Former guerrilla Petro fights to become Colombia's first leftist president

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Gustavo Petro, a former insurgent turned rabble-rousing mayor, is fighting to become Colombia’s first leftist president, turning his humble beginnings and revolutionary past into a rallying cry for millions of the nation’s youth and poor.

Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro meets with supporters ahead of Sunday's presidential race, in Medellin, Colombia June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Fredy Builes

The 58-year-old economist is about 20 points behind right-wing candidate Ivan Duque to replace President Juan Manuel Santos, but his presence in the second round has worried many in the traditionally conservative nation, where the right has kept a vice-like grip on power.

Proposals from Petro to change the nation’s economic model by piling taxes on unproductive landowners and abandoning oil and coal for clean energy have spooked investors. Some fear his efforts to shift wealth from rich to poor could turn Colombia into another Venezuela.

Known for his fiery speeches from the Senate against corruption and right-wing paramilitary groups, Petro says his political awakening began in 1973 with the military coup that ended the rule of Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende.

Colombia was descending into violence around the same time, as guerrilla groups began a wave of kidnappings and attacks on civilians.

It was then that Petro, the son of a teacher, pledged to fight the “feudal” oligarchy enriching itself at the expense of Colombia’s poor, the former member of the M-19 guerilla group said.

“Twenty-first century politics is between the politics of life and the politics of death,” the father of six told Reuters in April. “I represent the politics of life.”

Inspired as a child by political biographies, Petro reportedly raised the ire of his Catholic teachers by reading books by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Although never a combatant, Petro’s years in the now-defunct M19 rebel group - which stormed the Supreme Court in 1985, leading to the deaths of more than 100 people - have created fodder for critics.

He was arrested that year for weapons possession and served 18 months in prison, where he has said he was tortured.

Petro’s 2011 election as mayor of Bogota, Colombia’s second-most powerful post after the presidency, was seen as proof that politics was the way forward for insurgent movements like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which demobilized last year and formed a political party.

He won 4.8 million votes in the first round.

“Petro represents a clearly populist project,” said Andres Molano, director of the Hernan Echavarria Olozaga institute of political science. “He presents himself as an outsider - an enemy of the elites - and has elaborated a messianic and anti-liberal discourse that promises a kind of revolution both politically and economically.”

A win for Petro may help shore up Colombia’s fragile peace process that ended five decades of war with the FARC, but angered many by giving their commanders a political voice instead of a jail cell.

Petro promises Latin America’s fourth-largest economy will include all of society, creating a public banking system that guarantees cheap credit to small-and-medium sized businesses and expanding free education.

That may be difficult. The economy remains weak, a new wave of drug trafficking crime gangs have moved into areas once controlled by the FARC and half a million Venezuelan migrants have crossed into Colombia looking for food and work.

Critics say his ideas are strikingly similar to the early days of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela.

“There are many echoes of the so-called 21st century socialism that flourished in Latin America during the last two decades,” said Molano.

Petro has said he does not plan to expropriate property, but he raised eyebrows with his recent offer to buy a huge piece of productive land from billionaire sugar baron and media mogul Carlos Ardila Lulle to give to the poor.

While it may be tough for Petro to push radical change through Congress - his Colombia Humana party won just six seats in March’s legislative election - he said he would seek alliances with center, left and other minority parties or attempt a change to the constitution through a constituent assembly.

Known for his stubborn management style and ruling by decree, the bespectacled Petro has taken flack for living in a gated community and wearing $500 shoes, but his expensive lifestyle has not swayed voters or his discourse.

“Because I’m from the left, I have to wear espadrilles?” he responded wryly in a recent radio interview.

Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Marguerita Choy