Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro takes part in a presidential debate at El Tiempo newspaper in Bogota, Colombia [Henry Romero/Reuters]
Even if he doesn’t become Colombia’s first-ever leftist president, Gustavo Petro has already made history by managing to arrive alive at Sunday’s vote.
If there has been one certainty throughout Colombia’s violent political past, it is that being on the left of the political spectrum and being successful, as well, meant you would not reach power or that your life would be cut short if you happened to get that far.
Just to name a few: Luis Carlos Galan was riddled with bullets at a campaign stop just days before the elections in 1989; Carlos Pizarro, a former rebel commander of the M-19 movement, was assassinated the following year; and most famously firebrand reformist candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was shot dead in 1948, a killing that is seen as the beginning of the violent civil confrontations that Colombia has been unable to completely resolve to this day.
At 58, Gustavo Petro promises to defy that history on Sunday, presenting himself as the heir to those terminated leaders. He survived an attempt on his life a couple of months ago when a bullet drilled through his armoured van.
“Ours is a country where change has been massacred for two centuries,” he said. “But now we can change that. I will be the one to change that.”
Bespectacled, brainy and aloof, Petro was seen as a very long-shot candidate.
Through the force of his rhetoric, he is running a close second to right-wing candidate Ivan Duque, a pupil of controversial former President Alvaro Uribe. And polls show he is closing in.
He has been sonsistently attracting huge crowds at his campaign events, rattling the country’s traditional conservative elite that has always kept a tight grip on power and voters’ apathy.
“I don’t believe things are OK as they are in Colombia,” Petro said. “There is an immense social inequality; we are the third most unequal society in the world. We have one of the most corrupt states. And we are dealing with the legacy of a political class that has not even been capable of giving education to our society.”
His followers are mostly lower- and middle-class Colombians, fascinated by his prose of social justice and reforms, as well as his radical attacks against corruption and inequality.
“He aroused a fervour among the people that has been unheard for many generations. I think that since Gaitan no Colombian politicians has managed to so thoroughly describe our problems and how to solve them,” Silvio Jimenez, a car service driver in Bogota, told Al Jazeera.
Petro’s candidacy, however, has sparked as much hope and enthusiasm as it has stoked fears among the country’s elite.
They fear he could turn Colombia into another Venezuela, which is going through its worst social and economic crisis after almost two decades of Chavista rule.
Petro proposes to transform the country’s economic model, moving Colombia away from its reliance on oil and coal in favour of clean energy.
He also wants to increase taxes on unproductive landowners and redistribute land.
Petro insists these are just common-sense reforms.
“What I’m proposing is a middle-class society to which we should all belong. Not one with just powerful, rich people on one side and poor dying of hunger on the other. We can find in that middle class the creative private initiative, the instruments to bring about change.”
But many in the business community are fearful of that kind of change.
“He’s dangerous for Colombia,” a director of an investment company, who wished not to be named, told Al Jazeera. “He wants to start a class war,” the director added. “His win would be bad for business and for workers. Foreign investments in the country have already come to a halt as investors wait to find out if he will be president.”
From rebel to politician
Petro says the desperate condition of Colombia’s poor and the 1973 coup against Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende sparked his political awakening.
At 17, he joined the urban rebel group M-19. While he says he never participated in armed action, Petro rose quickly to the political leadership of the group. In the mid-1980s, he was arrested by the army – for possession of weapons – and tortured.
Following a peace deal between the M-19 and the government in the 1990s, Petro ran for office, becoming a respected, firebrand senator.
From Congress, he denounced collusion betweenestablishment politicians and paramilitary leaders, implicating President Alvaro Uribe himself.
He failed in his first run as president in 2010, but suceeded in his bid to become mayor of the capital, Bogota – the second most powerful political position in the country – the following year.
His term as mayor was marked by controversy. Critics say he showed his autocratic side as he tried to take on the political and economic powers that ran the city.
Political allies and collaborators accused him of not listening to others and being unable to negotiate. At least 12 close allies resigned their posts. Antonio Navarro, a respected leftist politician who was his chief of staff said Petro was a “Lone Ranger”.
“Those controversies only increased the fear”, political analyst Jorge Restrepo told Al Jazeera. “The radicalism of his proposals for the presidency are the same,” Restrepo said.
“He wants to greatly increase spending even if it’s unclear how he will pay for it. And he has this anti-business streak and lack of compromise that remain worrisome.”
The benefits of peace
Jose Antequera, the son of a leftist political activist assassinated in 1989, said the attacks are fear mongering from the country’s elite who want to avoid change.
“There’s a habit in Colombia, which tries to disqualify one’s adversary in order to avoid having to challenge his ideas,” Antequera told Al Jazeera.
“Until recently internal conflict was the main pretext to avoid change, claiming that the left could not govern as it was complicit with armed rebels,” he said.
“Now that no longer being the case, people are beginning to focus on their problems for the first time, such as lack of quality public education, a responsive health system. They can no longer be hidden.”
Many agree that the 2016 landmark peace agreement with FARC rebels has done much to open the door to a viable candidate from the left, lifting a decades-old taboo.
Petro is convinced about that, saying: “We can leave behind the political machinery, the corruption, the hatred, the revenge, the violence and finally build a great nation of peace and democracy. Social justice is the contrary of inequality.”
If polls are to be believed, Petro has a chance to win the runoff in June should he come in second on Sunday.
But it’s clear that the simple fact that he’s gotten this far means the country and its democracy might finally become available to all Colombians.