How Colombia’s Election Surprised Observers, and How the Runoff Might Play Out

Rodolfo Hernández’s passage into the presidential runoff against Gustavo Petro has shaken up Colombian politics. What could happen next?

Gustavo Petro (left) and Rodolfo Hernández.
May 30, 2022 | 11:35 AM
Reading time: 5 min.

The first round of the presidential elections in Colombia has marked a new beginning in the race for the Casa de Nariño, with left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro, leader of the Pacto Histórico movement, and Rodolfo Hernández, an outsider candidate of the Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción, qualifying for the second round, which will take place on June 19.

In Sunday’s election, with 99.99% of polling stations counted, Petro and his vice presidential candidate Francia Márquez obtained 8,527,768 votes (40.32% of the total), while Hernández and his running mate, Marelen Castillo, totaled 5,953,209 votes, or 28.15%.

The polling day’s biggest surprise was that the engineer from Santander and former mayor of Bucaramanga reached the second round, having won in 13 of the 32 departments of the country without investing in large rallies and TV commercials, and with little participation in debates.

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Rather, his campaign was focused on social networks, promoting his anti-corruption stance.

Following are five key points pointing to why the elections were atypical, and which may help to understand what could happen next.

1. Why are these elections atypical?

Never in Colombia’s political history has an independent candidate like Rodolfo Hernandez, a politician difficult to classify within any political trend, reached the second round of a presidential runoff.

Elections have always been fought among candidates of three tendencies: left, right and center, and which is why analysts consider that Sunday’s result blows apart the traditional Colombian party system.

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Hernández ran an atypical campaign. He did not invest heavily in billboard or TV ads. He gave few interviews and hardly attended any debates. He did however achieve a strong presence on social media such as TikTok, with videos garnering around three million views. In addition, he is recognized for his colorful expressions, publicly calling politicians and judges thieves, or questioning diplomatic bureaucracy, and his rhetoric always included his anti-corruption stance. Likewise, his vice-presidential running mate, Marelen Castillo, who could replace him if needed, is an unknown face in Colombian politics.

Supporters of Rodolfo Hernandez, independent presidential candidate, gather during an election night rally following the first-round presidential election in Bucaramanga, Colombia, on Sunday, May 29, 2022. Colombia is heading to a presidential runoff between leftist former guerrilla Gustavo Petro and anti-establishment outsider Rodolfo Hernandez, who defied polls to defeat a conservative candidate backed by traditional parties. Photographer: Natalia Ortiz Mantilla/Bloombergdfd

2. Hernández, a political sensation

Receiving almost six million votes, the 76-year-old Colombian engineer and construction magnate has become a political phenomenon, and has been called the ‘Colombian Trump’ for his radical and anti-establishment statements, while members of Gustavo Petro’s campaign accused Hernández of snatching the anti-corruption banner from the left-wing candidate. In order to participate in the elections, Hernández founded a political movement called Liga Gobernantes Anticorrupción (anti-corruption leaders’ league). As for his economic plans, the details are still unclear. Regarding taxes, he has said that “the best tax reform is to get all thieves out of the government”. On VAT, he has proposed lowering it to 10%, and on the subject of pensions, he has said that the Colombian pension system should be reviewed, and he agrees with the need for a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

3. Petro’s plan of attack

Gustavo Petro addresses his supporters in Bogotá.dfd

Some analysts consider that, going into the second round, Pacto Histórico, Gustavo Petro’s movement, does not have it so easy. The movement not only has to get more than one million additional votes to secure election, but also win in a head-to-head race with Hernández as both candidates push for significant changes.

Experts believe that Hernández’s political surprise was generated out of citizen nonconformity and dissatisfaction with traditional politics. For some, it also means the rejection of the extremes. Moreover, Hernandez’s speech intersects with Petro’s discourse on changing Colombian politics. For Petro, a rival such as Fico Gutiérrez would have been easier to contradict and oppose. In running against Hernández, Petro’s stance loses some substance.

A few hours after the results were known, members of Gustavo Petro’s campaign claimed that Hernández did not have the experience to hold the position. Along the same lines, in his speech, Petro questioned some of Hernández’s opinions, such as women should be in the house, and claiming that Hernández proposes “an empty change”. Likewise, Petro’s campaign will look for a way to link his runoff rival to continuity, and attempt to tie him to the right-wing.

4. An express campaign

Over the next three weeks, the campaigns will move strongly to procure endorsements. Petro’s campaign will seek to give a second chance to the Liberal party, of former president César Gaviria, and to seek its adhesion in a bid to win over voters among its supporters.

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However, this will prove to be difficult because Gaviria supported Fico in the first round, so any shift toward Petro would be a radical one. Also, Pacto Histórico will attempt to woo figures at the center, which has been colonized little by little with the arrival of supports of parties such as Alianza Verde and a faction of the Liberals. Petro is even expected to moderate his discourse, especially to better convince business leaders, investors, and large corporations.

Regarding his rival, Hernández has said he is open to endorsements from wherever they come, but that he would not promise anyone a position in his administration. The challenge now is to get support from right-wingers who once supported Federico Gutiérrez but who will not vote for Petro.

Thus, the decisions in the second round run-off by parties such as the Conservatives, the Democratic Center, and the Liberals themselves are eagerly expected. Hernández will also seek the anti-Petro vote, which brings together a whole spectrum of groups, including the undecided. In the territorial scope, Petro could seek to strengthen his support in the north of the country and Bogotá in a bid to ensure victory, while Hernández has a strong presence in the center and south of the country.

5. What will the markets say?

As Monday is a holiday in both Colombia and the U.S., the markets’ reaction to the runoff between Petro and Hernandez will not be fully known until Tuesday. However, Bloomberg has consulted analysts and economists for their projections, with the response being that Hernández’s large number of votes and the subsequent runoff between him and Petro would boost Colombian assets.

“The market will react positively, given that Hernández’s option in the second round most reduces the likelihood of a Petro win,” said Mario Castro, a fixed income strategist at BBVA. For his part, Munir Jalil, a chief economist for the Andean region at BTG Pactual, said that Hernández “does have a chance against Gustavo Petro”. He also believes the Colombian currency can gain 50 pesos compared to last Friday’s peso-dollar rate of 3,933.