Two anti-establishment candidates, Gustavo Petro, a leftist, and Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist, captured the top two spots in Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, delivering a stunning blow to the country’s dominant conservative political class.
The two men will compete in a runoff election on June 19 that is shaping up to be one of the most consequential in the country’s history. At stake is the country’s economic model, its democratic integrity and the livelihoods of millions of people pushed into poverty during the pandemic.
The Petro-Hernández face-off, said Daniel García-Peña, a Colombian political scientist, pits “change against change.”
Fifty-four percent of eligible voters participated in the election, the same rate as 2018, when Mr. Petro faced the current president, Iván Duque, and a slate of other candidates.
The day was largely peaceful as millions of Colombians voted, despite growing unrest in parts of the country that have seen a resurgence of armed groups.
If Mr. Petro wins the runoff election next month, he will become Colombia’s first leftist president, a watershed moment for a nation that has long been led by a conservative establishment.
In his postelection speech at a hotel near the center of Bogotá, Mr. Petro stood beside his vice-presidential pick and said Sunday’s results showed that the political project of the current president and his allies “has been defeated.”
He then quickly issued warnings about Mr. Hernández, painting a vote for him as a dangerous regression, and daring the electorate to take a chance on what he called a progressive project, “a true change.”
His rise reflects not just a leftist shift across Latin America but also an anti-incumbent fervor that has gained strength as the pandemic has deepened poverty and inequality, intensifying feelings that the region’s economies are built mostly to serve the elite.
Mr. Petro has vowed to transform Colombia’s economic system, which he says fuels inequality, by expanding social programs, halting oil exploration and shifting the country’s focus to domestic agriculture and industry.
Colombia has long been the United States’ strongest ally in the region, and Mr. Petro is calling for a reset of the relationship, including changes to the approach to the drug war and a re-examination of a bilateral trade agreement that could lead to a clash with Washington.
Mr. Hernández, who was relatively unknown before he began surging in the polls in the campaign’s closing days, pushes a populist anti-corruption platform, but has raised alarms with his plan to declare a state of emergency to accomplish his goals.
“Today the country of politicking and corruption lost,” Mr. Hernández wrote in a Facebook message to his supporters following Sunday’s results. “Today, the gangs who thought that they could govern forever have lost.”
Many voters are fed up with rising prices, high unemployment, low wages, rising education costs and surging violence, and polls show that a clear majority of Colombians have an unfavorable view of Mr. Iván Duque, who is largely regarded as part of the conservative establishment.
The election comes as polls show growing distrust in the country’s institutions, including the country’s national registrar, an election body. The registrar bungled the initial count in a March congressional vote, leading to concern that losing candidates in the presidential vote will declare fraud.
The country is also seeing a rise in violence, undermining the democratic process. The Mission for Electoral Observation called this pre-election period the most violent in 12 years.
Mr. Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have both received death threats, leading to increased security, including bodyguards holding riot shields.
Despite these dangers, the election has invigorated many Colombians who had long believed their voices were not represented at the highest levels of power, infusing the election with a sense of hope. That feeling of optimism is partly inspired by Ms. Márquez, a former housekeeper and environmental activist who would be the country’s first Black vice president if her ticket won.
Her campaign has focused on fighting systemic injustice, and its most popular slogan, “vivir sabroso,” means, roughly, “live richly and with dignity.”
Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil, Megan Janetsky and Genevieve Glatsky in Bogotá.