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Right-winger Duque poised to become Colombia’s president

Luis Acosta, AFP | Colombian presidential candidate Ivan Duque, for the Democratic Center Party takes part in a TV debate in Bogota on May 24, 2018.

A close ally of ex-President Alvaro Uribe and a fierce critic of FARC, right-wing candidate Ivan Duque is seen as likely winning Colombia’s presidential elections, the first round of which starts on Saturday.


Duque is polling at around 42 percent placing him ahead of his main rival Gustavo Petro, a former leftist member of the now-defunct M19 rebel movement, who is on 30 percent. If the 41-year-old lawyer wins he will unseat President Juan Manuel Santos.

A former rock band member who loves football and Cuban music, Duque is the candidate for the Democratic Center Party, a movement started by Uribe in 2013.

The two men have pledged to prevent the nation falling into the hands of the left, promising to adjust a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), cut corporate taxes and redouble security efforts in certain areas.

"We have the obligation to transform Colombia, to restore security and confidence to citizens, to promote entrepreneurship and to work towards a country with social justice," said Duque on his website.

Nonetheless, he faces a tough time if he wins. The economy remains weak, a new wave of drug trafficking crime gangs have moved into areas once controlled by the FARC, and more than half a million Venezuelan migrants have crossed into Colombia, looking for food and work.

Close to Uribe

Duque may be considered the most market-friendly of all the contenders but his limited experience worries some.

A one-term senator, Duque worked at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington until 2014, when Uribe asked him to return to Colombia and take a seat in Congress.

His closeness to the former president is an advantage but also his Achilles heel.

Uribe is loved by millions of Colombians who say his tough military action against the FARC made Colombia safer and helped attract record foreign investment. It’s believed his supporters will happily vote for Duque as his hand-picked successor.

But Uribe is hated by those who allege he is corrupt and has ties to far-right paramilitary death squads. Uribe denies the allegations and has not been charged with any crime.

Critics fear Duque will bow to Uribe's political expertise and allow the former president extensive power.

‘Zero experience’

But Duque has shrugged off the criticism. He joked in March that he had: "Zero experience, but of corruption, zero experience of clientism, zero experience of politicking."

He made a name for himself by strongly criticising the FARC accord on the Senate floor.

The 2016 peace deal saw thousands of FARC rebels hand in their weapons in return for amnesty. Their leadership is to be tried for war crimes - but they are unlikely to serve jail time - while their new political party has 10 congressional seats guaranteed through 2026.

Duque has not specified what changes he would make to the agreement, but he has promised a “profound revision” of the deal, arguing that it is too lenient and that rebel leaders belong in jail.

Appeal to centrists

Duque who studied economic law at the American University in Washington D.C. and public policy management at Georgetown, hopes to appeal to centrist voters.

He plans to cut taxes while raising revenue from a crackdown on tax evasion while relaxing the so-called fiscal rule, which obliges the government to reduce the budget deficit.

Economically, Duque has "an orthodox vision, supporting business and private enterprise to generate new wealth," said Andres Molano, director of the Hernan Echavarria Olozaga institute of political science.

But Duque will have a hard time satisfying credit rating agencies unless he is able to bring in cash to replace revenue lost from weaker international oil prices.

Duque, nonetheless, appears to be well equipped for the top job: his father Ivan Duque Escobar was a government minister, central banker and governor of Antioquia province. Ivan also instilled a love of reading in his son and was said to have owned 17,000 books.

"He was a supremely cheerful young man, always willing to help others," said Sonia Munoz, his high school teacher in an interview. "He decided he wanted to be president and worked toward it. His friends called him Mr President."


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