By ASTRID SUAREZ and REGINA GARCIA CANO

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians emerging from the coronavirus pandemic were voting for their next president on Sunday, choosing from among six candidates who promise varying degrees of change amid growing inequality, inflation, violence and discontent over to the status quo.

Ex-rebel Gustavo Petro, leading in the polls, could become Colombia’s first left-wing president. But those polls also show him falling short of the 50% vote needed to win in the first round and avoid a second round against the second.

Behind him are a populist property mogul promising monetary rewards for advice on corrupt officials and a right-wing candidate who has tried to distance himself from the widely hated current conservative president, Iván Duque.

“The main problem in the country is the inequality of conditions, the work is not well paid,” said Jenny Bello, 32, who sold coffee near a long line of voters under cloudy skies. typical in the capital Bogotá. She had to resort to informal selling after months without work due to the pandemic.

A victory for Petro would add to a string of leftist political victories in Latin America as people seek change at a time of dissatisfaction with the economic situation. Chile, Peru and Honduras have elected leftist presidents in 2021, and in Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is leading the polls for this year’s presidential election. Mexico elected a leftist president in 2018.

This is the second presidential election in Colombia – the third most populous country in Latin America – since the government signed a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. But the divisive deal was not a central campaign issue as issues like poverty and corruption drew more attention.

This is Petro’s third attempt to be the president of the South American country. He was beaten in 2018 by Duque, who is not eligible for re-election.

His victory would usher in a new political era in a country that has historically been ruled by conservatives or moderates while marginalizing the left due to its perceived association with the country’s armed conflict. He was once a rebel in the now-defunct M-19 movement and was granted amnesty after being imprisoned for his involvement with the group.

He promised to make major adjustments to the economy, including tax reform, as well as changes in the way Colombia fights drug cartels and other armed groups. His main rival for most of the campaign has been Federico Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellin who is supported by most of Colombia’s mainstream parties and ran on a pro-business platform of economic growth.

Gutiérrez promised to fight hunger with the expansion of subsidies and public-private alliances so that food that would otherwise go to waste goes to the poorest.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month showed that 75% of Colombians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 27% approve of Duque. A poll conducted last year by Gallup found that 60% of respondents struggled to get by on their income.

The coronavirus pandemic has set back the country’s poverty alleviation efforts by at least a decade. Official figures showed that 39% of Colombia’s 51.6 million people lived on less than $89 a month last year, a slight improvement from 2020’s rate of 42.5%.

Meanwhile, the country’s inflation hit its highest level in two decades last month. The Duque administration justified April’s 9.2% rate for April by saying it was part of a global inflationary phenomenon, but the argument did not tame discontent over rising prices food.

“Voting is about changing the country and I think that responsibility lies a lot with young people who want to achieve standards that allow us to have a decent life,” said Juan David González, 28, after voting for the second time. in a presidential election.

In addition to economic challenges, the next Colombian president will also have to deal with a complex security problem and corruption, which is a major concern for voters.

The Red Cross concluded last year that Colombia had reached its highest level of violence in five years. Although the peace agreement with the FARC has been implemented, the territories and drug trafficking routes they once controlled are contested between other armed groups such as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a guerrilla founded in the 1960s, FARC dissidents and the Gulf Clan Cartel.

Duque’s successor will have to decide whether or not to resume peace talks with the ELN, which he suspended in 2019 after an attack killed more than 20 people.

Aware of voters’ fears of corruption, real estate mogul Rodolfo Hernández has made the issue central to his campaign. Hernández, the former mayor of Bucaramanga, has surprisingly risen to the final stretch of the campaign after promising to “cleanse” the country of corruption and donate his salary.

The other candidates in the running are Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín and candidate of the center coalition; Christian leader John Milton Rodríguez and conservative Enrique Gómez.

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Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.