Leftist Petro shakes up Colombia conservatives in poll

Bogota (AFP) –


Former guerrilla Gustavo Petro shook off any lingering voter suspicion Sunday to become the first leftist candidate to contest the second round of an election in conservative-dominated Colombia.

Petro will face the favorite, right-wing senator Ivan Duque in the second round of the presidential election on June 17.

The 58-year-old former Bogota mayor who was once a youthful member of now disbanded M-19 guerrillas, has been a surprise package in the elections -- the first presidential polls to be held since the peace deal with former rebel movement FARC.

FARC's five-decade war of terror has stigmatized the political left in Colombia, but Petro managed to draw large crowds to his campaign meetings, including many young people.

"People have been able to detach themselves from the fear generated by war and the politics of hatred," he told AFP.

Now on June 17, he is in with a chance to follow in the footsteps of other Latin American rebels-turned-presidents, such as Dilma Rousseff in Brazil or Uruguay's Jose Mujica.

-Threat to right-

In a Colombia deeply scarred by the conflict, Petro's success has for the first time posed a leftist threat to the dominance of the conservative and liberal elite.

He claims his campaign was blackballed by the conservative mainstream press, but he found his audience via social media. He was the candidate with the most subscribers to his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Short and bespectacled, he has gained a reputation as an orator during the campaign.

His critics dismiss him as a "radical populist," reminding people of M-19's signature bloody 1985 assault on the Bogota Palace of Justice which led to a death toll of 99.

Petro has always insisted his role in the group was as an organizer, not a fighter. He was in prison when the 1985 assault took place.

A former comrade, Juan Montana, described him as "a bad guerrilla with a gun, but a good political guerrilla."

A father to six children, "he's a very demanding, results-oriented, man. He's likeable, generous, very shy and separates his family life from his public life very well," said another associate, Jorge Rojas.

From a family of modest means on the Caribbean coast, Petro was born in 1960 and joined M-19 as a 17-year-old, having been radicalized by the rightist coup in Chile.

He studied economics but became a political activist before he was arrested and tortured.

He gained a reputation for arrogance and bad management during a stint as Bogota's mayor, which ended after three years in 2015.

Critics highlight his authoritarian streak, an unrealistic reform manifesto, and point to an affinity with the unpopular Venezuelan regime.

Duque and the right pounced on his stated admiration for the late president Hugo Chavez during the campaign, warning voters not to allow the left to lead Colombia down the same ruinous path as its socialist-ruled neighbor.