Confused by candidates calling for ‘change’? Here we unpack the Petro – Rodolfo run-off.
“A country gets the government it deserves,” said French philosopher Joseph de Maistre. But I doubt Colombia – the country that brought us cocaine hippos, porn-star nuns and flesh-coloured cycling kits – has earned its current predicament: a presidential race between a divisive former guerrilla and a 77-year-old Tik Tokking construction magnate with no clear agenda who refuses to engage in political debate.
For many Colombians, the current run-off campaign between Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández will be a nail-biting three weeks with a less-than-positive outcome whichever way it swings. Here’s a quick Q&A to remind us how we got here, and where we might go next.
Petro’s Pacto Historico alliance was the clear winner of the first round with 40% of the vote. Surely, he’ll coast to victory on the June 19 run-off?
Not at all certain. Petro successfully consolidated left-wing political forces – and some centrists too – behind his campaign for change and scored well in the first round. Meanwhile, a bickering centre-right split itself between various establishment candidates who polled badly. Then there was an anti-establishment former mayor, construction magnate and social media star standing on an anti-corruption platform and drawing in voters via homespun Facebook videos and Tik Tok. Septuagenarian engineer Rodolfo Hernández is now unifying right-wing voters and on track to defeat Petro according to current polls which put the ingeniero at 52% and the former M-19 guerrilla at 45%.
- READ MORE: Your Guide to the 2022 Colombian elections.
But wasn’t the May 29 first round a historic blow to Colombia’s elite?
Hard to say. For the first round, only 55% of the electorate cast their votes – though still the highest in 20 years it leaves nearly half the voting public undeclared.
Despite this, Petro’s result was a best-yet for a leftist platform in Colombia and suggests significant shifts in a population trying to put decades of internal conflict behind. The Pacto Historico has been more inclusive, with a popular AfroColombian Vicepresident, Francia Márquez. It pushed a more tempered narrative to calm market nerves and persuade voters that a left-wing leadership won’t tear down traditional institutions. All the while promoting themselves as anti-establishment and the agents of change.
Sounds like a balancing act. Do the majority want change?
Clearly yes. Mainstream candidates were firmly rejected, in fact, the current ruling party, Centro Democratico, didn’t even have a hat in the ring. For most pundits, a younger electorate is frustrated by career politicians’ shifting allegiances to best get re-elected and prop up a system that failed to deliver the peace process – armed groups and bandits are more active than ever – and has met public protest with state-sponsored violence in recent years. The problem for Petro’s party is that their second round rival, Rodolfo Hernández, has an equally potent anti-establishment message and is quickly mopping up the NiNi votes.
Sorry, slipped into local slang: “Ni con Petro, Ni con Uribe” are voters rejecting Petro’s left-wing tendencies but also influences of right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, seen by many as still a major power player with the overriding goal to thwart any trend towards socialism. Hernández could be seen as a safe haven for a majority wanting change – but not prepared to vote for a former guerrilla. These are known here as the “Anyone Except Petros” (Cualquiera menos Petro).
Not surprisingly, Hernández got top votes in areas of Colombia which previously rejected the Peace Process in 2016, and currently have a high presence of armed groups. Some commentators question whether these voters were really rejecting Petro – or too scared to vote against him, given the all-pervasive presence of right-wing gangs who previously threatened Petro supporters.
The fact is voters and politicians disenfranchised in the first election round are now coalescing around wildcard Hernández, seeing him as the best way forward.
Looks like Petro is getting trumped!
Ha! I see where you’re going there… Yes, there are plenty of comparisons to former US president and Twitter King (before he was banned) Donald Trump; that’s to say, a populist outsider who cuts through to voters with simple issues strongly stated, a touch of misogyny, a tendency to invent statistics, and a potty mouth.
Hernández’s speeches have a central theme of fighting corruption and the porqueria de ladrones politiqueros (‘pig-sty of thieving political class’) meanwhile cutting costs and boosting incomes for the poor. His slogan is a snappy ‘Don’t lie, Don’t Cheat, Don’t Betray’ – even while he himself faces corruption charges from his time as Bucuramanga’s mayor.
