Colombians Will Get Change No Matter Who Wins the Election

There’s nothing new about populist outsiders who challenge for national power. Donald Trump, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and other political novices break through by channeling deep public anger at a well-entrenched political elite. They win by presenting themselves as credible agents of “change vs. more of the same.”

That’s what’s stunning about this weekend’s presidential showdown in Colombia. The political establishment in Colombia has been pushed to the side. On Sunday, two populist firebrands—Rodolfo Hernández and Gustavo Petro—both promising a political earthquake, will go head to head to become Colombia’s next president. Both are a clear rejection of the ruling right-wing clique in Colombia that has been ruling it for many decades. They both vow to take on corruption, inequalities, growing violence, and other problems that have plagued a nation for decades. Situations are worsened by the pandemic.

Colombians want change, and no matter who wins on Sunday, they’re going to get it. However, these men and their plans could take the country in entirely different directions.


The firebrand from the right, Rodolfo Hernández, is a newcomer to national politics. He’s a bottom-line oriented 77-year-old construction baron and a former mayor with a carefully maintained tan, a profane speaking style, a penchant for tantrums, a spectrum-spanning range of anti-establishment campaign promises, and a highly effective communications strategy, boosted by social media, TikTok in particular. Not surprisingly, comparisons to Donald Trump have defined international coverage of his campaign, but the former U.S. president has never called Adolf Hitler a “great German thinker.” (Hernández later insisted he meant Albert Einstein, not Hitler—surely easy to confuse the two.)

He’s known as a builder of affordable housing in a country that badly needs it, though some charge that he has failed to deliver on many of his most grandiose construction promises. Supporters counter that, as mayor of Bucaramanga (population 581,000), he fought graft in the award of city contracts by sharply increasing the number of companies allowed to bid on public works projects and eliminated the city’s debt.

Hernández presents himself as a libertarian. He has called for “total austerity,” a plan to cut deeply into tax rates, the number of government bureaucrats, lawmakers’ salaries, the country’s tax rates, and the regulatory code for business. The emphasis he places on individual liberty extends to progressive social policies that most Americans consider to be progressive. He is in favor of adoption for same-sex couples, and wants legalization to purchase narcotics locally.

His pledge to combat corruption is to grant him emergency power on his first day. However, critics fear that this might allow Hernandez to attempt to dissolve Congress or establish a dictatorial presidency. Hernández himself is scheduled to appear in court on July 21 to face corruption charges, and it’s not clear that an election victory on Sunday would protect him from prosecution. His case will be heard by a committee of the Congressional, which could potentially remove Hernandez from office. In that event, Marelen Castillo (his vice president) would become his chief executive.

Hernández also has personal reasons for bitterly denouncing the country’s left. His daughter was abducted by the Marxist guerilla, National Liberation Army (ELN) in 2004. The already wealthy businessman refused to pay ransom, and his daughter hasn’t been seen since.

Gustavo was Gustavo’s former opponent. Gustavo is a heavy favourite to win. Petro is the most well-known. He’s already lost two presidential elections. But in many ways, a victory for Petro might provoke an even bigger overhaul of Colombia’s politics. In a country long ruled by a military-minded right-wing establishment, the 62-year-old former Bogotá mayor was once a member of the M-19 movement, a now-defunct left-wing rebel group that years ago disarmed and went into politics.

The charismatic Petro has served for years as the determined face of Colombia’s opposition, and his candidacy is fueled in part by an historically remarkable number of young voters who consider his third bid for the presidency more a crusade than a campaign. He has sometimes taken an openly confrontational approach in criticism of Colombia’s military, raising fears for the resilience of the country’s democracy.

Petro promises to raise taxes on the wealthy to lift millions out of poverty, expand public access to schools and quality healthcare, give the unemployed government jobs, and end the U.S.-funded “war on drugs” to invest in rehab projects. Petro would finance these ambitious plans in part by sharply raising taxes on his country’s wealthiest people. He also pledges to halt Colombia’s oil and gas exploration projects to promote environmental protection and diversify Colombia’s economy. (Oil is Colombia’s top export.)

One striking political trait unites the two candidates: both have selected Afro-Colombian women for their running mates. It is an unprecedented move in Colombian politics.

What are our expectations?

In the election’s first round, Petro won 40% of the vote to just 28% for Hernández, but Sunday’s runoff may be agonizingly close. Tensions run high because every candidate refers to his opponent as a threat to the country. Hernández insists Petro will turn Colombia into Venezuela, a country with an economy run into the ground by years of recklessly doctrinaire socialist policies imposed in the name of populist revolution. Petro says that a Hernández victory would be “suicide” for Colombia. When the results are revealed, Colombia is ready for violence. Tens of thousands will gather on the streets with police and soldiers to ensure order this weekend.

We can also expect intense political infighting between Colombia’s new president and its lawmakers. Colombia’s next chief executive, no matter who wins, will face a Congress that includes far more rivals and enemies than friends and allies. Hernández’s political movement, known as the Anti-Corruption League, holds just two of the 172 seats in the lower house of congress. Even the most cynical of lawmakers might refuse to shrug off his frequent charge that politicians are liars and thieves, and it won’t help that he wants to cut their salaries. Petro would be the first leftist president in Colombia’s history, and the country’s right-wing political establishment, well represented in Congress, will oppose his nearly every move.

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