Colombians head to polls in divided presidential election

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© Reuters. Left-wing Colombian vice-presidential candidate Francia Márquez and Colombian left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo A. Petro’s photo. R

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Oliver Griffin and Carlos Vargas

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombians voted on Sunday to choose a new president from a group of former rebels who promised generous social programs, center-right candidates who warned against the left-wing economic model and eccentric business tycoons.

Bogota’s left-wing former mayor, M-19 guerrilla member and current Senator Gustavo Petro has been leading the polls with about 40 percent, more than he would have had without the June second round. The approval rating needed to win the presidency is 10 percentage points lower.

The 62-year-old has been backed by promises to redistribute pensions, provide free public universities and fight deep inequality.

His main opponent is Medellin’s center-right former mayor Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, who has around 25 percent approval.

Gutierrez has highlighted his own plan to provide 5 million households with a basic income and 5 percent annual economic growth in response to accusations that he is the ideological successor to unpopular President Ivan Duque.

Gutierrez, 47, has said Petro posed a threat to democracy and warned that the left’s economic plans, including a ban on new oil and gas projects, would destroy Colombia’s economy.

Ana Maria Sierra, who voted for Petro in the Chapinero community of Bogota, said free university education and the environment are her top priorities.

“One has to be more considerate of the needs of others,” said the 27-year-old waitress.

Youth are a key demographic for Petro, who has about 50 percent support among the country’s youngest voters.

His campaign has stepped up efforts to encourage young people to vote in the past few days, acknowledging that young people may need an extra push to vote on the holiday weekend.

“If everyone says they’re going to vote for Petro, young people vote, we’ll win in the first round,” Petro’s senior adviser Alfonso Prada (OTC: ) told reporters on Saturday. Said is a very important demographic.”

Others told Reuters they supported Gutierrez’s pledge to support businesses.

“I’m betting on Fico, who, in my opinion, is the best option to protect the economy,” Pablo Guevara, a 58-year-old pawnshop owner, said as he voted in the Villa del Rio neighborhood in southern Bogota. “I can’t convince my wife or my kids – they chose the Petro.”

Third in the six-person vote was construction mogul and former Bucaramanga mayor Rudolf Hernandez, with about 20 percent.

Independent runner Hernandez is known for his whimsical social media videos, including one of him riding an electric scooter and anti-corruption pledges.

The 77-year-old himself is facing an ongoing investigation into whether he intervened in a tender to benefit a company his son lobbied. He denies wrongdoing.

As of noon, the national police had not reported public order issues, but they did share a video showing a polling station in northern Sucre province being flooded by heavy rain, as police helped citizens climb from boats to an elevated platform to vote.

The country’s registrar said electoral fraud was unlikely, after candidates repeatedly expressed concerns about irregularities during March’s legislative elections, which election officials classified as procedural errors.

The polls closed at 4pm (2100GMT), with results expected in about four hours.

(Story refiled to fix typo in first paragraph, added voter quotes and police report from flooded polling station in Sucre)

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