Populist businessman Rodolfo Hernández pulled off a strong second-place showing in Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, comfortably clinching a run-off next month against former leftwing guerrilla Gustavo Petro.
With most results in, Hernández, an outspoken populist who has been compared with former US president Donald Trump, had earned about 28 per cent of the vote, beating the more established centre-right candidate Federico Gutiérrez, who was third with 24 per cent.
Petro won with more than 40 per cent of the vote but given that most of Gutiérrez’s supporters are likely to back Hernández in the second round, the leftwing frontrunner has his work cut out to win the presidency. He won about 8.5mn votes while Hernández and Gutiérrez took nearly 11mn between them.
“This really is the hardest scenario imaginable for Petro and I don’t think his campaign team will be very happy,” said Sandra Botero, political analyst at Rosario University in Bogotá. “It will be an uphill struggle for him in the second round.”
The results were set to spur financial markets on Monday. Economists had forecast that if Hernández made it to the second round, the peso and Colombian assets would strengthen in anticipation of his eventual victory in a run-off.
For most of the campaign, Petro and Gutiérrez led opinion polls but Hernández, a straight-talking 77-year-old millionaire who has financed his own campaign, surged in the final polls before the vote. Some voters on the right seem to have turned to him at the last minute as their best chance of keeping Petro from power.
“To those who voted for me, I tell you now, I won’t fail you,” Hernández said in a video message recorded shortly after the results were announced.
There were jubilant scenes in his home city of Bucaramanga, where he was mayor for four turbulent years from 2016-2019 but was known as an uncompromising campaigner against corruption. When he left office, he had an approval rating of 84 per cent.
Thousands of his supporters took to the city’s streets, waving “Rodolfo” flags and chanting his name.
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, have likened him to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.
When he launched his campaign last year, few gave him a chance and as recently as March he was polling at about 10 per cent. Hernández has no political party and leads a makeshift movement called the League of Anti-Corruption Governors. He has made very few public appearances during the campaign, making extensive use of social media instead.
His 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 promised financial rewards to citizens who report corrupt state officials.
As mayor, he had a stormy tenure. In 2018, he was suspended for slapping a city councillor, and The following year he was barred again, for breaking Colombia’s rules on campaigning while in public office.
Despite his anti-corruption rhetoric, Hernández faces graft allegations himself. 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.
Petro’s result confirms that he has solid support across the country, particularly among the young and the poor. But it also suggests he has a ceiling of about 40 per cent that he struggles to break through, as was indicated in the last election in 2018, when he came second to rightwing incumbent Iván Duque.
“Everyone knows Petro is allied to [Marxist guerrilla groups] the Farc and the ELN and the country can’t forget how those bandits intimidated us for years,” said Jorge Garzón, a 34-year-old who voted for Gutiérrez on Sunday. “That’s what Gustavo Petro is all about and we can’t allow him to win.”
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