality. Until the votes are counted this afternoon, certainties do not exist. Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández, two unprecedented presidential candidates for a country always managed by the conservative elite, face each other at the polls after a battle that the polls placed in a technical tie.
Petro faces what will surely be his last chance. The leader around whom the Colombian left has coalesced has never been so close to the presidency. He managed to pass as the winner to the second round with a resounding 40% of the votes three weeks ago. A large majority, but insufficient to win. Analysts wondered if that was the ceiling for the Petro. Increasing that percentage has cost him his life. Petro thought he would face what he has been fighting against all his political life: Uribism, the traditional parties, the political elite, the establishment. But all that, wrapped up in this campaign in the figure of Fico Gutiérrez, was already defeated. Petro fought with ghosts. 60% of the country voted for a change in first class and those who do not want Petro (and there are many) chose the foul-mouthed and disruptive Rodolfo Hernández as their Trojan horse. A Trumpist-style candidate who quietly received enough vote capital to put up a fight this Sunday.
Hernández’s short second-round campaign has seemed very long. If the vote had been held a week after the first round, he would have won by a certain margin. But there were two more ahead and in that time attention fell on him. Videos of his controversies as mayor of Bucaramanga came to light and his popularity was diminished. Blaspheming on a TV show against the Virgin in such a Catholic country didn’t help either. Petro’s strategy was then to focus on his opponent instead of him, not an easy decision for someone who thinks of him in terms of Wikipedia. The plebiscite, his strategists thought, should not now be about Petro but about Rodolfo. That equalized the forces and has caused them to arrive centimeters apart.
People are afraid. Some for Petro to win, others for Rodolfo to do so. Everyone hopes that the tension awakens the social explosion again and dissatisfaction takes over the streets again. The possibility of a narrow victory for any of the candidates or the option that one of them does not accept the result could overwhelm the tension and awaken the protest that has been a latent reality in Colombia since 2019. The same one that in 2021 paralyzed entire cities in the country, leaving dozens of dead, most of them young, victims of police repression.
That has created the sense of historical urgency. These are not just any elections with the usual candidates. At stake is reactivating the peace process held back by the current government of Iván Duque, promoting a tax reform that helps balance the State’s deficit accounts and finding mechanisms to integrate a youth without employment or access to university studies that forms a large critical mass with the established order. Whoever becomes president has the task of stitching together a country that anxiously inaugurates a new cycle.
The undecided have the last word. Some surveys calculate them at 10% that can unbalance the balance to one side or the other. Petro has given himself the task of convincing them that if they do not want to vote for him under any circumstances, neither do they vote for a candidate who has proven to be unaware of the basic functioning of some State institutions and who is carrying a serious case of corruption for which He will be judged within a month. Hernández says that he would govern part-time between Bogotá and a farm in his town. A phrase widely heard these days on the street is that neither of them are convincing and that the logic of the lesser evil is going to be applied in many cases.
The Colombian left had never found itself in a situation like this, meters away from installing a president. Power seemed forbidden to him. There have been progressive governments, but never an openly leftist one. With the FARC guerrilla, this political option was associated with violence. Petro’s militancy in the M-19, an urban guerrilla with a democratic vocation, helps maintain that stigma. What in other countries is considered normal, such as protesting in the streets, in Colombia qualifies as an act of dangerous subversion. Petro has internalized that this and no other is his moment, the moment of truth. It would be ironic if he were defeated by a more populist candidate than he was when he espoused more lopsided doctrines. In any case, having come this far means endorsing that governments of different colors can take turns in the country without this entailing a tragedy.
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