BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombians voted Sunday in a deeply controversial presidential election that raises concerns that the winner might upset a fragile peace deal with Marxist FARC rebels and risk returning former combatants to the fight because they to fear for their future.
In the first elections since the Disputed Peace Agreement 2016 was signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), voters will opt for a successor to President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for the termination of the five decades received old conflict.
(For a graph on Latin American elections, click on tmsnrt.rs/2rAQ4l1)
The leading candidate, the right-wing Ivan Duque, has pledged to change the terms of the peace agreement and arrest former rebels for war crimes. The leftist Gustavo Petro, second in the election and 10 points behind Duque, has also raised the alarm with pledges to revise Colombian orthodox economic policies and distribute riches from the rich to the poor.
The often unreliable polls are followed by mathematician and centrist Sergio Fajardo and former vice president German Vargas, who supports Santos.
If no candidate reaches more than 50 percent, the first two will be jailed on June 17. Surveys end at 21:00 GMT (17:00 ET).
The campaign in the traditionally conservative nation was fueled by fierce accusations that rival candidates would collapse the economy with socialist politics, pushing the nation back onto the battlefield, or over-spending the state budget.
The election coincides with a migration crisis from neighboring socialist Venezuela. Colombia is appealing for international support to help hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans crossing the border to avoid food shortages and rising crime as their country's economy implodes.
"We have been experiencing the most important elections in Colombia for many years," said Alejandro Echeverri, a 20-year law student. "For the first time in history, there are candidates offering alternatives, and that has created a very tense environment that has been polarized by two candidates."
Business-friendly Duque, handpicked by Hardliner ex-president Alvaro Uribe, who has pledged to lower corporate taxes and support oil and mining projects as well as tougher penalties for former FARC fighters.
Under the agreement, thousands of rebels have been demobilized and the group is now a political party. But the deal drew anger from many who believe FARC commanders should be in jail and not in Congress.
In some areas abandoned by the FARC there has been an increase in fighting between criminal gangs and the remaining National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group on valuable illegal mining and drug trafficking areas. Colombia's production of coca – the raw material for cocaine – has risen sharply, causing concern in Washington.
ELN has declared a ceasefire during the election and Santos has deployed 155,000 members of the armed forces to ensure proper voting.
"Whoever wins wins with transparency," Santos said after the vote in Congress. "No doubt they will say that these elections were the safest, the safest, with the most guarantees."
Petro, a combative populist, once a member of the now defunct M19 rebel group, supports the peace agreement. But some of his economic policies are troubling investors and causing rivals to compare him to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"I'm tired of what happened in Venezuela here," said Leonardo Coronado, a 41-year-old engineer, when he voted for Duque in the capital. "We do not want our land to be destroyed like our neighbor."
He promised to take power away from political and social elites, he says, hampered progress and carried out a complete economic overhaul.
His pledges to end the extractive industry and shift the focus of the state-owned oil company Ecopetrol to renewable energy have shocked business leaders. Oil and coal are Colombia's largest exports.
Petro voters are excited about the possibility of overhauling the right-wing status quo and installing a leftist president for the first time in history.
"It is the main option for the middle class and the poor people who have been excluded," said Jose Ramon Llamos, a 75-year-old university lecturer after voting in downtown Bogota.
Surveys suggest that the end of the FARC conflict has shifted voters' priorities on inequality and corruption for security issues – opening the door to the left for the first time.
"These elections can align the political axis with an ideological right versus left," said Francisco Miranda, a political advisor.
"It would be the first time in the history of Colombia that an open-left leader, a socialist, enters the second round."
Allegedly, the election software had been rigged to help Vargas, Petro called on his supporters to watch the vote count and demand protests if he did not reach the runoff.
Reporting by Helen Murphy and Steven Grattan, Additional Reporting by Dylan Baddour; Arrangement by Daniel Flynn, Rosalba O & Brien and Lisa Shumaker