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Colombia goes into elections Sunday with a leftist looking to make history

Attendees during a closing campaign rally for presidential candidate Gustavo Petro in Bogotá, Colombia. Petro is ahead in the polls for this Sunday's election, but it's expected to go to a second round in June. (Andres Cardona/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — At his final campaign rally before Colombia's first-round presidential election on Sunday, Gustavo Petro gleefully noted that the powers that be are cringing at the thought that he could win.

"Of course they are scared," Petro, a former left-wing-guerrilla-turned-politician, told thousands of supporters in Bogotá, the capital. "They're scared because we're going to kick them out of power."

Polls place Petro as the clear front-runner and, if elected, he has pledged to bring major changes to Colombia that have upset the business class. But if none of the candidates garners more than half of the ballots on Sunday, as the polls are also predicting, the two top vote-getters will meet in a runoff on June 19.

Presidential candidate Gustavo Petro talks during a presidential debate at the El Tiempo newspaper in Bogotá on Monday, ahead of the first-round May 29 elections. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Competition is rising toward a second round

The other main candidates are Federico Gutiérrez, a conservative former Medellín mayor, Rodolfo Hernández, a populist businessman and former mayor of the city of Bucaramanga, and Sergio Fajardo, a centrist former Medellín mayor and former governor of Antioquia department.

Polls predict that in a second round, Petro would beat Gutiérrez or Fajardo. But some surveys place Petro in a statistical dead heat with Hernández, who has avoided debates and in-person campaign events in favor of social media videos. Still, he has moved up in recent polls and has connected to many Colombians with his pledges to eliminate corruption.

Colombian presidential candidates Federico Gutiérrez (left) and Rodolfo Hernández hold up signs during a debate in Bogotá on April 20. (Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images)

"I'm going to go after all the politicians who are thieves," Hernández, 77, said Wednesday in an interview on Colombian TV. "They are not all thieves, but nearly all of them are."

However, in the runup to the election it's Petro who has made most of the headlines and has caused the most consternation among business leaders, the military and conservative voters in a nation that has never before elected a left-wing president.

He went from rebel fighter to presidential candidate

Petro once tried to fight his way to power as a member of the M-19 guerrilla group. The rebels signed a peace treaty in 1990 and since then, Petro has served in Congress and as mayor of Bogotá.

Now on his third run for the presidency, Petro, 62, hopes to join a growing number of leftists now governing much of Latin America, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

Petro promises to hike taxes on the rich to pay for anti-poverty programs. He wants to renegotiate trade agreements, including with the United States, he says, to better protect Colombia's industries and agriculture. To forge a greener economy, he wants to phase out the production of oil, the country's biggest export, and replace that income with tourism.

A business owner threatened employees who vote for Petro

But all this could provoke capital flight, business closures and massive unemployment, according to many business leaders, who are urging Colombians to reject Petro at the ballot box on Sunday.

"Without a doubt Colombia has problems. But that's no reason to leap into the void or to risk radical change," Miguel Cortés, one of Colombia's most influential businessmen, said in a video message to voters.

Another business owner, Sergio Araujo, recently tweeted that he would fire any of his employees that voted for Petro. In an interview with the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, Araujo called Petro a "destroyer of businesses who has spent five decades fighting against free enterprise in Colombia."

Some middle-class Colombians are also worried.

Roxanne Restrepo, who works in banking and finance in Bogotá, is nervous about Petro's plan to borrow from private pension funds in order to expand retirement benefits for poor Colombians. And she's not waiting for the election to take action.

"I've been sending some of my savings offshore and we've been searching to see if we can get Portuguese citizenship to see if we need to leave the country," Restrepo says.

Petro has also picked fights with the Colombian army, suggesting last month that some of its top officers are working in cahoots with drug traffickers. That prompted a furious anti-Petro tirade on Twitter from army commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, even though under Colombia's constitution the military is supposed to stay out of politics.

Former army Col. John Marulanda, who fought against Petro during the guerrilla war and now heads a national association of retired military officers, put it bluntly in an interview with NPR: "We don't want an ex-guerrilla, a retired guerrilla being the president of Colombia. And if it happens, we declare ourselves in opposition."

He could realign the country away from the U.S.

Marulanda and others also question Petro's commitment to democracy.

For one thing, Petro intends to forge closer ties to the authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela. That poses a significant shift for Colombia, long closely aligned with the U.S. and a staunch critic of the government in Caracas. Because his Historic Pact political coalition would lack a majority in Congress, Petro has talked of passing economic laws by decree.

Not only "is he now proposing a radical change in the economy, but he's actually pressing the nuclear button on what he could potentially do to democracy," says Sergio Guzmán, director of the consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis.

Petro and his many supporters want change

Supporters of presidential candidate Gustavo Petro attend a closing campaign rally in Zipaquirá, Colombia, on May 22, one week before the election. (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Petro claims such criticisms are unfair and has pointed out that President Iván Duque, who isn't allowed to run for a second consecutive term, also passed economic laws by decree during the pandemic.

Frustrated over accusations from opposition candidates that he plans to seize private property if he wins the presidency, Petro held a news conference at a notary public where he signed a document pledging not to expropriate farms and businesses.

And in an interview with NPR last month, Petro denied that he had a radical agenda. He pointed out that the United Nations is urging countries to transition away from hydrocarbons and that raising taxes on the rich to help the poor is common sense in the wake of a pandemic that drove Colombia's poverty rate from 35.7% to 42.5% in 2020.

"These are normal things," Petro said, speaking on Zoom. But in Colombia "they are seen as leftist and revolutionary."

Many frustrated Colombians agree with Petro.

They include Sara Gallego, 34, an athletic trainer who attended Petro's closing campaign rally. She checked off a long list of the country's woes — from unemployment to malnutrition — that she says have been ignored by President Duque and previous governments.

That's why, she says, the traditional ruling elite has only itself to blame for Petro's popularity.