BOGOTA (Reuters) -Mathematician Sergio Fajardo, chosen to represent Colombia’s center-left coalition at presidential elections in May, will need to present concrete policies against poverty and graft to defeat foes in a bitterly polarized nation, analysts said.
The success of Fajardo, who won the “Center Hope” coalition nomination on Sunday with 33.5% of votes, will also hinge on his ability to edge out remaining centrist rivals – divisions which cost him the chance to reach the second round of the 2018 presidential contest.
But social and economic policies that respond to widespread discontent with poverty, violence and corruption in the South American country could benefit Fajardo, experts said.
“It could be more attractive for voters to opt for a center candidate,” said Felipe Botero, a political science professor at Los Andes University.
“I would expect the centrist candidate to present a very concrete agenda about the principal social policies the country needs, economic recovery after the pandemic, and what will come as a consequence of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”
Fajardo will face leftist Gustavo Petro, who leads in polls, and center-right candidate Federico Gutierrez, among others, in the first round.
Gutierrez received a boost on Monday after right-wing ruling party Democratic Center candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga said he would drop out and back Gutierrez.
Petro and Gutierrez also won their respective primaries on Sunday, where significantly higher numbers of voters participated in comparison to the centrist contest.
Votes cast in Petro’s primary numbered about 5.57 million, while Gutierrez’s coalition contest attracted 3.98 million.
Fajardo’s nearest rivals in his coalition’s vote – which attracted a total of 2.16 million voters – were not far behind him. Former senator Juan Manuel Galan won 22.5%, while former provincial governor Carlos Amaya won 20.9% of votes.
Colombia’s left and center-left have for decades struggled to win in presidential and legislative contests, which have been dominated by right-wing and center-right politicians and their security and free market-focused platforms.
But recent protests, ongoing insecurity, a continuing conflict between leftist rebels, drugs gangs and the military, and young voters concerned about inequality, the environment and corruption, could combine to boost the 65-year-old Fajardo.
“The center has a very good chance to capitalize on its position, which could bring electoral rewards in the midst of a right and left that are defined, identified and competing,” said Paola Montilla of Externado University.
“Social non-conformism could play in favor of the center and the left, which are discussing the need to reduce unemployment, poverty and inequality,” said Montilla.
The next president will need to unite a split congress in order to pass legislation.Petro’s coalition was tied with the Conservative party for Senate seats after Sunday’s primary vote, with each winning 16, while the Liberal party won 15 and the Greens and Democratic Center tallied 14 each.
The Liberal party was the top winner in the lower house, with 32 seats, followed by Petro’s coalition and the Conservatives with 25 each.
Fajardo, an ex-mayor of Medellin and governor of Antioquia province, told Reuters last week voters want centrist governance.
“I think the majority (of Colombians) don’t identify with one coalition, which represents continuity, or with the other coalition, with represents the perspective of rage,” he said. “I think the majority of Colombians are represented by us.”
Fajardo has proposed an $8.65 billion tax reform to fund more spending on education, jobs, and security while requiring more contributions from the wealthy.
Outgoing President Ivan Duque was last year forced by protesters and a reticent congress to water down a tax reform. Lawmakers eventually passed a much-modified $4 billion version, but discontent persists.
Center-right candidate Gutierrez, also a former Medellin mayor, has questioned the unity of Fajardo’s coalition.
“It’s not a coalition, it’s a collision,” Gutierrez said.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime AcostaWriting by Julia Symmes CobbEditing by Mark Heinrich and Tim Ahmann)