Martin Mejia/Associated Press
BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Voters began casting ballots Sunday in a presidential election to choose among two polar opposites offering starkly different approaches for fighting drugs and gangs while modernizing a country coming out of a long guerrilla conflict.
Colombia’s closest ally and benefactor, the U.S., will be closely following a vote in a country that is a linchpin against the cocaine trade. But polls show that for Colombians, the issues that most matter include unemployment, health care and corruption, nettlesome problems that front-runner
and his rival,
have tussled over how to resolve.
Mr. Duque, 41, spent much of his professional life at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. Mr. Petro, a former guerrilla, was mayor of Bogotá until 2015. Both men say they have the proposals to propel Colombia into stability.
But in style and substance they couldn’t be more different: Mr. Duque wants to spur agribusiness and make Colombia a hub for technology and culture while cutting taxes and regulations. Mr. Petro wants to become less dependent on the country’s vital oil and coal production, emphasizing renewable energy while turning to small-scale farming as a way to jump-start a feudal countryside.
The election comes at a critical stage in the country’s recent history: Colombia is reincorporating into society thousands of rebels who disarmed as part of a peace pact while trying to control booming drug trafficking and gangs in regions where the guerrillas once had influence. This country of 49 million also faces the challenge of dealing with 1 million Venezuelan migrants, many of them hungry and desperate for work, who fled an increasingly authoritarian regime ruling their homeland.
The contest between these two men has been contentious, with Mr. Duque’s supporters asserting Mr. Petro would veer Colombia to the far left while Mr. Petro saying a Duque presidency would usher in an era of warfare and sharp social inequalities.
a senator close to Mr. Petro who has also had amiable talks with Mr. Duque, said governing Colombia would require pragmatism.
“Whichever government that wins and intends to solve the country’s problems will have to moderate and become more flexible in its positions,” he said. “In either case, what’s evident is the country can’t be governed unless you look to the other side [for deal-making], to either the center-left or center-right.”
Mr. Duque, a one-term senator and protégé of conservative former President
has been critical of policies in President
Juan Manuel Santos’s
government that he says permitted coca, the leaf used to make cocaine, to expand dramatically.
United Nations crop monitoring released Thursday showed the area covered in coca in Colombia increased 23% from 2016 through the end of 2017, an upward trend that has alarmed U.S. drug policy officials.
The Santos government says it is working with the U.S. to put in place a program to cut the coca crop by half in five years.
Martin Mejia/Associated Press
The explosion in coca has come since 2013 as U.S.-funded aerial spraying with the herbicide glyphosate was reduced and ultimately ended because of health concerns and the Colombian government’s unease that the program was turning poor farmers against the state.
But Mr. Duque, who had been leading in some polls by up to 20 points, said he was open to resuming spraying, though perhaps by finding an alternative for glyphosate.
“You can look for techniques with acceptable chemicals,” he told Colombian broadcasters this week. He said that to lessen the chance of hitting legal crops, a problem in the spraying program, Colombia could turn to drones. “That would give us more confidence” in not inadvertently spraying legal farming, he said.
A Duque presidency would be welcomed by the Trump administration, which has expressed concern about the rise in drug crops and cocaine production. The U.S. has also been lukewarm about the lenient terms of the peace process with guerrilla commanders believed to have been trafficking cocaine. Mr. Duque has said criminal penalties should be leveled against them.
“This will delight the Americans,” said
an expert on Colombia’s drug trade at the policy group, Washington Office on Latin America.
Mr. Petro, however, has said that a robust crop substitution program—helping poor farmers eradicate their coca and plant legal crops like avocados—would be the best way to ensure that the drug trade is stamped out. Many experts on Colombia and the drug trade, as well as Santos government officials, said that only by bringing a state presence to a poor countryside, in the form of everything from roads to schools to agricultural assistance, will coca farmers be weaned from growing drug crops.
Lucas Hernán Naranjo,
31, a university professor and chemist, said Mr. Petro’s emphasis on education won his support. “With urgency, the country requires a bigger budget for education and research, so we can have more teachers,” he said.
But others, like
just couldn’t vote for a former guerrilla like Mr. Petro, even though he had been known more as an ideologue rather than a combatant in his days in the now-defunct M-19 movement. Mr. Serrato recounted how he had been thrown out of his home by the conflict and served in the army and in intelligence.
“I had to fight illegal armed groups and came to the conclusion that they have no reason to exist,” he said. “For that reason, I can’t vote for a ex-guerrilla. I prefer a candidate without a rap sheet.”
—Daniela Ramirez contributed to this article.
Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com