BOGOTA | Colombians began voting on Sunday morning to choose a new president, with the leitmotif of the change that the vast majority of Colombians aspire to, and an opponent, Gustavo Petro, who could become the first left-wing president in recent history. from the country.
Incumbent conservative President Ivan Duque, who cannot run again, ushered in the official start of voting by putting his ballot in the ballot box in Bogota.
"I invite all Colombians to vote with enthusiasm and joy, to vote without hatred, without prejudice, without bias", declared Mr. Duque on this occasion, stressing that his country was "one of the oldest democracies in this hemisphere" and one of the "strongest".
Nearly 39 million voters are expected in 12,000 polling stations, where they will have the choice between six candidates.
Leading the polls, left-wing senator Gustavo Petro, an ex-guerrilla convert to social democracy, economist and former mayor of Bogota, has capitalized on the thirst for "change" which he has made his emblem.
His accession to the highest office would be a political earthquake in a country where conservatives have monopolized power for decades.
“Today, I have confidence in my people. Now is the time for trust, coexistence and the will to change,” he said on Sunday morning before voting.
“Either we stay on what we have: corruption, violence and hunger. Either we change to move towards peace, productive progress, and a democracy with transparency,” he promised once again on Saturday.
This is the third time that Mr. Petro, 62, has taken part in a presidential election, this time with an Afro-Colombian running mate for the vice-presidency, Francia Marquez, a charismatic activist with a feminist and anti-racist discourse, who is already imposed as one of the outstanding phenomena of this presidential election.
Opposite, the conservative candidate Federico Gutierrez, former mayor of Medellin (the second largest city in the country), wants to be the defender of “ordinary” Colombians, to whom he promises “order and security”.
From the classic speech denouncing the “communist” scarecrow, “Fico”, for its supporters, has also adopted in recent days the antiphon of change, calling itself the candidate of “common sense”.
Throughout his campaign, he took care to distance himself from the outgoing president and the old Colombian right, embodied by the Democratic Center, the party in power, today in full Berezina and whose historic leader, the former President Alvaro Uribe, is mired in legal disputes.
"Fico" is seriously hounded in the polls by independent candidate Rodolfo Hernandez, a 77-year-old millionaire entrepreneur with a populist discourse vilifying corruption, often described as "Colombian Trump" by the press.
The offices will be open from 8 a.m. (1 p.m. GMT) to 4 p.m. local time (9 p.m. GMT). The results of this first round are expected in the evening. A second round is scheduled for June 19 in case Petro does not pass the majority of the 50%.
The election is taking place in a climate of intense political tension, after four years without major fundamental reform marked by the pandemic, a deep recession, massive demonstrations in the cities and an increase in violence by armed groups in the countryside.
The “paro” (strike) of spring 2021, severely repressed by the police, revealed the extent of frustration, especially among young people, in the face of poverty, inequality and corruption, an evil endemic to the country.
In rural areas, guerrillas and armed groups linked to drug trafficking have increased their violence and their hold on communities, undermining the few achievements of the peace agreement signed in 2016 with the Marxist FARC.
Very polarized, the campaign was notably marked by assassination threats against the favorite and his Afro-Colombian running mate.
After inconsistencies in the pre-counting of the legislative elections to the detriment of his camp, Petro has already said he is worried about a "lack of guarantees" for this Sunday, in particular around the counting software which could not be audited at time despite the instructions of the judiciary and the government.
A plethora of international observers will monitor the ballot in particular.
The government has deployed 220,000 additional police and military throughout the country, making a total of 300,000 men who will be responsible for securing the vote, supervised by 690,000 assessors.