Ex-Rebel, Conservative and Magnate Fight for Colombia Presidency

Despite a strong economic rebound from the pandemic and a boost from sky high oil prices, polls show that increasing numbers of Colombians want change from the current economic model and the traditional parties that have led the country for decades

Left to Right: Gustavo Petro, Sergio Fajardo, Federico Gutiérrez and Rodolfo Hernández.
By Matthew Bristow
May 29, 2022 | 10:49 AM
Reading time: 2 min.

Bloomberg — Colombians are voting for president Sunday in an unpredictable election that pits an ex-guerrilla, a conservative former mayor and a wild card anti-establishment business magnate against each other in a contest that may not be decided until a runoff next month.

Despite a strong economic rebound from the pandemic and a boost from sky high oil prices, polls show that increasing numbers of Colombians want change from the current economic model and the traditional parties that have led the country for decades.

Frontrunner Gustavo Petro, 62, has harnessed voter anger over poverty and inequality that was aggravated by the pandemic. The ex-guerrilla and former mayor of Bogota wants to tax the rich, halt oil exploration and restore ties with the socialist government of Venezuela.

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While Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Venezuela have all elected left-wing leaders at various times in their histories, Colombia has until now only ever been governed by conservatives and liberals.

Petro is widely expected to take first place but fall short of a majority. In that case, the focus will be on who would face him in a June 19 runoff.

Federico Gutierrez, a 47-year-old conservative former mayor of Medellin who defends the nation’s free-market model, has been Petro’s main rival during the campaign. He promises to be tough on crime, boost spending on infrastructure and invest in nursery education.

But a late surge for Rodolfo Hernandez, a 77-year-old construction magnate who was mayor of a mid-sized city in the northeast, means he could potentially edge out Gutierrez. He’s rolled out a successful social media campaign including TikTok videos denouncing corruption to gain more national appeal.

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Beyond his anti-graft comments, little is known about what Hernandez would do as president and he skipped the final debates after seeing his approval numbers rise.

Investors have little conviction as to the outcome, and markets won’t open fully until Tuesday due to a holiday in Colombia and the US on Monday.

Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. local time with results expected shortly thereafter. Petro’s support is concentrated among younger Colombians, and given that voting isn’t obligatory, it’s uncertain how many of them will mobilize to vote.

A long-time US ally that’s received aid for years to combat drug trafficking, a shift in regional alliances to more left-leaning neighbors would be a challenge to US President Joe Biden’s administration as it looks to curb the influence of China and Russia in the region.

Colombia’s oil-dependent economy is set to grow 5.8% this year, more than double the region-wide average of 2.5%, according to the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, inflation is running at a 21-year-high of 9.2% even as the government heavily subsidizes fuel prices.

“Colombia has always distinguished itself as being very conservative and orthodox in terms of its economic management,” said Patrick Esteruelas, head of research at Emso Asset Management. “But now it’s about to change policy course with destination unknown.”