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World

Colombia Set To Vote In Runoff Presidential Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On Sunday, Colombians - at least those who don't stay home to watch World Cup soccer matches - will vote for a new president. And they will face a stark choice. The contest pits a right-wing former lawmaker against a one-time left-wing guerrilla. Reporter John Otis has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: A band strikes up a tune as Ivan Duque arrives for a campaign rally in the farm town of Facatativa just outside of Bogota. Duque spent much of his career at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. Except for a single term as a Colombian senator, the 41-year-old conservative is a political newcomer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But Duque exudes confidence, and for good reason. All of the polls are predicting that he will defeat his opponent, leftist Gustavo Petro, in Sunday's presidential vote.

(CHEERING)

OTIS: Speaking to a crowd in the town square, Duque promises to crack down on illegal drugs and crime. He also pledges to modify Colombia's 2016 peace agreement. That treaty ended 52 years of war by disarming 7,000 Marxist guerrillas. But like many Colombians, Duque thinks the agreement is too lenient on former rebel commanders who have yet to face justice for alleged atrocities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVAN DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We are going to make changes," Duque says. "We are going to guarantee truth, justice and reparations."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But some people in the crowd admit that they support Duque mainly because they're afraid of Petro. Before serving as a senator and mayor of Bogota, Petro, who is 58, belonged to a now-defunct guerrilla group. He was also a friend of the late Hugo Chavez, who ushered in the socialist revolution in next-door Venezuela. But that country is now suffering from food shortages and hyperinflation, prompting more than 1 million Venezuelans to flee to Colombia.

JUAN SANTAMARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Businessman Juan Santamaria tells me, we have to make sure that Colombia does not turn socialist. That is what Petro represents. Should Petro win, he would become Colombia's first-ever leftist president. Still, he endorses capitalism and says that he has no intention of remaking the country in Venezuela's image.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUSTAVO PETRO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a recent speech, Petro declared, we plan to follow the Constitution and the rule of law. Petro and his supporters predict that Duque would rip up the peace treaty, risking a return to war. They also claim that given Duque's inexperience, his mentor, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, would be the power behind the throne. Uribe is a hero to many Colombians for launching military attacks that weakened the guerrillas. But his administration was accused of spying on the opposition and fomenting massive human rights abuses by the military.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALVARO URIBE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The controversy prompted Uribe to release this video assuring voters that Duque is his own man. He is not my puppet, Uribe says. Whoever wins will take office on August 7 and replace President Juan Manuel Santos, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Facatativa, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HARMONY GROUP'S "ILLIMANI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.