Nearshore Americas

Colombia’s Trump Came Out of Nowhere and Inches Close to a Presidential Win

Rodolfo Hernández, a 77 year-old entrepreneur characterized as “Colombia’s Trump”, is rattling the political establishment in Colombia, with some analysts predicting that he’ll be the country’s next president.

An outsider in Colombia’s political arena, Hernández is set to face leftist candidate Gustavo Petro in the presidential runoff scheduled for June 19.

Until a week ago, pundits ignored him; they can’t do so any longer. Hernández defeated established politician (and, until a couple days ago, Petro’s main rival) Federico Gutiérrez in the first round garnering more than 28% of the votes.

A civil engineer by profession, Hernández grew into a business magnate by building affordable housing for Colombia’s low-income families. Like Trump, he’s critical of the political establishment and points to corruption as the biggest setback for the country’s development.

As part of his campaign promises, Hernández assured that he’ll shrink the size of government and launch a hard crackdown against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. He also promised to turn the president’s palace into a museum and sell dozens of aircrafts and cars used by senior officials and lawmakers. Other campaign promises of his include reducing VAT and removing taxes on food products.

Colombia’s Trump

Like Donald Trump, Hernández is no stranger to controversy. He once declared himself a fan of Adolf Hitler, only to take back his words, alleging that he meant to say Albert Einstein.

Though his campaign has been built on the promise to fight corruption in politics, he was accused of using his position as mayor of Bucaramanga (the largest city in Colombia’s deparment of Santander) to intervene in a tender process, favoring a company his son had lobbied for.

In an audio recording leaked to the media, Hernández can be heard threatening to shoot a client. He has denied this and other accusations, saying that they are politically motivated.

The race between Hernández and Petro is already troubling political and market analysts

Though less of an outsider, Hernández’s rival, Gustavo Petro, is no establishment politician either. Petro has ample political experience when compared to Hernández: he’s a former senator, served as mayor of Bogotá (Colombia’s capital) and ran for president back in 2018. Nonetheless, he’s a former Marxist guerrilla, with politics that go beyond the center-left. He has pledged to wean the country’s economy off of oil and gas, as well as reducing poverty through stronger social welfare programs.

Petro’s lead in the first round came off as quite the upset. He’s seen as the favourite in the presidential race, a rarity in a country that has elected right-wing presidents throughout all of its modern history.

Hernández still has a long way to go in order to beat Gustavo Petro and become president

A win for Petro is likely to harm Colombia’s relationship with the US due to his favorable posture towards reestablishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela, a country with which Washington has had frictions for decades due to its socialist leanings. Then again, some analysts believe the nature of that relationship might change soon.

With the runoff vote less than a month away, the race between Hernández and Petro is already troubling political and market analysts. Although diferrent in many ways, both candidates represent an urge for radical change that has been boling amongst Colombia’s population. In a way, the results of the first round are not as surprising as they seem. Last year was dominated by a wave political protests in the country over issues such as tax increases, healthcare reform and political corruption.

What Do the Numbers Say?

Rodolfo Hernández leapfrogged the political establishment and made it to the runoff, but he still has a long way to go in order to beat Gustavo Petro and become president.

Petro closed the first round with 40% of the votes (about 8.5 million), while Hernández came in at a distant second with 28% (almost 6 million). Those numbers might change in the final vote, but Petro remains as the favourite.

Hope is still alive for Hernández, though. Federico Gutiérrez -who was considered the right’s favourite in the race- gave him his endorsement, along with people within the circle of former president Álvaro Uribe and many of the presidential hopefuls who could not make it to the runoff.

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Some analysts believe that Hernández could score victory in the final round as long as he can capture the votes of all of Gutiérrez’s supporters. Gutiérrez garnered 23% of the vote (about 5 million) in the first round. If those votes are added to Hernández’s pool, and asuming the numbers don’t change much, he could surpass the 50% needed to become president. To reach that threshold, Petro would need about 3 million votes.

Even if elected, Hernandez may find it difficult to fulfill his campaign promises. He has little or no support in Congress, as he does not represent any established political party in the country. Presidents in Colombia need to have the backing of major elected representatives to get laws passed.

Narayan Ammachchi

News Editor for Nearshore Americas, Narayan Ammachchi is a career journalist with a decade of experience in politics and international business. He works out of his base in the Indian Silicon City of Bangalore.

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