Behind this bombast, there is little flesh on the bones. Hernández has vague policies, and he’s previously flip-flopped on touchstone issues such as the previous Peace Process, ELN guerrillas, fumigation of coca crops and how to balance the budget.
Still, even his macho views on women (“They should be raising children”) may not be enough to counter Petrophobia. Plus, the current ruling class are throwing their weight behind him.
OK, so the old politiqueros want to jump on the Hernández boat. Won’t he just become the new face of the establishment? And then lose votes?
Yes, it’s possible. Hernández is frank about his political naivety – it’s part of his rough charm – and accepts he lacks the political machinery to form an effective government. He has already revealed he will recruit some seasoned politicians to run the ship – maybe some of the same bunch he is currently bad-mouthing. The question is when he brings them on the board: too soon, and the ship sinks as voters see where his real sails are set.
But Petro faces the same dilemma: how to play the outsider and ‘agent of change’ while simultaneously promoting stability. Ironically for Petro, this means now casting himself as the conservative candidate – he has been in politics for decades – against the capricious Hernandez.
This interesting game currently favours Hernández. Like Trump, he seems Teflon coated and revels in his anti-PC image, whereas Petro’s personal attacks could fall as flat as Hilary Clinton’s did on Trump six years ago. Petro, meanwhile, is running out of road: he already consolidated his voter base before the first round and will struggle to add more to his cause for round two.
Maybe Hernández is part of a crafty plan by the established políticos to scupper Petro?
For sure, many Petro supporters see a Machiavellian plot; a clever trick by the elite to outflank the anti-establishment candidate (Petro) with an even more extreme version (Hernández), but then sneak back into government under his umbrella. And of course, the sorcerer behind this necromancy is none other than Álvaro Uribe, who made some uncannily similar campaign speeches 20 years ago.
Of course, Hernández has distanced himself from Uribe, for now at least. But the dilemma for voters is that he may not reveal his new team until after the next vote. And then it’s too late for people to change their minds…
But hang on a minute… couldn’t Petro join with Hernández?
Now there’s a thought. In fact, Petro already had it. He proposed a National Accord earlier this week, perhaps when he saw Hernández ahead in the polls. But according to Petro, it’s because the policies of Hernández’s loose coalition, under the banner of Liga Anticorrupcion, are “ever more closer” to those of Petro’s Pacto Historico.
This is more likely a strategy by Petro to appear conciliatory and draw out Hernandez’s true political colours (“so what do you really stand for?”), rather than a genuine overture.
For now, Hernández is not responding, meanwhile hoovering up centrists like fourth-place Sergio Fajardo and his Coalición Centro Esperanza. So more likely the front runner will hope for election victory then bring bits of Pacto Historico in under his own terms.
Wow, seems like a certainty
Well, a day is a lifetime in politics, as they say, and there are still two weeks to go. And with 45% of the electorate staying home in the first round, there are plenty of votes to pick up if the candidates get motivating. But any gains can crash down with the vagaries of social media and fake tweets are on the rise.
Petro has the harder row to hoe, but also a bigger power base to do the hoeing. Rodolfo has so far sat back and let the accolades – and new acolytes – roll in, whereas Petro has stayed the course and might get a last surge of sympathy votes. So don’t bet your house on the Bucaramanga magnate.
Could it turn nasty?
The first round of the election went peacefully, and so far, the next-round debate is civil. But given the pent-up frustrations that led to the first-round outcome – an apparent rejection of the political status quo – there could be storm clouds ahead if voters feel cheated in the second round.
Colombians already have super high perceptions of corruption in their own country. Any hint of election wrongdoing spreads like sparks through social media. The tinder box could ignite if either candidate wins by a very small margin.
Another pressure point will come if Hernández wins the election only to bring the very political establishment he trash-talked to get votes in the first place back into power.
For this reason, the next few weeks are crucial for Colombia. We’ll try our best to keep you up to date so stay tuned.