By Helen Murphy and Steven Grattan
BOGOTA, May 27 (Reuters) – Right-winger Ivan Duque, who wants to overhaul a peace deal with Colombia’s Marxist rebels, won Sunday’s first-round presidential election, setting up a runoff next month with leftist Gustavo Petro, who has pledged to take on entrenched elites.
The first election since the peace accord was signed in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) now heads for a June 17 runoff to select the successor to President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the five-decade-old conflict.
Duque has pledged to alter the terms of the peace deal and jail former rebels for war crimes, while Petro has provoked alarm with pledges to overhaul Colombia’s orthodox economic policy and redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.
With almost 98 percent of polling stations reporting, Duque led with 39 percent of the vote, as expected, while Petro was a distant second with 25.08 percent.
Center-left mathematician Sergio Fajardo came a close third, with 23.8 percent, making him a potential kingmaker for the second-round vote.
Campaigning in the traditionally conservative nation has been marked by acrimonious accusations that rival candidates will collapse the economy with socialist policies, force the nation back to the battlefield or bust the budget by overspending.
The election coincides with a migration crisis from neighboring socialist-run Venezuela. Colombia is appealing for international support to cope with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans streaming across the border to flee shortages of food and rising crime as their nation’s economy implodes.
“We are witnessing the most important elections in Colombia for many years,” said Alejandro Echeverri, a 20-year-old law student. “For the first time in history, there are candidates offering alternatives and that has generated a very tense environment, one polarized by two candidates.”
Business-friendly Duque, handpicked by hardline former President Alvaro Uribe, who is seen as the power behind his campaign, has promised to cut corporate taxes and support oil and mining projects, as well as impose tougher punishments for former FARC fighters.
“I want to govern for all,” Duque said after voting. “I want to govern without a rearview mirror, looking forward for the future of our country.”
Under the terms of the deal, thousands of rebels demobilized and the group is now a political party. But the accord drew ire from many who believe FARC commanders should be in prison and not in Congress.
Some areas abandoned by the FARC have suffered an increase in fighting between criminal gangs and remaining guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN) over valuable illegal mining and drug trafficking territories. Colombia’s production of coca, the raw material for cocaine, has risen sharply, stirring concern in Washington.
The ELN called a ceasefire during the election and Santos deployed 155,000 members of the armed forces to ensure orderly voting.
Petro, a combative populist who was once a member of the now defunct M19 rebel group, supports the peace deal. But some of his economic policies spook investors and have prompted rivals to compare him to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“I’m so fed up that what happened in Venezuela could happen here,” said Leonardo Coronado, a 41-year-old engineer, as he voted for Duque in the capital. “We don’t want our country destroyed like our neighbor’s has been.”
PETRO PLEDGES TO TACKLE ELITES
Petro has promised to take power away from political and social elites he says have stymied progress and to carry out a complete economic overhaul.
His pledges to end extractive industries and shift the focus of state-run oil company Ecopetrol to renewable energy have dismayed business leaders. Oil and coal are Colombia’s top exports.
Petro voters are excited by the possibility the right-wing status quo could be overhauled and a leftist president installed for the first time in history.
“He’s the most important option for the middle class and the poor people who have been excluded,” said Jose Ramon Llamos, a 75-year-old university lecturer after voting in downtown Bogota.
Polls suggest the end of the FARC conflict has shifted voters’ priorities to inequality and corruption from security issues – opening the door to the left for the first time.
“These elections may realign the political axis to a more ideological right versus left,” said Francisco Miranda, a political consultant.
“It would be the first time in the history of Colombia that an openly leftist leader, a socialist, may get through to the second round.”
Graphic https://tmsnrt.rs/2rAQ4l1 on Latin American elections
(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Steven Grattan; Additional reporting by Dylan Baddour; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Cooney)
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