democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Colombia faces moment of reckoning as tense election awaits

Populist outlier Rodolfo Hernández will challenge the leftist candidate Gustavo Petro in Sunday's presidential vote

Juanita Rico
17 June 2022, 12.00am
Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández will contest Sunday's election
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JHG / Alamy Stock Photo

Just a few weeks ago, Gustavo Petro was expected to make history by becoming Colombia’s first ever left-wing president.

Petro was predicted to defeat the right-wing candidate Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez, the establishment’s man, which he did, quite handsomely.

But perhaps what Pero wasn’t expecting was to be facing a second round run-off against Rodolofo Hernández, the 77-year-old millionaire pitching himself as the populist anti-establishment candidate and self-styled TikTok celebrity.

Hernández won 27.9% to Petro’s 40.4% in the first round of voting on 29 May but Sunday’s contest is expected to be a far closer affair with the latest poll having Hernández ahead by just a single percentage point.

But should Hernández triumph, his situation could become complicated given he is currently facing allegations of corruption. With the trial set to take place one month after the election, it’s possible he could be suspended from office while proceedings take place.

Should that happen then Hernández, who vehemently denies the charges against him, could be replaced by Marelén Castillo, his vice-presidential running mate, who would have to take over as president until the end of the court case, which could last several years.

If this happens, the outlook is uncertain: Castillo is a teacher and devoted Catholic, who critics claim Hernández chose as his vice-president simply because she’s a woman. She never appears in public with him, nor at political meetings. Largely unknown to Colombians, she could go from the Catholic Uniminuto University to running the entire country.

If – contrary to the law – Hernández were to be elected and then not suspended pending his legal process, there is no telling how he would run the country. He has said that he seeks to protect businessmen, the country’s money and Colombians. However, he has also said that he does not need Congress to govern and that he would issue a decree of ‘conmoción interior’ (roughly translated as ‘internal commotion’), which would allow him to bypass Congress and other bodies to make decisions as soon as he takes office.

Hernández vs Petro

There are two main reasons behind Hernández’s political success so far: first, an aggressive and simplistic campaign on social media, especially Tik Tok; second, selling himself as the anti-establishment candidate who will return Colombia to its core values and principles, a discourse that is ominously reminiscent of Donald Trump's campaigning.

Although the 77-year-old engineer’s proposals clearly align with those of the Right, his insistence that he does not belong to any party or ideology has been his ticket to convince Colombians that he is the best option. Although we may assume that he would – as a good businessman – be a fierce guardian of the interests of money, it is difficult to overlook his caudillista (strongman), authoritarian character, hidden under a rhetoric of ‘equality’. It’s also hard to overlook the fact that this self-professed fighter against corruption is himself involved in a corruption trial.

On the other hand, if Gustavo Petro is elected, he is expected to emphasise social policies, as he did when he was mayor of Bogotá, but there are doubts about his economic management, with questions asked about how he would pay for his policies.

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Petro, a 62-year-old militant-turned-politician, is hoping to capitalise on the ‘Pink Tide’ sweeping across South America, with recent left-wing victories in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru.

He wants to expand the size of the state while at the same time prohibiting new oil and gas exploration, which currently accounts for half of Colombia's exports. Some analysts fear a Petro presidency could damage relations with the US and harm Colombian private enterprise. However, in an interview with The Economist, Petro insisted that he would seek political dialogue with US president Joe Biden and run the economy with a moderate, business-friendly approach.

Whoever wins, they will face the worst economic figures in many years. Unemployment stands at 12.1% and inflation is at 9.23%, the highest it’s been in the last 20 years. Against this backdrop, the new president will have to take urgent measures to remedy the Duque government’s mismanagement and rethink their strategy for the country’s future.

Problems caused by two years of the pandemic and almost three months of violent social protest have been exacerbated by the failure to implement conditions of the 2016 Peace Accord supposed to end the long-running guerilla conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This has led to unchecked violence in rural areas, with 1,313 local leaders assassinated since the signing of the Accord.

Corruption and dirty campaigning

Support for Hernández remains at high levels despite the fact that the end of the election campaign has been characterised by media revelations about his alleged corruption. The complex case revolves around the alleged corrupt awarding of a contract to repair the collapse of a landfill site when Hernández was mayor of the city of Bucaramanga. The trial is set for 21 July.

This is not the only time Hernández has faced allegations of corruption. The first case against him was in 2019 when he was charged with false testimony over an advance he was paid for a land deal that he never returned.

The investigation lasted from 2014 until 2018, when the Second Criminal Court of the Bucaramanga Circuit ruled in favour of Hernández. Following appeals by the Prosecutor’s Office he was finally cleared in 2019, when the Superior Court of Bucaramanga upheld the original decision.

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There have also been allegations of wrongdoing on the other side. On 9 June, Semana magazine published a series of recordings of Petro’s campaign strategy committee meetings in which it is evident that there was a plan to oust Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez and Sergio Fajardo from the electoral race.

In the recordings, Sebastian Camilo Guanumen Parra, Petro's communications strategist, can be heard saying that his team will spread rumours on social media to discredit Gutiérrez, with plans to attack him over his relations with drug trafficking, his bad management, and the networks of power that support him. Other conversations discuss how to discredit Fajardo.

Semana then published two more audio clips in which Roy Barreras, who was withdrawn from Petro's campaign after the scandal, can be heard talking about how to control the damage in the face of the news that leaders of the Historical Pact had visited jails and assured foreign prisoners that they would not be deported after their sentences, as part of the leftist candidate’s proposal for “social pardon”. Petro sells himself as a progressive, forward-thinking and upright man, so these audio clips have undoubtedly muddied his campaign.

This election will not only decide who governs Colombia but how Colombians will face the next four years – politically, ideologically and emotionally. The festering corruption allegations, the dirty tricks and high level of confrontation between the candidates and their followers has led to an atmosphere of violence in an already violent country.

On Sunday, the world will know whether Colombia has chosen Petro's “vivir sabroso” (“good living” or “happy living”), a popular slogan in Cauca and Chocó – both regions that have historically been plagued by violence – which alludes to living without fear and with rights. Or whether they have instead chosen to rally around the right-leaning “anti-establishment” persona of Hernández, an eccentric figure with autocratic tendencies. For now, there is no centre ground. Colombia must choose and hope.

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