The Colombian president could head to the presidential palace

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The political landscape in Colombia has changed remarkably in the space of 24 hours.

For months, pollsters have been predicting that Gustavo Petro, a former rebel-turned-senator trying to be the country’s first left-wing president, would head for a presidential run-off in June against Federico Gutiérrez, a conservative establishment candidate. who had argued that a vote for Mr. Petro was tantamount to “a leap into the void”.

Instead, voters on Sunday gave the top two spots to Mr. Petro and Rodolfo Hernández, a former mayor and wealthy businessman with a populist anti-corruption platform whose outsider status, statements incendiary and one-issue approach to politics have earned him comparisons. to Donald Trump.

The vote – for a leftist who has made a career out of assaulting the conservative political class and for a relatively unknown candidate with no official party backing – represented a repudiation of the conservative establishment that has ruled Colombia for generations.

But it also redid the political calculus for Mr. Petro. Now it is Mr. Petro who presents himself as the safe change and Mr. Hernández as the dangerous leap into the void.

“There are changes that aren’t changes,” Petro said at a campaign event on Sunday night, “these are suicides.”

Mr Hernández once called himself a follower of Adolf Hitler, suggested combining key ministries to save money and said as president he planned to declare a state of emergency to fight against corruption, raising fears that he will shut down Congress or suspend mayors.

Still, Colombia’s right-wing establishment has begun to line up behind him, bringing many of their votes with them, and making a victory for Mr. Petro look like a tough climb.

On Sunday, Mr. Gutiérrez, former mayor of Medellín, the country’s second city, gave his support to Mr. Hernández, saying his intention was to “safeguard democracy”.

But Fernando Posada, a political scientist, said the move was also the establishment right’s last ditch effort to block Mr Petro, whose plan to overhaul Colombia’s economy “puts many class interests at risk. traditional politics.

“The Colombian right has reached such a disastrous stage,” Posada said, “that it prefers a government that offers nothing to it unless it’s Petro.”

Mr Hernández, who had received limited attention in most of the country until just a few weeks ago, is a former mayor of the medium-sized city of Bucaramanga in the north of the country. He made his fortune in construction, building public housing in the 1990s.

At 77, Mr Hernández has built much of his support on TikTok, once slapped a councilman on camera and recently told the Washington Post that he had a “messianic” effect on his followers, that he compared it to the “indoctrinated” hijackers who destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Pressed on whether such a comparison was problematic, he dismissed the idea. “What I’m comparing is that after entering this state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.

Until just a few days ago, Colombia’s political narrative seemed simple: for generations, politics had been dominated by a few wealthy families, and more recently, by a hardline conservatism known as Uribismo, founded by the country’s powerful political kingmaker, former President Álvaro Uribe.

But voter frustration with poverty, inequality and insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, along with growing acceptance from the left following the country’s 2016 peace process with its greater rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, seemed to change. The dynamic.

In 2022, Mr. Petro, long the combative face of the Colombian left, thought it was his time. And in the months leading up to the May 29 election, voters flocked to his proposals — a broad expansion of social programs, a halt to all new oil drilling in a country dependent on oil exports, and a focus on justice. social.

The scenario was as follows: left against right, change against continuity, elite against the rest of the country.

But Mr. Hernández’s unlikely rise reflects both a rejection of the conservative elite and of Mr. Petro.

It also reveals that the narrative has never been easier.

Mr. Hernández, who won 28% of the vote, attracted a wide range of voters eager for change who could never get on board with Mr. Petro.

Mr. Petro is a former member of a rebel group called M-19 in a country where rebels terrorized the population for decades. And he is on the left in a country that shares a border with Venezuela, a country plunged into a humanitarian crisis by authoritarians who claim the banner of the left.

Mr Hernández, with his fuzzy orange hair and political businessman approach, has also attracted voters who say they want someone with Trumpian ambition, and are unfazed if he is prone to the lack of tact. (Years after he said he was a follower of Adolf Hitler, Mr. Hernández clarified that he meant he was a follower of Albert Einstein.)

Two of the country’s biggest problems are poverty and lack of opportunity, and Mr Hernández appeals to people who say he can help them escape both.

“I think he sees Colombia as an opportunity for growth. And that’s where I think he differs from other candidates,” said Salvador Rizo, 26, a technology consultant in Medellín. that the other contestants are looking at a house on fire and they want to put out that fire and reveal the house. I think Rodolfo’s point of view is: that there is a house that can be a huge hotel in the future. »

He was also a fierce critic of corruption, a chronic problem some Colombians call a cancer.

From the start, he pledged not to take campaign money from private entities and said he was funding his presidential bid himself.

“Politicians steal shamelessly,” said 29-year-old Álvaro Mejía, who runs a solar energy business in Cali.

He says he prefers Mr. Hernández to Mr. Petro, a longtime senator, precisely because of his lack of political experience.

The question is whether Mr Hernández will be able to maintain that status as a foreigner in the weeks leading up to the second round, as key political figures align themselves with his campaign.

Just minutes after winning second place on Sunday, two powerful right-wing senators, María Fernanda Cabal and Paloma Valencia, pledged their support, and Mr Posada predicted that others were likely to follow.

Mr. Uribe, who supported Mr. Hernández’s candidacy for mayor in 2015 is an increasingly controversial figure that puts off many Colombians. Mr. Posada predicted that he would not support Mr. Hernández, so as not to cost him voters.

If Mr. Hernández can walk that tough line — courting establishment votes without tarnishing his image — it might be hard for Mr. Petro to beat him.

Many political analysts believe that the roughly 8.5 million votes Mr. Petro got on Sunday is his cap, and that many of Mr. Gutiérrez’s five million votes will be added to the six million received by Mr. Hernández.

As the results became clear, Mr. Hernández’s supporters rushed to his campaign headquarters on one of the main avenues in Bogotá, the capital.

Many wore bright yellow campaign t-shirts, hats and ponchos, which they said they had bought themselves instead of being handed out for free by the campaign, in line with M’s cost-cutting principles. Hernandez.

“I have never seen a person with characteristics like Engineer Rodolfo,” said Liliana Vargas, a 39-year-old lawyer, using a common nickname for Mr. Hernández, who is a civil engineer. “He is a political being who is not a politician,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve been totally excited to participate in a democratic election in my country.”

Nearby, Juan Sebastián Rodríguez, 39, leader of Mr Hernández’s Bogotá campaign, called the candidate a “rock star”.

“It’s a phenomenon,” he said. “We are sure we will win.”

Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá.

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