BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Ivan Duque, the young conservative protege of a powerful former president, was elected Colombia’s next leader Sunday after promising to roll back a fragile peace accord that has divided the South American nation.
Duque captured almost 54 percent of the vote, putting him 12 points ahead of former leftist guerrilla Gustavo Petro in a tense runoff election that had appeared to be tightening in recent days.
In the end, the prematurely graying 41-year-old sailed to victory, promising to change parts of the accord with leftist rebels but not “shred it to pieces” as some of his hawkish allies had been urging.
When he takes office in August, he will be Colombia’s youngest president in more than a century.
“I’ve come here to fulfill a dream,” Duque said outside his polling center. “For Colombia to be governed by a new generation, one that wants to govern for all and with. One that unites the country and turns the page on corruption.”
The new president will inherit a country still scarred by five decades of bloody armed conflict and grappling with soaring cocaine production. Former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are struggling to reinsert themselves in civilian life in a nation where many people remain hesitant to forgive. Vast swaths of remote territory remain under the control of violent drug mafias and residual rebel bands.
“Undoubtedly, for the peace process, this is an important test,” said Patricia Munoz, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogota.
It was the first presidential election since the signing of the peace agreement ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict and was as much about the accord as it was deeply entrenched issues such as corruption and inequality.
Petro galvanized young voters and drew millions to public plazas with his fiery speeches vowing to improve the lives of poor, disenfranchised Colombians.
And though he failed to catch Duque, his more than 8 million votes marked the biggest ballot box success for a leftist presidential contender in a country where leftist politicos were stigmatized over fears of potential ties to guerrilla causes.
He took his loss in stride, refusing to call it a defeat and saying that “for now” he and his supporters won’t form a government – echoing the words used by socialist revolutionary Hugo Chavez following his failed 1992 coup against Venezuela’s government. Six years later Chavez was elected president, setting the stage for a surge of the left throughout Latin America.
“I don’t think there is a single Colombian who thinks things are going well today,” Petro said after casting his ballot with his young daughter in hand.
Colombia’s peace process to end a conflict that left more than 250,000 people dead is considered largely irreversible. Most of the more than 7,000 rebels who’ve surrendered their weapons have started new lives as farmers, community leaders and journalists. Last year the rebels launched a new political party and will soon occupy 10 seats in congress.
But the 2016 accord remains contentious and Duque pledged throughout his campaign to make changes that would deliver “peace with justice.” Through constitutional reform or by decree, he could proceed with proposals such as not allowing ex-combatants behind grave human rights abuses to take political office until they have confessed their war crimes and compensated victims.
The current agreement allows most rebels to avoid jail, a sore point for many. But Duque’s detractors warn that his victory could throw an already delicate peace process into disarray.
Duque is the son of a former governor and energy minister who friends say has harbored presidential aspirations since he was a child. The father of three ago entered public service almost two decades as an adviser to then Finance Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who he will now replace as president.
Duque later moved to Washington, where he spent more than a decade at the Inter-American Development Bank, first as an adviser for three Andean countries and later as chief of the institution’s cultural division.
It was during that time that Duque forged a close relationship with former President Alvaro Uribe, the torchbearer of conservatives who is both adored and detested by legions of Colombians.
Duque’s low-profile life as a Washington suburbanite came to end in 2014, when with Uribe’s backing he was elected to Colombia’s Senate. Seated beside his mentor in the opulent Senate chamber, Duque earned a reputation as a like-minded security hawk who did his homework and earned the respect of colleagues across the political spectrum.
He quickly climbed the ranks of Uribe’s Democratic Center party, clenching the group’s presidential nomination just four years later.
Through his campaign, Duque was dogged with accusations that he would be little more than a puppet for Uribe, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Though praised for boosting Colombia’s economy and weakening the FARC, Uribe presided over the government at a time when military officers killed thousands of civilians who were then dressed up as rebels to inflate body counts in exchange for vacations and bonus pay.
Critics fear Uribe will use his leverage over his star pupil to retaliate against political enemies and sideline investigations against him and his family for suspected ties to right-wing paramilitaries.
Duque’s supporters say that he will chart his own course and that Uribe won’t be a frequent guest at the presidential residence.
However he proceeds, Duque’s tough stance on the nation’s peace accord could be tested once he is draped in the presidential sash. Though he could implement changes by decree or constitutional reform, he would likely encounter pushback against any major changes that would imperil an agreement that took four years to negotiate and has widespread international support.
“The outlook today indicates the peace process is not reversible,” said Munoz, the political science professor. “We have a society that does not want the FARC to return to armed conflict.”