Colombians vote on the shortlist of presidential candidates

Colombians will vote on Sunday to draw up a shortlist of candidates for a presidential election that suggests it could produce the country’s first leftist leader.

Nearly 39 million of Colombia’s 50 million people are eligible to vote in a complex but crucial election in a country wracked by violence and rising poverty levels.

In one part of the ballot, voters will determine the composition of the Senate and House, which are now in the hands of right-wing parties.

But all eyes will really be on the outcome of the presidential primaries – called cross-party “consultations” – that happen alongside the legislative vote.

In a country with a history of political violence and voter turnout of less than 50 percent, outgoing President Evan Duque promised “guarantees” of safety for non-compulsory voting.

It comes with both the president and the legislature at the lowest levels of public opinion.

Colombia has long been ruled by the political right, but polls show the former guerrilla, ex-mayor of Bogota and Senator Gustavo Petro, 61, from the left of the political spectrum, has a real chance of winning.

Also among the candidates is former FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt, who said in January she would vie to represent centrist parties as an alternative to both the ruling right and Petro.

Sunday’s process should yield three presidential contenders out of 15 candidates vying to represent groups of politically aligned parties – one each for the left, right and center.

Three others have already been selected by their own groups.

Six of the finalists will face the first round of the presidential election on May 29, which will be followed by a run-off on June 19 if no one wins an outright majority.

First left-wing president: Petro has poll support of about 45 percent — more than any other candidate in a country traditionally distrustful of the left.

This mistrust is widely associated with the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other rebel groups that have fought the government in nearly six decades of civil conflict.

“When the government is unpopular, there is a rotation and the opposition wins, but in Colombia, this is new: the left was not really in a position to win the elections,” said analyst Jan Bassett of the University of Rosario in Bogota.

In 2018, Petro lost the presidential race to Duque, who left his post as his country’s most unpopular president in history after a year marked by social unrest and a violent police crackdown that drew international condemnation.

The right it represents is divided and has no clear candidate.

It’s also Betancourt’s second presidential election: she was kidnapped 20 years ago while campaigning and kept in the woods for more than six years.

If she succeeds, her vice-president will be retired colonel José Luis Esparza, who rescued Betancourt from her FARC kidnappers.

Colombian presidents serve for a non-renewable four-year term.

Duque’s successor is dominated by the economy and faces many challenges, not the least of which is a new cycle of killing and kidnapping as violence escalates despite the 2016 peace deal that disarmed the FARC and officially ended the civil war.

Despite the agreement, leftist ELN fighters are still fighting FARC defectors, paramilitaries, and drug cartels for land, resources and smuggling routes.

Colombia is the world’s largest cocaine exporter.

The new president will also have to deal with the economy hard hit by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.


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