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Dismayed Colombians Weigh Uneasy Options in Runoff Race

More than 19 million voters cast ballots in the election, the highest turnout in two decades

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    Dismayed Colombians Weigh Uneasy Options in Runoff Race
    Ricardo MazalanAP
    Voters line at a polling station during presidential elections in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, May 27, 2018.

    It was the outcome millions of Colombians had hoped to avoid: A bitter runoff between two presidential candidates whose polarizing viewpoints once again leave the nation divided.

    In order to win in June, both conservative former senator Ivan Duque and one-time guerrilla leftist Gustavo Petro will need to sway many of the more than 6 million voters who lie somewhere in the middle and are appalled at the idea of voting for either contender.

    The vast majority of those centrist votes went to ex-Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo, who has yet to endorse either candidate, and it remains to be seen where the largely urban, middle class voters who flocked toward his campaign might gravitate.

    Some vowed Monday to leave their vote blank when they enter the ballot box in three weeks for the June runoff. Others said they would hold their noses and vote for Duque, too fearful Petro will transform Colombia into another Venezuela. Still others quickly shifted their allegiances left, vowing to support Petro in order to ensure the nation's peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, remains intact.

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    "Do we really have to choose between Gustavito and Ivancito?" an incredulous Paola Ochoa asked in her El Tiempo newspaper column Monday as the dust from a nail-biting election day began to settle. "Between a future with the FARC in the senate or the FARC firing rounds again in the Colombian countryside?"

    The vote is the first presidential contest since the signing of the 2016 accord to end more than five decades of conflict between the state, leftist rebels and paramilitary groups. The rebels have disarmed and begun transitioning to civilian life, but the accord remains polemic and polls show most Colombians think its implementation is going poorly. Despite the deal, more than 1,000 FARC dissidents are still waging war in remote territories where the state has little presence. Eleven were killed in a clash with the military Monday.

    Many Colombians believe the generous terms of the peace accord allowing most guerrillas to avoid any jail time should be changed.

    Duque is promising to do just that, telling supporters in his victory speech Sunday night that Colombia needs "peace with justice." He's pledging to introduce a measure in congress that would ensure drug trafficking is not an amnestied crime. He also doesn't believe FARC leaders should be allowed to hold political office without having confessed their crimes and made reparations.

    "If we don't have that, the peace will never be lasting," he said.

    His criticism of the peace process echoes the refrains of his mentor, powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, who singlehandedly buoyed Duque into frontrunner status with his support. Though still incredibly popular in Colombia, Uribe is polemic. He presided over the government during a time in which the Colombian military committed grave human rights violations.

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    Some Fajardo supporters said they feared a vote for Duque would be little more than an illegal third term for Uribe.

    Petro supports the peace accord, just one of an array of hot-button topics that the two disagree on, and perhaps among the least discussed in the run-up to the first round of the election. Instead, Petro has galvanized supporters with an anti-establishment message pledging to root out corruption and lift millions into the middle class. He wants to overhaul the nation's economic model and drastically increase taxes on unproductive lands. Owners would sell the property to the state, which would then distribute the land to peasants.

    His polarizing rhetoric — frequently pitting the Colombian "oligarchy" against the working class — has frightened some voters who worry he'll move the nation toward a socialist model. Critics also highlight his early ties and admiration for the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Petro says those accusations are unfounded.

    "He's Chavez a la Colombian," said Andres Felipe Rojas, adding that he will be voting for Duque. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

    With 39 percent of the more than 19 million votes cast, Duque has the numerical advantage going forward. Petro won 25 percent, edging out Fajardo by less than two points.

    Delegates with the Fajardo campaign were keeping their cards close to their chests Monday, refusing to reveal who they might endorse, though speculation ran rampant.

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    Antonio Navarro Wolff, a politician and former rebel with the M-19 movement Petro joined as a teen, himself supported Fajardo in the first-round, saying at the time that he'd chosen the former mayor because he was "moderate, serious and has experience."

    "There's less resistance against him," he said of Fajardo.

    Now that his first pick it out of the running, he declined to say whether his vote would go toward Petro, as many expect. But he said he would definitely be casting a ballot.

    "If you don't win, you still have to participate," he said.

    Fajardo, a mathematician credited with transforming Medellin from a hotbed of crime to a growing tourist destination, himself dodged questions Monday on which candidate he might endorse. He told the host of a local radio show that while he'd won nearly 4.6 million votes that could prove consequential in the runoff election, he doesn't consider himself Colombia's new kingmaker.

    "It would be disrespectful to say I'm the owner of those votes," he said.