Latin America Advisor

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Which Candidate Has the Edge in Colombia’s Runoff?

Leftist Gustavo Petro celebrated with his running mate, Francia Márquez, after their ticket received the most votes in the first round of Sunday’s presidential election in Colombia. They will face populist Rodolfo Hernández in the second round. // Photo: Petro Campaign. Leftist Gustavo Petro celebrated with his running mate, Francia Márquez, after their ticket received the most votes in the first round of Sunday’s presidential election in Colombia. They will face populist Rodolfo Hernández in the second round. // Photo: Petro Campaign.

Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday saw center-right candidate Federico Gutiérrez lose his second-place position to populist firebrand Rodolfo Hernández—who styled himself as an anti-corruption crusader. Hernández will now face leftist Gustavo Petro in a runoff election on June 19. What were the most surprising results of the election, and what are the implications for both candidates in the lead-up to the second round? Will Petro and Hernández alter their campaigns? What sort of political alliances might take shape before the runoff vote?

Michael Shifter, senior fellow and former president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “For some time, it was clear that, consistent with a region-wide trend, this would be a ‘change election’ in Colombia. Sunday’s first-round results dramatically underscored that assessment. As expected, the vast majority of Colombians are unhappy with the country’s direction and distrustful of and fed up with the political establishment, especially with the center and right. A leftist government—represented by Gustavo Petro and his popular running mate, Francia Márquez—only became possible after the peace agreement with the FARC in 2016. Petro, who lost to Iván Duque in the second round in 2018, was always expected to perform well this time around. Although after the March primaries it seemed that the most likely match-up would be Petro and center-right candidate Federico ‘Fico’ Gutiérrez, most analysts understood that an anti-politics ‘outsider’ could emerge and overtake Fico. That’s exactly what happened with Rodolfo Hernández, who in the end was seen as a better instrument to channel the anti-Petro sentiment than Fico. Fico struggled to articulate a clear message and get traction. He became the candidate of continuity, with traditional parties behind him, whereas Colombians overwhelmingly desire change. Hernández benefited from a more unvarnished populist image, simple communication, and effective use of social media. Although anything can happen in the next three weeks, Hernández—who is likely to draw a huge proportion of Fico’s supporters—seems to be in a stronger position. Petro was prepared to do battle with Fico. Now he will have to adapt and redo his campaign strategy before June 19.”

Silvana Amaya, senior analyst at Control Risks: “For decades prior to this election cycle, Colombian elections were predictable enough, with traditional parties playing a decisive role and allowing only right-wing and centrist candidates to have a shot, but never the left. A month ago, very few people thought Rodolfo Hernández would have a chance to pass through to the runoff. Now, after the first round, many are asking who this independent, antiestablishment populist TikTok star, whose slogan ‘neither Petro nor Uribe’ really is. Rodolfo, a former mayor of Bucaramanga, has stuck to a very simple discourse around fighting corruption and putting the criminals who steal from the state in prison. From his successful time as a businessman to his striking performance as mayor, when he displayed a polarizing, intense and full-of-drama leadership, Rodolfo managed to take advantage of the perfect storm to become the strongest candidate to win the presidency. Leftist Gustavo Petro still remains the front-runner by 12 percent—having received 2.5 million more votes than Rodolfo—but is in a less favorable position ahead of the runoff election on June 19. The message is clear: Colombians are demanding a change of the socioeconomic paradigm, and a change that restores their hope, because everyone is tired of the status quo. But the trick is that Petro isn’t the only one who offers that change. Rodolfo has taken full advantage of this and stands poised to capitalize on fear of a left-wing government, making him the most likely candidate to win the runoff.”

Sergio Guzmán, co-founder and director of Colombia Risk Analysis: “The results of the election are clearly bad for traditional political parties, especially President Iván Duque’s right-wing party, Centro Democrático, which now must endorse Rodolfo Hernández, a candidate who has been highly critical of political elites in the past. Both Gustavo Petro and Hernández represent radical visions of change, with Petro a change to the economy and social order and Hernández a challenge to the political class. Now the onus will be on Petro’s camp to explain how their version of change is better for the country. This also gives Sergio Fajardo, who previously has hinted at an alliance with Hernández, an opportunity to land a position in a Hernández government. Ingrid Betancourt could smell the blood in the water and smartly quit last week ahead of the first round. She will likely play a key role as a power broker. Petro earned an important win in Sunday’s election, but he is now at a huge disadvantage: I think he was preparing to campaign on a choice between continuity and change, where he strongly represents the change needed to defeat continuity. Petro now has three weeks to spin his campaign narrative on its head and try to cast Hernández as an extreme right-wing Nazi sympathizer and a proxy of former President Álvaro Uribe. He is unlikely to succeed in this effort. But Petro has also been heavily critical of any centrists who refused to fold into his campaign, and he will have a harder time now trying to seduce or coerce them into joining his camp.” 

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, director for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America: “Colombian voters sent a clear message on Sunday to the political establishment that they want change. This was expected given President Iván Duque’s unpopularity, rising insecurity and last year’s national civic strike and protests. The surprise was the rise of Rodolfo Hernández, a populist real estate mogul known as the Colombian Trump whose campaign focused on anticorruption. Hernández broke Colombian political campaign etiquette by not attending most debates, positioning himself through social media and giving his post-election speech via Zoom from his kitchen table. The question now is what type of change Colombians want. Gustavo Petro came out on top in the Pacific, Cauca and Valle del Cauca provinces, where we see humanitarian crises, a high rate of killings of social leaders and multiple armed groups vying for control of territories for illicit activities (drugs, mining and extortion). While Hernández was highly popular in areas that border Venezuela, especially Arauca and Catatumbo, where the ELN guerrillas maintain strongholds. Both men have said they will advance the 2016 peace deal, with Petro having a more developed set of proposals of how he would do it. With regard to the ELN, Hernández—whose family suffered from the armed conflict with kidnappings and killings—said he’d offer the guerrilla group the opportunity to add themselves to the 2016 peace accord. Petro said he would open up new peace talks with the ELN. For Hernández to beat Petro, he needs a million votes from those who supported Fico and centrist Sergio Fajardo. The question is whether this will happen, or whether Petro will be able to convince some of those voters to side with him.” 

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