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A campaign banner of Colombian presidential candidate Rodolfo Hernandez stands in Bogota on June 14.RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

Imagine U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders facing off against former president Donald Trump. That is the kind of choice Colombia’s 38 million voters have when they go to the polls on Sunday to decide their new president.

Facing off in the final round is the left-leaning Gustavo Petro against the Trump-like populist, Tik Tok campaigner Rodolfo Hernandez. Mr. Petro, 62, was mayor of Bogota, the Colombian capital, for eight years. Mr. Hernandez, 77, was the mayor of Bucaramanga, a small colonial city in Colombia’s north, for three years.

Washington preferred a different candidate, John McCain-like Federico Gutierrez, who was knocked out in the second round. Mr. Gutierrez was mayor of Medellin, once home of a feared cocaine cartel. He was the law-and-order candidate backed by outgoing President Ivan Duque.

Both final presidential candidates are anti-establishment personalities, seeking to upend Colombian politics as usual. But they are otherwise in no way similar. Respected opinion polls show the race neck and neck, with Mr. Hernandez (coming from almost nowhere, like Mr. Trump in 2016, and surprising the political class) with a slight lead. It appears that those who voted for Mr. Gutierrez, and fear a leftist, will now back Mr. Hernandez.

A boastful millionaire real-estate developer, Mr. Hernandez is campaigning hard against corruption (of which Colombia has much) and promises if elected to immediately declare an emergency so that he can annul democratic procedures and lock up all of those corrupt Colombians. He also seeks to legalize cocaine, but he never says how.

Thus, like presidents Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orban in Hungary, Mr. Hernandez seeks to ride populist disgust with crime and malfeasance to autocratic victory – and then to rule as Mr. Trump wished he could have ruled in the United States, and as the others have succeeded in dominating their own countries.

Colombians are beyond annoyed with rising prices, high unemployment levels that have now reached 12 per cent, rising education costs, massive immigration from collapsed next-door Venezuela, and increased crime and violence. From 2020 to 2021, Colombia’s nearly 14,000 homicides meant a jump from 24 to 27 killings per 100,000 persons. (Canada almost reached 2 per 100,000 in 2021.) Two revolutionary groups still trouble the countryside, and narcotics gangs also murder.

Mr. Petro is campaigning as a rumpled believer in climate change and alternative energy, seeking to transition Colombia away from the burning of fossil fuels to a greater reliance on solar, wind and hydropower. Yet the country derives nearly 60 per cent of foreign-exchange earnings from coal and oil; industrial leaders are not supporting Mr. Petro.

As a committed socialist, he promises to tax the richest 4,000 Colombians and to combat the massive unequal nature of incomes in the country. According to World Bank data, the wealthiest 20 per cent of Colombians receive the bulk of the country’s income.

In the first electoral round, Mr. Petro failed to get more than 50 per cent of the vote, which was needed to avoid a runoff, because of widespread worries that his government would seize companies and private property. Instead, he received 41 per cent, while Mr. Hernandez obtained 28 per cent.

Mr. Petro has also been likened unfairly to Venezuela’s ruinous socialist dictator, Nicolas Maduro. Mr. Petro wants to reform and improve Colombia’s health care and pension systems. He also attacks rampant corruption in Colombia, but without the apocalyptic and unrealistic claims of Mr. Hernandez.

The outcome this weekend hinges on whether a majority prefers, and is prepared to risk, a drastic pivot away from the support of the privileged and the existing class structure – and to endorse Mr. Petro’s striking modernization of the state.

The voters’ only other choice – like those in the Philippines, who welcomed President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown and random killing of supposed drug peddlers – is to hope that the extreme methods endorsed by Mr. Hernandez will actually improve the lives of poor and abused Colombians.

Right-wing populistic power-wielding by overconfident, egotistic leaders elsewhere, such as in Brazil, have accomplished little – not even against corruption. Indeed, corruption and kleptocracy flourish everywhere such a regime has installed itself. Colombia may be next.

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