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Colombia's presidential race heads to a runoff

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The presidential race in Colombia is headed for a runoff election after Sunday's first round produced two candidates from very different backgrounds. The June 19 runoff will be a contest between a left-wing former guerrilla and a populist real estate mogul. NPR's John Otis is in Bogota covering the race, and he broke down those differences for us.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Well, they're both quite unorthodox. In first place yesterday was Gustavo Petro with 40% of the vote. He's a former left-wing guerrilla who later served in Congress and as the mayor of Bogota. And he's now on his third run for the presidency. And Petro's promised some pretty big changes here. He wants to phase out the production of oil, which is Colombia's biggest export. He wants to raise taxes on the rich to fund anti-poverty programs. And he's - also plans to reestablish diplomatic relations with the authoritarian regime next door in Venezuela. So all of this has Colombia's business leaders and social elites on edge.

MARTIN: He came in first, but he didn't win an outright victory, right? What happened?

OTIS: In Colombia, unlike the U.S., you need to win more than half the votes to avoid going to a runoff. And that didn't happen. Rodolfo Hernandez was runner-up with 28% of the vote, and he's a really colorful character. He made his fortune in real estate. He went on to become mayor of the northern city of Bucaramanga. And ideologically, he's just all over the map. He's pro-business but, for example, he also supports abortion rights and legalizing marijuana. His main claim to fame as mayor was getting caught on video slapping a city councilman in the face in an argument over corruption.

MARTIN: Whoa.

OTIS: He's 77, and he's also prone to gaffes. On one occasion, he praised Adolf Hitler when he meant to say Albert Einstein. He's skipped candidate debates. He's conducted most of his campaign on TikTok videos. And he even granted a TV interview in his pajamas.

MARTIN: OK. So - I mean, so he's a colorful character. But what's the political appeal? What's the appeal of his platform to voters?

OTIS: Well, Hernandez appeals to Colombians who are sick of political corruption and business as usual. He plays up this image of himself as this kind of gruff and foulmouthed anti-corruption crusader. Again, Hernandez made millions in real estate, which, in Colombia, is an area riddled with corruption. His campaign is self-financed, so he claims that if he wins the presidency, he's not going to owe anybody. But he also faces graft accusations from his time as mayor. And that case is set to go to trial in July.

MARTIN: So the next president's either going to be this real estate developer or this former left-wing guerrilla. I mean, these are political outsiders either way. And that's a big deal, right?

OTIS: Yeah. You know, in Colombia, the winning candidates have always come from centrist or conservative political parties. And neither of the current candidates - not Gustavo Petro, not Rodolfo Hernandez - fits this bill. But Colombians have become really frustrated by political scandals and rising poverty. COVID-19 drove up poverty from 35 to 42% of the population and triggered a protest last year. So this time around, Colombians really seem ready for something completely different.

MARTIN: John Otis reporting from Bogota. Thank you so much, John.

OTIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.