Colombia’s Rodolfo Hernández goes from also-ran to the brink of power

As the results came in that could put him on course to be Colombia’s president, Rodolfo Hernández was a long way from crowds of cheering supporters. Instead — and true to his preferred mode of campaigning — he was in his kitchen making a short video of himself.

“To those who voted for me, I tell you now, I won’t fail you,” he said from his home city of Bucaramanga.

Just a few weeks ago, Hernández looked destined to be a footnote in Colombia’s presidential election: a colourful and gaffe-prone populist who made savvy use of social media but had little chance of beating the traditional politicians he railed against.

But in taking 28 per cent of votes in Sunday’s first round of voting, the 77-year-old businessman ousted established centre-right candidate Federico Gutiérrez. He will now face former leftwing guerrilla Gustavo Petro in a run-off on June 19 and has a good chance of winning.

Petro won the first round with more than 40 per cent but, given that almost all of Gutiérrez’s supporters are likely to back Hernández in the second round, the leftwinger — who has led virtually every poll since the campaign began — is suddenly on the back foot.

While Petro took 8.5mn votes, Hernández and Gutiérrez, who has now endorsed his erstwhile rival, took a combined 11mn. The other losing candidates managed just 1.2mn votes between them.

“It’s going to be difficult for Petro,” said Claudia Dangond, a political analyst and commentator in Bogotá. “He’s going to have to go after those people who didn’t vote in yesterday’s election in a few key areas of the country.

“No one who voted for Gutiérrez is going to vote for Petro in the second round and those who voted for Hernández — either out of conviction or because they saw him as the best ‘anti-Petro’ candidate — are likely to stick with him.”

The emergence of Hernández, who as recently as March was polling at 10 per cent, sets up a second-round clash between two very different politicians.

Petro “offers the change that we’ve all been discussing and analysing in recent weeks”, said Ani de la Quintana, associate director of Control Risks in Bogotá. “The other [Hernández] . . . is largely an unknown quantity.”

Both candidates are likely to switch strategy in the second round, according to analysts. Hernández, having spent much of the campaign berating establishment politicians, now needs to secure the votes of their supporters. Meanwhile Petro, who positioned himself as a radical candidate, is likely to try to convince voters of his experience as a senator and congressman.

“Rodolfo is going to have to be the rightwing candidate while pretending not to be and Petro is going to have to become the defender of institutions while still remaining the candidate of change,” said Yann Basset, a political analyst at Rosario University in Bogotá.

Already on Sunday night, Petro was starting that repositioning by appealing to Colombia’s business community and claiming to be the candidate of “economic stability”.

“There are changes that are leaps in to the void,” he said in a thinly veiled swipe at Hernández. “There are changes that aren’t changes — they’re suicidal.”

Petro also hit out at Hernández’s use of social media as a campaign tool. “You don’t combat corruption with phrases on TikTok,” he said.

The second round of the election will expose Hernández, who did not participate in the final debates before Sunday’s vote, to greater scrutiny of his policies and record.

As mayor of Bucaramanga he was suspended twice — once for slapping a councillor in a dispute over corruption and subsequently for abusing his office by campaigning for a candidate who hoped to succeed him.

His programme for government is a mixed bag. He pushes a conservative law-and-order agenda but wants to re-establish consular and trade relations with Nicolás Maduro’s socialist regime in Venezuela. He voted against Colombia’s peace agreement with Marxist guerrillas in a plebiscite in 2016 but says he would implement that same agreement in full. Hernández has also proposed rewarding citizens who provide evidence of corruption among state officials.

“If you had to place him on an ideological spectrum, most would say he’s centre-right or rightwing,” said Patricia Muñoz, a political analyst at Bogotá’s Javeriana University. “But when you look at his proposals, they’re eclectic. Some of them echo Petro, some of them Gutiérrez. The most worrying thing about most of them is they’re vague.”

His economic policies will also be closely examined. He is an entrepreneur who advocates some protectionism; he wants to slash Colombia’s VAT rate from 19 per cent to 10 per cent but says he would extend the tax to more products.

“Neither Hernández nor Petro are likely to tighten fiscal policy to reduce public debt risks, while both advocate higher trade barriers, which bodes poorly for Colombia’s growth prospects,” London-based Capital Economics wrote in a note on Monday. “If anything, we suspect that Hernández presents a greater risk on these fronts than Petro.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Hernández is a corruption case, due to go to trial in July — just weeks before Colombia’s next president takes office. Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, he is accused of improperly awarding a business contract while mayor of Bucaramanga. Prosecutors allege Hernández’s son benefited financially from the contract.

For now, though, he is the man to beat in the run-off and the politician who many on the centre and right want to court.

“As always, I welcome the support that anyone wants to offer,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday. “But my only alliance is with the Colombian people.”

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