Colombian 'Trump' threatens leftist's presidential ambitions

Bogota (AFP) – The surprise electoral surge of a man dubbed Colombia's Donald Trump could scupper the left's hopes of a historic takeover of the presidency in a race now between two anti-establishment candidates, analysts say.

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Maverick millionnaire Rodolfo Hernandez, 77, finished second in presidential elections Sunday with 28 percent of votes cast.

He denied the frontrunner, leftist Gustavo Petro, an outright first-round victory and eliminated right-wing establishment candidate Federico "Fico" Gutierrez, whom most opinion polls had placed in clear second place.

While former-guerrilla Petro, 62, came out on top as projected with more than 40 percent of the vote, the outcome has raised the final hurdle to him becoming Colombia's first leftist president.

"This makes it harder for Petro, most likely, because that significant segment of the population that is... voting based on disgust toward the entire political class, now they have two candidates to choose from," said Elizabeth Dickinson, Colombia analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"It divides the... anti-establishment, populist-leaning vote and really sets a ceiling in some ways on how far Petro is likely to rise in the second round."

A challenge for Petro is that many Colombians are historically distrustful of the political left, associated with guerrilla groups that sowed decades of terror through bombs, kidnappings and mass civilian displacement.

And support from Petro's biggest fans -- the poor, the marginalized and young people -- may not be enough to stave off the challenge from Hernandez, the self-proclaimed "King of TikTok" running on an anti-corruption platform.

'Nervous about Petro'

Hernandez, former mayor of the small northern city of Bucaramanga, is not on the political left, nor the right.

He ran under the banner of the Anti-Corruption League, a young and marginal party with two seats on the 168-member Chamber of Representatives, Colombia's lower house of parliament.

Colombia presidential election
Colombia presidential election AFP

Hernandez's program is described as inscrutable, but he has a reputation for calling out endemic corruption by Colombia's long-ruling political and economic elite.

Among his best known proposals: closing embassies to pay off student loans and making a visit to the sea at least once in a lifetime a right for all Colombians.

Hernandez recently had to retract an expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler, explaining that he had actually meant to say "Albert Einstein."

"I don't think it was his policies that got him this strong vote, I think it was more his rhetoric and appealing to a lot of disenchanted voters who were very nervous about Petro, basically," said analyst Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

Hernandez's rhetoric has proved appealing at a time Colombians are reeling from high poverty and unemployment rates worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

There is real anger at a sense of being abandoned by the government, as illustrated by mass protests last year that were violently suppressed.

Hernandez's strategy to blame corruption for the country's problems "has resounded with voters," said political science professor Felipe Botero of the Los Andes University.

"Also, he has a very colloquial way of connecting with people. He is not a member of the traditional elite using elaborate, complex, guarded language... Rodolfo speaks like the people, who understand what he is saying."

Hernandez is himself under investigation for graft allegedly committed during his mayoral term.

People are 'disgusted'

Petro, a former mayor of the capital Bogota, based his campaign on rooting out poverty and inequality, and moving away from oil exploration -- a major income generator for Colombia.

Gutierrez, who promised a "strong state" response to high levels of violence and crime, appears to have been hurt by his association with the traditional political class that backed his candidacy.

Leftist Gustavo Petro, 62, will face off against 77-year-old Rodolfo Hernandez in a second-round vote on June 19
Leftist Gustavo Petro, 62, will face off against 77-year-old Rodolfo Hernandez in a second-round vote on June 19 YURI CORTEZ AFP

"The mood of the electorate is so clearly anti-establishment, anti-political class," said Dickinson.

This means that if Gutierrez had come in second, as expected, many of Hernandez's first-round votes would have likely gone to Petro in the runoff.

"He (Petro) would have been a lot stronger" against Gutierrez in the second round, said Shifter.

"He would have benefited from a lot of people who are disgusted with politics as usual."

Gutierrez and Hernandez garnered 52 percent of the vote between them -- almost 11 million ballots cast to Petro's 8.5 million.

And Gutierrez on Sunday threw his lot in with Hernandez, saying Petro represented "a danger for democracy."

"A very high percentage (of voters) will make the transit... from Fico to Hernandez," said Botero.

"So the big challenge for Petro is going to be first to show who Rodolfo Hernandez is, to highlight his weaknesses as a candidate. It is a difficult challenge."