BOGOTÁ, Colombia — For the first time, Colombia will have a left-wing president.
Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime legislator, won Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, leaving voters frustrated by decades of poverty and inequality among conservative leaders, with promises to expand social programs, tax and devalue the rich. steps from an economy he has called too reliant on fossil fuels.
His victory puts the third-largest nation in Latin America on a highly uncertain path, just as it faces rising poverty and violence that has sent record numbers of Colombians to the border with the United States; high levels of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, an important buffer against climate change; and a growing distrust of key democratic institutions, which has become a trend in the region.
Mr Petro, 62, received more than 50 percent of the vote, with more than 99 percent counting Sunday night. His opponent, Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate who had energized the country with a scorched-earth anti-corruption platform, won 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 took the stage on Sunday night, flanked by his vice presidential pick, Francia Márquez, and three of his children. The packed stadium went wild, with people standing on chairs and holding up phones.
“This story we are writing today is a new story for Colombia, for Latin America, for the world,” he said. “We are not going to betray this electorate.”
He promised to rule with what he has called “the politics of love,” based on hope, dialogue and understanding.
According to official figures, just over 58 percent of Colombia’s 39 million voters turned out to have voted.
The victory means that Ms. Márquez, an environmental activist who rose from poverty to become a prominent advocate for social justice, will become the country’s first black vice president.
Mr Petro and Ms Márquez’s victory reflects an anti-establishment fervor that has spread across Latin America, exacerbated by the pandemic and other longstanding problems, including a lack of opportunities.
“The whole country is begging for change,” said Fernando Posada, a Colombian political scientist, “and it’s absolutely clear.”
In April, Costa Ricans elected Rodrigo Chaves president, a former World Bank official and political outsider, who took advantage of widespread discontent with the incumbent party. Last year, Chile, Peru and Honduras voted for left-wing leaders to face candidates on the right, marking a major, multi-year shift in Latin America.
As a candidate, Mr. Petro fostered a generation best educated in Colombian history, but also coping with 10 percent annual inflation, 20 percent youth unemployment and 40 percent poverty. His gatherings were often packed with young people, many of whom said they felt betrayed by decades of leaders who made great promises but delivered little.
“We are not satisfied with the mediocrity of previous generations,” said Larry Rico, 23, a Petro voter at a polling station in Ciudad Bolívar, a poor neighborhood in the capital Bogotá.
The victory of mr. Petro 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. Eventually Mr. Petro, a powerful leader in the country’s opposition, known for his denunciation of human rights abuses and corruption.
On Sunday, in an affluent area of Bogotá, Francisco Ortiz, 67, a television director, said he also starred on Mr. Petro had voted.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had such an opportunity to change,” he said. “Whether it gets better, I don’t know. But if we stick to the same, we already know what we’re going to get.”
The victory could also test the United States’ relationship with its strongest ally in Latin America. Traditionally, Colombia has been the cornerstone of Washington’s policies in the region.
But Petro has criticized what he calls the United States’ failed approach to the drug war, saying its focus is too much on eradicating the coca crop, the commodity of cocaine, and too little on rural development and development. other measures.
Petro has said he embraces some form of drug legalization, that he will renegotiate an existing trade deal with the United States to better benefit Colombians, and that he will expand relations with Venezuela’s authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro. will recover, all of which could cause conflict with the United States.
About two million Venezuelan migrants have fled to Colombia in recent years amid an economic, political and humanitarian crisis.
Petro said in an interview earlier this year that he believed he could work well with President Biden’s administration, adding that his relationship with the United States would focus on working together to tackle climate change, with 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.”
Both Mr Petro and Hernández had defeated Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of the big city, backed by the conservative elite, in a first round of voting on May 29, sending 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 cessation of all new oil exploration and a shift to the development of other industries.
He has also said he will introduce guaranteed basic income work, move the country to a government-controlled health system and increase access to higher education, in part by raising taxes on the rich.
“What we have today is the result of what I call ‘model exhaustion,'” Mr Petro said in the interview earlier this year, 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 Hernández did not want to revise the economic framework, but said it was inefficient as it is riddled with corruption and frivolous spending. He had called for combining ministries, eliminating some embassies and firing inefficient government employees, while using savings to help the poor.
A supporter of Hernández, Nilia Mesa de Reyes, 70, a retired ethics professor who voted in an affluent area of Bogotá, said Petro’s left-wing policies and his past with the M-19 terrified her. “We’re thinking about leaving the country,” she said.
Petro’s critics, including former allies, have accused him of arrogance, leading him to ignore advisers and struggle to reach consensus. When he takes office in August, he will face a highly polarized society with polls showing growing distrust in nearly all major institutions.
He has vowed to become the president of all Colombians, not just those who voted for him.
On Sunday, at a high school turned into a polling station in Bogotá, Ingrid Forrero, 31, said she saw a generational gap in her community, with young people supporting Mr Petro and older generations favoring Mr Hernández.
Her own family calls her the “Little Rebel” because of her support for Mr. Petro, who she said prefers because of his policies on education and income inequality.
“The youth is more inclined to revolution,” she said, “to the left, to change.”
Megan Janetsky contributed to coverage from Bucaramanga, Colombia, and Sofía Villamil and Genevieve Glatsky contributed to coverage from Bogotá.