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Colombia presidential contest likely headed to June runoff

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BOGOTA, Colombia — The early vote count in Sunday’s six-way presidential election in Colombia pointed toward a runoff in June, with leftist former rebel Gustavo Petro leading in a ballot held amid growing discontent over increasing inequality and inflation.

Petro, a senator and front-runner throughout the campaign, had just under 41% of votes and was trailed by Rodolfo Hernandez, who had 28%, with two-thirds of ballots tallied, election authorities said Sunday evening.

Petro needed 50% of the total votes to avoid a run-off election against the second-place finisher. The anti-establishment candidate has promised to make significant adjustments to the economy, including a tax reform, and to change how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups.

This was the second presidential election held since the government signed in 2016 a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC for its initials in Spanish. But the divisive agreement was not a main issue during the campaign as challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, including poverty and inflation, garnered attention.

Candidates also focused on the increasing violence affecting the country, which the Red Cross in 2021 concluded reached its highest level in the last five years. Although the peace agreement is under way, the territories and drug trafficking routes that the FARC once controlled are in dispute between other armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), a guerrilla founded in the 1960s, the dissidents of the FARC and the Clan del Golfo cartel.

Petro and his running mate Francia Márquez upped their security significantly after they denounced threats against them. About 10 bodyguards escorted them with shields at times.

Petro’s main rival for most of the campaign had been Federico Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin who was backed by most of Colombia’s traditional parties and ran on a pro-business, economic growth platform.

But Hernández, a populist real estate tycoon, kept climbing in polls. He has few connections to political parties and promised to reduce wasteful government spending and to offer rewards for people who report corrupt officials.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombians emerging from the coronavirus pandemic voted for a new president Sunday, choosing from six candidates who promised varying degrees of change amid rising inequality, inflation, violence and discontent with the status quo.

Former rebel Gustavo Petro, who led in opinion polls, could become Colombia’s first leftist president. But those polls also indicated he probably would fall short of the 50% of votes needed to win in the first round and avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher.

Behind him were a populist real estate tycoon promising monetary rewards for tips on corrupt officials and a right-wing candidate who tried to distance himself from the widely disliked conservative current president, Iván Duque.

“The main problem in the country is the inequality of conditions, the work is not well paid,” said Jenny Bello, who sold coffee near a long line of voters under a typical cloudy sky in the capital of Bogotá. She had to resort to informal sales after months without work because of the pandemic.

A Petro win would add to a series of leftist political victories in Latin America as people seek change at a time of dissatisfaction with the economic situation. Chile, Peru and Honduras elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election. Mexico elected a leftist president in 2018.

This is the second presidential election in Colombia — Latin America’s third most populous country — since the government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. But the divisive agreement was not a central campaign issue, with poverty and corruption drawing more attention.

Election Day took place peacefully for the most part across the country. But in the south-central state of Guaviare, three explosions were set off in rural areas far from polling stations, leaving a soldier with shrapnel wounds, said Defense Minister Diego Molano, who added that FARC dissident groups were allegedly responsible. The dissidents operate in the area.

Meanwhile, dozens of Colombians who wanted to return to their home country to vote faced difficulties at the border with Venezuela. The non-governmental group Colombian Electoral Observation Mission complained that “the Venezuelan Guard prevented the passage of Colombians” over the border bridges.

Immigration authorities in Colombia said an agreement calls for allowing Colombians registered to vote at border consulates to enter their homeland.

Petro has said he would resume diplomatic relations with the government of Nicolás Maduro, broken with Duque since 2019.

It is Petro’s third attempt to be the South America’s country president. He was defeated in 2018 by Duque, who was not eligible for reelection.

A victory for Petro would usher in a new political era in a country that has always been governed by conservatives or moderates while marginalizing the left due to its perceived association with the nation’s armed conflict. He was once a rebel with the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being jailed for his involvement with the group.

He has promised to make significant adjustments to the economy, including a tax reform, as well as changes to how Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. His main rival for most of the campaign has been Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellin who is backed by most of Colombia’s traditional parties and ran on a pro-business, economic growth platform.

Gutiérrez has promised to fight hunger with the extension of subsidies and public-private alliances so that food that otherwise goes to waste is destined for the poorest.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month showed that 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of Duque. A poll last year by Gallup found 60% of those questioned were finding it hard to get by on their income.

The coronavirus pandemic set back the country’s anti-poverty efforts by at least a decade. Official figures showed that 39% of Colombia’s 51.6 million residents lived on less than $89 a month last year, which has a slight improvement from the 42.5% rate from 2020.

Meanwhile, the country’s inflation reached its highest levels in two decades last month. Duque’s administration has justified April’s 9.2% rate for April by saying it is part of a global inflationary phenomenon, but the argument has not tamed discontent over increasing food prices.

“The vote serves to change the country and I think that this responsibility falls a lot on young people who want to reach standards that allow us to have a decent life,” said Juan David González, 28, who voted for the second time in a presidential election.

In addition to economic challenges, Colombia’s next president will also have to face a complex security issue and corruption, which is a top concern of voters.

The Red Cross last year concluded Colombia reached its highest level of violence in the last five years. Although the peace agreement with the FARC has been implemented, the territories and drug-trafficking routes that it once controlled are in dispute between other armed groups such as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a guerrilla founded in the 1960s, FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan cartel.

Duque’s successor will have to decide whether to resume peace talks with the ELN, which he suspended in 2019 after an attack killed more than 20 people.

Aware of voters’ corruption worries, real estate tycoon Rodolfo Hernández has placed the issue at the center of his campaign. Hernández, the former mayor of Bucaramanga, surprisingly rose in the final stretch of the campaign after promising to “clean” the country of corruption and to donate his salary.

The other candidates on the ballot are Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín and candidate for the center coalition; Christian leader John Milton Rodríguez, and the conservative Enrique Gómez.

Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

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