March 2, 2018 / 8:00 PM / 4 months ago

Colombian academic seeks to heal divided nation as president

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Sergio Fajardo, a front-runner for May’s presidential election in Colombia, likes to draw diagrams to explain his vision to revive the South American country’s economy and bridge the chasm between its rich and poor.

Colombian presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo, speaks during a Reuters interview in Bogota, Colombia March 1, 2018. Picture taken March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

With a wad of paper always close at hand, the long-haired Ph.D. mathematician covers pages with neat illustrations that outline his plan to heal a polarized population if he is elected to replace President Juan Manuel Santos.

As the country moves into a period of tentative peace with the FARC Marxist guerrilla group, Fajardo says education is the means to harness the potential of Colombia’s 50 million people and Latin America’s fourth-largest economy.

Vast numbers of Colombians still cannot read or write, leaving them with few economic opportunities, he said.

“I was a professor for 25 years,” the former mayor of Medellin said during an interview, before pulling out his drawings. “I have them with me. They’re always with me.”

Wearing his trademark jeans and open-neck shirt, the 61-year-old refused to be drawn on whether he lies on the left or right of the political spectrum, saying his actions speak for themselves.

In the last few presidential polls, Fajardo has oscillated between first, second and third place.

He faces a political challenge from Gustavo Petro, a former member of the now-defunct socialist M-19 rebel movement, who is riding high in polls.

On the right, he must also contend with Ivan Duque, a young senator with backing from powerful ex-President Alvaro Uribe.

A first-round vote will be held on May 27. If none of the candidates get more than half of the valid votes, a second round will be held in June.

Petro and Fajardo are heralded by some as the modern face of politics in a government long-controlled by conservative parties. For others, they represent leftist threats that will turn Colombia into another Venezuela.

“That’s false. It’s a lie,” said Fajardo, a former governor of Antioquia province, challenging such critics to provide any evidence from his time in office.

Some criticise Fajardo for taking on too much debt to pay for education and housing while governor, but he has pledged to stick to budgetary rules meant to reduce Colombia’s fiscal deficit if elected.

Colombian presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo, speaks during a Reuters interview in Bogota, Colombia March 1, 2018. Picture taken March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“I was born into a privileged family and because of that, I had opportunities,” said Fajardo, the son of an architect. “I developed very early the conviction to fight so that which was a privilege for me is a right for everyone.”

FIVE PILLARS

Fajardo describes his vision for Colombia as based on five key pillars: reconciliation, civic culture, security, the fight against corruption and education.

Colombia has always been divided along social lines, with wide gaps between the haves and have nots.

But since Santos began negotiations in 2012 to end a five-decade-long civil war with the FARC, lines were drawn between those who wanted the accord and those who sought to crush the rebels on the battlefield.

Peace was declared in late 2016 and Fajardo has billed himself as the next leader to build on that foundation.

“I am the person to bring reconciliation ... The alternatives would mean Colombia returns to confrontation,” said Fajardo.

The father of two would need to reinvigorate an economy weakened by a drop in global oil prices. Although growth is improving, a new government will have difficulty funding post-conflict and other spending incentives.

Fajardo admits the need to cut duties for businesses but also to expand the tax base by eliminating some exemptions.

His economic plan also includes the creation of 1.5 million jobs, productivity increases and reform of pension system, though he promises not to raise the retirement age. He wants to avoid a repetition of what happened in Chile, where pensioners felt shortchanged by the highly-privatised system.

“Economic development is a component of human development,” said Fajardo, adding that he would fill government coffers by combating corruption.

Colombian presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo, speaks during a Reuters interview in Bogota, Colombia March 1, 2018. Picture taken March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

“For every peso we take away from corruption, that is a peso that goes into education,” he said, noting he could boost GDP by one percentage point each year just by fighting graft.

Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; editing by Daniel Flynn and G Crosse

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