Fernanda Pineda/The Washington Post via Getty Images
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Reeling from a political system long dominated by traditional parties and machine politics, an eccentric 77-year-old populist who promises drastic budget cuts and jail time for corrupt officials is now leading the race for presidency.
Unknown to most Colombians until just a few months ago, Rodolfo Hernández, a real estate magnate and former mayor, garnered enough votes in the first round of elections on May 29 to win a place in the Sunday’s second round against leftist Gustavo Petro.
The latest polls show Hernández neck and neck with Petro, a veteran guerrilla fighter and seasoned politician who has been the frontrunner throughout the year.
“Thank you Colombians,” Hernández said in a video message to supporters after beating four other candidates and finishing second to Petro in the first round of voting. “I’m counting on you to win the second round.”
The video, shot from Hernández’s kitchen with appliances and a stove full of pots in the background, matched his austere image. Although Hernández has made millions in real estate, he says he doesn’t spend much on his campaign.
You might find Rodolfo Hernandez on TikTok
Rather than taking the country by storm giving speeches, he communicates via TikTok videos and softball interviews, usually focusing on government corruption, which he says is the root of Colombia’s problems. . In a recent interview on Colombian television, he said that almost all politicians were “traitors, liars, clowns and hypocrites and we are going to expel them”.
If he wins, he plans to hold a simple inauguration in a poor town, saying normal swearing-in ceremonies at the presidential palace with hundreds of guests waste taxpayers’ money on caviar, champagne and whisky. Despite his age, Hernández says he will be in office from dawn to dusk to cram 5½ years of work into a four-year presidential term.
“Colombia is a beautiful country that was ruled by thieves,” he said in the TV interview, “and the results were fatal.”
Gustavo Petro aims to be the first left-wing president
Hernández’s rival, Petro, is trying to become Colombia’s first ever leftist president. So no matter who wins, the new leader will take the country in a new direction. All of this, analysts say, is the result of decades of corruption and broken promises by mainstream politicians as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed millions of Colombians into poverty.
However, Petro, 62, is a former mayor of Bogotá and a longtime opposition senator who is in his third run for president. Compared to Hernández, he’s old news, says Lawrence J. Gumbiner, a former US diplomat who advised Hernández on international affairs.
The feeling among many voters, Gumbiner says, is that “all these guys who’ve been there all these years, we don’t like any of them. We don’t really know who this guy is. [Hernández] but we’re so sick of everyone who’s been here all these years that we’re ready to roll the dice on him.”
Petro’s lingering fear adds to Hernández’s rise. Business leaders are concerned about Petro’s plans to phase out oil production, the country’s main export, renegotiate trade deals with countries like the United States and reform the pension system. Petro has also pledged to forge closer ties with the authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela.
Hernández has won endorsements, including from rival candidates
Partly because of this, Hernández received an outpouring of support from establishment parties and politicians, including Federico Gutiérrez. He was the Conservative and pro-government candidate who finished third in the May 29 vote. He claims that Petro could become a leftist dictator, like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and in his concession speech he urged Colombians to support Hernández.
“We have to save freedom and democracy because once they are gone, they don’t come back,” Gutiérrez warned.
But critics say Hernández has an overbearing side.
He praised President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador for ordering army troops to occupy that country’s Congress building in 2020 to bully lawmakers into supporting his policies. Hernández does not have a majority in Colombia’s Congress, but said he would put up billboards of allegedly corrupt lawmakers and shame them into supporting his agenda.
Moreover, he refuses to face the scrutiny of televised debates or hard-hitting journalists, preferring to communicate directly with voters via social media.
“His Achilles heel is his populist leanings and his appreciation of the strongman style of governance,” Gumbiner said.
Hernández’s stubborn approach was on full display in 2018 when he was mayor of the northern city of Bucaramanga, the only major political post he held. He was filmed yelling at a councilman – then slapping him – in an argument over corruption.
Indeed, for all his rhetoric about clean government, Hernández himself has faced bribery charges over a public works contract since his time as mayor in a case set to go to trial in July – just weeks before the new president is sworn in.
In a May 29 speech, Petro told his followers, “My adversary is accused of corruption. Do we want this? You don’t fight corruption by messaging on TikTok.”
Hernández also made some superb blunders. In a radio interview last year, for example, he said he was “a disciple of a great German thinker named Adolf Hitler”, but later clarified he was talking about Albert Einstein, claiming that he disliked the Nazi leader. In a video message to voters in Vichada, a remote department in eastern Colombia that borders Venezuela, he asked his interviewer, “Vichada? What is that?” Yet he still won the most votes in Vichada in the first ballot.
Ideologically, Hernández is difficult to pin down. He is pro-business but also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the legalization of drugs and backs Colombia’s 2016 peace treaty which disarmed the country’s largest guerrilla group. Yet he failed to flesh out his proposals on everything from national security to the economy.
However, many Colombians are more drawn to Hernández’s style than his substance. Among them is Marco Moreno, who runs a bike shop on the outskirts of Bogotá.
Hernández “is very firm in his decisions”, says Moreno. “He’s radical. And that’s what’s good about him.”