(Bloomberg) -- Colombian voters face a stark choice between radically different economic models in presidential elections this month, according to one of the top two candidates.
Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, 47, said he would run an investor-friendly administration, looking to trim deficits and regain Colombia’s investment grade credit rating.
“What’s at stake here is the country’s model,” Gutierrez said Thursday, in an interview in Bogota. “I defend business freedom, I defend the free market, and I defend private property.”
Most polls show Gutierrez and Senator Gustavo Petro, 62, advancing to the likely runoff vote on June 19 after the May 29 first-round vote. Petro, the long-time frontrunner, wants to phase out oil and coal production, tax large landholdings and guarantee a public sector job for anyone who’s out of work.
Gutierrez, a former mayor of Medellin, was little known at the national level at the start of the year. He vaulted to prominence in presidential primaries in March, after which Colombia’s main conservative groups united behind him.
Many voters now see him as the best chance of keeping Petro out of power. Gutierrez’s oft-repeated line is that he himself stands for change, while his opponent represents “a leap in the dark without a parachute.”
With just nine days to go before the first round, surveys still show a likely Petro-Gutierrez run-off, though two polls published Thursday put former mayor of Bucaramanga Rodolfo Hernandez, 77, in a close third.
Gutierrez said he’ll respect the nation’s balanced budget act, or fiscal rule, but that deficit targets can’t take precedence over programs to eliminate hunger.
Read more: Gutierrez Seeks to Fund Colombia Growth Plan While Curbing Debt
“I’m going to be responsible with the fiscal rule, but I also have to be on the side of Colombian families, given the social situation we have today,” Gutierrez said. “It’s not a question of looking at two or three numbers on a chart, but at looking at the reality of Colombian households.”
Gutierrez says the best way to boost employment is to make the country more attractive for investment.
“My message to investors, both locals and foreigners, is that with me they’ll have all the legal guarantees that we’re going to take care of this investment, and we’re going to be dedicated to bringing in more of it,” he said.
Amid the fastest inflation in more than two decades, Gutierrez said he won’t allow fuel prices to rise, since this would also lift other prices including food.
Consumer prices rose 9.2% last month from a year earlier, while food prices were up by 26%.
The current government has held down gasoline and diesel costs, rather than allow them to rise in line with the price of crude, a decision that’s costing several billion dollars per year in subsidies.
Colombia’s central bank has tightened monetary policy in recent months to tackle the inflation surge. Gutierrez recently warned that “excessive interest rates” would undermine the economy’s recovery, though he says that he’ll respect the bank’s independence.
To that end, Gutierrez says he would name central bank board members who are responsible and not populists, mindful that “technical decisions can’t be divorced from the social reality of the country.”
Read more: Colombia’s No. 1 Banker Has No Fear of Leftist Front-Runner
To help bring food prices down and while also reducing the country’s dependence on imports, state-controlled oil company Ecopetrol SA should be tasked by the government to start to produce fertilizers within the next two years, he said.
Another topic on which Gutierrez and Petro have widely divergent views is in regard to Venezuela and its president, Nicolas Maduro.
Petro wants to restore full diplomatic relations, while Gutierrez is calling for much more limited measures to re-open some border crossings and give Colombian citizens consular services in the neighboring country.
The official border bridges connecting Colombia and Venezuela have been shut for years, allowing organized crime groups to take control of the hundreds of informal crossing points, over which people and contraband move in both directions.
“Without recognizing a regime and a dictatorship like Nicolas Maduro’s, I believe we should generate some changes such as the opening of the border to commerce” in some areas, he said.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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