Colombia will have a leftist president for the first time.
Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime senator who has pledged to transform the country’s economic system, has won Sunday’s election, according to preliminary results, setting the third-largest country in Latin America on a radical new path. .
Mr Petro received more than 50 percent of the vote, of which more than 99 percent were counted on Sunday night. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate who had revived the country with a scorched-earth anti-corruption platform, just over 47 percent.
Shortly after the vote, Mr Hernández gave in to Mr Petro.
“Colombians, today the majority of citizens have chosen the other candidate,” he said. “As I said during the campaign, I accept the results of this election.”
Mr Petro’s victory reflects widespread discontent in Colombia, with rising poverty and inequality and widespread dissatisfaction with a lack of opportunities, issues that left hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets last year.
“The whole country is begging for change,” said Fernando Posada, a Colombian political scientist, “and it’s absolutely clear.”
The victory is all the more important because of the history of the country. For decades, the government fought a brutal left-wing insurgency known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with the stigma of the conflict making it difficult for the legitimate left to thrive.
But the FARC signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, laying down its arms and making room for broader political discourse.
Petro had been part of another rebel group called the M-19, which demobilized in 1990 and became a political party that helped rewrite the country’s constitution.
Both Mr Petro and Hernández defeated Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of the big city, backed by the conservative elite, in a first round of voting on May 29, moving them to a second round.
Both men had announced themselves as anti-establishment candidates and said they were up against a political class that had controlled the country for generations.
One of the factors that most distinguished them was how they saw the root of the country’s problems.
mr. Petro believes the economic system is broken, overly dependent on oil exports and a booming and illegal cocaine trade that he said has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He calls for a halt to all new oil exploration, a shift to the development of other industries and an expansion of social programs, while imposing higher taxes on the wealthy.
“What we have today is the result of what I call ‘model exhaustion,'” Mr Petro said in an interview, referring to the current economic system. “The end result is brutal poverty.”
However, his ambitious economic plan has raised concerns. A former finance minister called his energy plan ‘economic suicide’.
Mr. Petro will take office in August and will face pressing issues with global implications: lack of opportunity and increasing violence, which has led to record numbers of Colombians immigrating to the United States in recent months; high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, a critical buffer against climate change; and increasing threats to democracy, part of a trend in the region.
He will face a highly polarized society where polls show a growing distrust of nearly all major institutions.
Petro’s could also change Colombia’s relationship with the United States.
Colombia has been Washington’s strongest ally in Latin America for decades and is the cornerstone of its security policy in the region. During his campaign, Mr. Petro pledged to reassess that relationship, including key drug, Venezuela and trade collaborations.
In the interview, Mr Petro said his relationship with the United States would focus on working together to tackle climate change, especially stopping the rapid erosion of the Amazon.
“There’s a point of dialogue there,” he said. “Because saving the Amazon rainforest involves some tools, some programs, that don’t exist today, at least not related to the United States. That is my priority.”
Megan Janetsky contributed to coverage from Bucaramanga, Colombia, and Sofía Villamil and Genevieve Glatsky contributed to coverage from Bogotá.