Colombia's presidential frontrunner Duque fights to ward off left

BOGOTA (Reuters) - When Ivan Duque was a boy, his grandmother made him memorize the speeches of assassinated Colombian presidential candidate Eliecer Gaitan. By the age of seven he could recite them all.

Right wing presidential candidate Ivan Duque reacts during a campaign rally in Bogota, Colombia May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

The fiery speeches from the leftist politician inspired him, and soon Duque was telling friends and teachers that he would one day be president of Colombia.

The 41-year-old lawyer may yet get his wish, though now his speeches are more right-wing. Duque is the frontrunner in Sunday’s election to replace President Juan Manuel Santos.

His main rival is Gustavo Petro, leftist former member of the now-defunct M19 rebel movement. Duque has around 42 percent support in opinion polls, with Petro on 30 percent.

Duque is the candidate for the Democratic Center Party, a movement started in 2013 by former president Alvaro Uribe, who is seen as the power behind the throne if Duque wins.

The two men have pledged to prevent the nation falling into the hands of the left. They have promised to adjust a peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), cut corporate taxes and redouble security efforts in certain areas.

“We have the obligation to transform Colombia, to restore security and confidence to citizens, to promote entrepreneurship and to work towards a country with social justice,” said Duque on his website.

He faces a tough time if he wins. The economy remains weak, a new wave of drug trafficking crime gangs have moved into areas once controlled by the FARC, and more than half a million Venezuelan migrants have crossed into Colombia, looking for food and work.

And although Duque is considered the most market-friendly of the contenders, his limited experience worries some.

A one-term senator, Duque worked at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington until 2014, when Uribe asked him to return to Colombia and take a seat in Congress.

His closeness to the former president is an advantage but also his Achilles heel.

Uribe is loved by millions of Colombians who say his tough military action against the FARC made Colombia safer and helped attract record foreign investment. His supporters will happily vote for Duque as his hand-picked successor.

But Uribe is hated in equal numbers by those who allege he is corrupt and has ties to far-right paramilitary death squads. Numerous close associates have been jailed. Uribe denies the allegations and has not been charged with any crime.

Critics fear Duque will bow to Uribe’s political expertise and allow the former president extensive power.

But Duque shrugs off criticism. He joked in March that he had: “Zero experience, but of corruption, zero experience of clientelism, zero experience of politicking.”

A former rock band member who loves soccer and Cuban music, Duque made a name for himself harshly criticizing the FARC accord on the Senate floor.

The 2016 peace deal saw thousands of FARC rebels hand in their weapons in return for amnesty. Their leadership will be tried for war crimes - but they are unlikely to serve jail time - while their new political party has 10 congressional seats guaranteed through 2026.

Duque has not specified what changes he would make to the agreement, but believes it is too lenient and rebel leaders belong in jail.

Prematurely gray haired, bilingual Duque studied economic law at American University in Washington and public policy management at Georgetown.

When Santos was finance minister during a previous administration, Duque was his advisor.

Economically, Duque has “an orthodox vision, supporting business and private enterprise to generate new wealth,” said Andres Molano, director of the Hernan Echavarria Olozaga institute of political science.

The father-of-three, who hopes he will hold youthful appeal for centrist voters, plans to cut taxes while raising revenue from a crackdown on evasion. He says he will relax the so-called fiscal rule, which obliges the government to reduce the budget deficit.

But Duque will have a hard time satisfying credit rating agencies unless he is able to bring in cash to replace revenue lost from weaker international oil prices.

His family is steeped in politics - his father Ivan Duque Escobar was a government minister, central banker and governor of Antioquia province. The older Duque is said to have owned 17,000 books and instilled a love of reading in his son, he has said.

“He was a supremely cheerful young man, always willing to help others,” said Sonia Munoz, his high school teacher in an interview. “He decided he wanted to be president and worked toward it. His friends called him Mr President.”

Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Steven Grattan; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Julia Symmes Cobb and Rosalba O’Brien