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Colombia's Presidential Election Heads To Runoff


Colombia, on Sunday, held its first presidential election since the end of the country's half-century-old guerrilla war. The big winner was conservative lawmaker Ivan Duque. But because he failed to garner more than half the ballots in the five-candidate race, he will face a runoff next month. John Otis sent this report from Bogota.


JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Supporters of Ivan Duque had much to celebrate last night. Duque finished first with 39 percent of the vote. Gustavo Petro, a former senator and Bogota mayor, received 25 percent. Thanks in part to a 2016 treaty that ended the war, it was Colombia's most peaceful election in decades.


IVAN DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a speech, Duque called the balloting a victory for Colombian democracy. However, Duque has pledged to revamp the treaty that made it possible. The peace accord prompted 7,000 Marxist rebels to lay down their weapons, and it allows them to run for political office. Duque claims the peace treaty is too lenient on these former fighters. For example, it has so far allowed those accused of war crimes to avoid confessing or going to prison.


DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We are not going to shred the treaty," Duque said. "But we must be clear. A peaceful Colombia is won with justice, truth and reparations." Still, some analysts say Duque's plan could prompt former guerrillas to take up arms again. Others worry about his lack of experience. A 41-year-old lawyer, Duque worked at the Inter-American Development Bank and is now a Colombian senator.

ALFONSO CUELLAR: He never held any position in the executive branch. He's only been a senator for four years. So he's pretty much a blank slate.

OTIS: That's former Colombian diplomat Alfonso Cuellar. He says Duque's main calling card is the backing of former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe. Uribe is a hero to many Colombians for ordering devastating military attacks against the guerrillas during his two terms in office. With Uribe's endorsement, the largely unknown Duque shot to the top of the polls.

GIOVANI RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But after voting on Sunday, insurance salesman Giovani Rodriguez said he fears that in a Duque government, Uribe would pull the strings.

Duque's rival, Gustavo Petro, has his own baggage. Many Colombians distrust him because he was once a member of the M-19, a rebel group that disarmed in 1990. What's more, Petro is an admirer of the late Hugo Chavez, who ushered in a socialist revolution in next-door Venezuela. Many Colombians fear Petro's populist proposals could lead to the economic ruin that now grips Venezuela. Petro says not to worry.


GUSTAVO PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In his speech last night, he declared, "we are not talking about impoverishing the rich. We are talking about enriching the poor." The runoff between Petro and Duque will be held on June 17.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.