A populist outsider is shaking up Colombia’s presidential election in the final days of campaigning, opening up what had largely been a two-horse race between radical leftwing senator Gustavo Petro and Federico Gutiérrez of the centre-right.
Rodolfo Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman and anti-corruption crusader, has shot up in opinion polls and threatens to pip Gutiérrez to second place in next Sunday’s vote. If he does, he is likely to face Petro in a run-off in June — and polls suggest it would be a close fight.
“The Colombian people and I are the only ones who can beat Petro in the second round,” Hernández wrote on Twitter this week after three polls suggested he was gaining momentum and closing on Gutiérrez. “I will be your president.”
Hernández’s rise has added a volatile new element to a campaign that has until now been dominated by Petro.
“It would overturn the table completely,” said Yann Basset, a political scientist at Bogotá’s Rosario University. “Having been critical of politicians from the right, Hernández would suddenly become the right’s candidate. Petro would have to alter his discourse too, and present himself as the candidate of stability in contrast to the unpredictable Hernández.”
Hernández’s age, wealth and tirades against traditional politicians have led some to dub him “Colombia’s Trump”. Others, perhaps in reference to his permanent suntan and carefully coiffured comb-over, compare him to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.
“He’s part of a recent trend of businessmen-turned-politicians in Latin America,” said Basset, who compares him to Ricardo Martinelli in Panama, Sebastián Piñera in Chile and Mauricio Macri in Argentina — self-made millionaires who became presidents of their respective nations.
When Hernández launched his campaign last year, few gave him a chance. He has no political party and leads a makeshift movement called the League of Anti-Corruption Governors. He has financed his campaign himself, with wealth accumulated at the helm of his construction company, and made extensive use of social media, earning himself the nickname “the old guy on TikTok”.
Hernández’s simple message of ending corruption by slashing state budgets has resonated in a country where many voters see tackling graft as a top priority. He has pledged to end the use of presidential planes and helicopters and to sell off embassies to pay official debts.
An outsider to national politics, Hernández has held office at local level. He was mayor of his home city of Bucaramanga in north-eastern Colombia from 2016 to 2019, although it was a stormy tenure.
In 2018 he was suspended for punching a city councillor. The following year he was barred again, this time for breaking Colombia’s rules on campaigning while in public office by supporting a candidate who hoped to succeed him. Hernández resigned, three months before his term was due to end.
Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, he faces graft allegations himself, dating from his time as mayor. He is accused of improperly awarding a contract for the recycling of rubbish in Bucaramanga. He denies the charges but the case is due to go to trial in July, just two weeks before Colombia’s next president takes office.
Straight-talking and sometimes abrasive, Hernández is prone to gaffes.
In an interview in 2016 he described himself as “a follower of a great German thinker, Adolf Hitler”, only to correct himself later and say he confused Hitler with Albert Einstein. As mayor, he angered Bucaramanga’s firefighters by lambasting them as “fat and lazy”.
As recently as March, he was polling at 10 per cent, but one survey now puts him on 19 per cent against Gutiérrez’s 21, with Petro well ahead on 36 per cent. Another suggested Hernández had overtaken Gutiérrez.
The latest polling for a potential run-off showed that, while Petro would comfortably beat Gutiérrez in a two-way contest, he would have a harder time overcoming Hernández. One poll suggested Petro and Hernández would tie in an eventual second round.
On Friday, Hernández received another boost, albeit minor, when Ingrid Betancourt, the most celebrated kidnap victim of Colombia’s long civil conflict, withdrew her bid for the presidency and backed him. Like Hernández, she had been campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket.
While Betancourt’s support is unlikely to win Hernández many adherents — she was polling at under 1 per cent — it could help win over female voters. She also has international recognition, something he lacks.
Like Betancourt, who in 2002 was kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and held in captivity for more than six years, Hernández has been deeply touched by Colombia’s conflict.
His father was kidnapped by the Farc and held for more than four months and in 2004 his daughter was abducted by another Marxist insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Hernández said he refused to pay a $2mn ransom and the group “forcibly disappeared” her. He believes she is dead but her body has never been found.
Basset said the maverick former mayor is “difficult to place” on a left-right spectrum. He is an entrepreneur who advocates some protectionism; 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 the peace agreement with the Farc in a plebiscite in 2016 but said he would implement that agreement in full.
Having clawed himself into contention, some analysts say Hernández could pick up more votes in the final week, mostly from rightwingers who are desperate to stop Petro and fear Gutiérrez has run out of steam.
“Hernández would be a strong second-round contender,” Citibank noted. “The current momentum is in his favour and right-leaning voters could flock to him as the only anti-Petro vote left.”