Colombia votes for change

By Luis Losada Simón-Ricart, Analyst

Colombian voters will choose between a former leftist rebel Gustavo Petro and a populist construction industry tycoon and political outsider Rodolfo Hernández in the presidential run-off election on 19th June after no candidate achieved  50% of the vote in the first round. A victory for either will mean a significant shift in Colombian politics; either the country’s first left-leaning government or an unorthodox right-winger who is a far cry from Colombia’s traditional conservative elite.

The perceived failure of the traditional political class in Colombia to address the country’s socioeconomic inequality, combat corruption and tackle insecurity led to social unrest (paro nacional) in April 2021. This was initially to oppose a tax reform but largely peaceful protests turned into violent clashes between protesters and the police. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented brutal abuses by the police against protesters, including killings, beatings, sexual assault and arbitrary detention.[1] [2] Police brutality further deepened the discontent of part of the country against the conservative government of Iván Duque, who is perceived as being backed by his hard-line predecessor Álvaro Uribe.

Against this backdrop, Colombia voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots on 29th May for the leftist Petro (40.32% of the vote), a former Mayor of Bogotá and former member of Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19), a now defunct guerrilla group. In the second round, Petro will face Rodolfo Hernández (28.15% of the vote in the first runoff), a former Mayor of Bucaramanga (Santander Department) and owner of Colombian construction company HG Constructora. Hernández is a relatively unknown political outsider who has in a few months managed to enter the second run-off on a right-wing populist platform, reaching out to voters through social media, where he is known as “the old man of Tik Tok (el viejito de Tik Tok)”.

Both candidates have campaigned on the promise of change. Hernández has promised voters to end systemic corruption, even though  Colombian public prosecutors have placed Hernández and his son Luis Carlos Hernández under investigation over  alleged  corruption , the so-called Vitalogic scandal.[3] Meanwhile, Petro has campaigned against the Colombia’s traditional conservative elite, which has exercised a near total monopoly on political power in the country’s modern history and which has largely opposed social reform. This is the same establishment that is now lining up behind Hernandez to defeat Petro in the second presidential runoff. Recent opinions polls showed a technical tie and the distance between the two candidates is within the margin of error. The question ahead of the second round is whether Colombia will vote fear (petrofobia), backing Hernández, the populist candidate representing economic stability, or hartazgo (loosely translated as “exasperation”) at the status quo, backing Petro, the populist leftist representing radical change. Two potential outcomes from different ends of the ideological spectrum that will have to deliver the promise of change to avoid political and economic stagnation. Whoever wins will take Colombia into unchartered political territory.

[1] Colombia: Brutalidad policial contra manifestantes, HRW, 9 June 2021

[2] COLOMBIA: REPRESIÓN EN LA MIRA, Amnesty Internacional, 25 February 2022

[3] Los problemas judiciales que persiguen a Rodolfo Hernández, El Pais, 31 May 2022