Populist millionaire faces ex-rebel for Colombian presidency

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Left-wing Senator Gustavo Petro celebrated his first-round header in Colombia’s presidential election as most politicians would: in a conference room packed with hundreds of supporters as confetti rained down on him.

The man he will meet in a June 19 run-off had a different approach.

Rodolfo Hernandez sat down at his kitchen table and talked to his followers for five minutes on Facebook Live.

“Today, the country that doesn’t want to continue with the same politicians, that doesn’t want the same people who got us to where we are, has won,” he said.

The 77-year-old populist rode a wave of disgust at the state of the country at what, until just weeks ago, would have been a shocking place in the second round, overtaking late in the campaign for more conventional candidates.

He ran an austere campaign – unaffiliated with any major party – which was carried out mainly on social media with a message centered on reducing corruption and cutting wasteful government spending,

He is now in a position to seriously challenge Petro, a former rebel who has long been seen as a political insurgent himself and who would be Colombia’s first left-wing leader if elected. Petro now, to some eyes at least, appears to be the more conventional candidate – even if he still scares much of the country’s conservative establishment.

Hernandez got 28% of the vote in the six-candidate field on Sunday while Petro, as polls had predicted, got 40%.

Hernandez is a self-made millionaire who got rich in real estate after growing up on a small farm. He says he paid for his campaign with his own savings rather than relying on donations.

Some in Colombia compare him to former US President Donald Trump and describe him as a right-wing populist. But others say the analogy is misleading.

“He’s not a hard-right candidate,” said Will Freeman, a Princeton scholar who specializes in Latin American politics and who met Hernandez in February for a lengthy interview. “One of the big things he talks about is poverty, inequality and hunger. When I spoke with him, he repeatedly said that he was appalled by the idea that people are born into poverty in Colombia and do not have the possibility of getting out of this path.

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Hernandez also said he favors peace talks with the National Liberation Army – the last major rebel group remaining – which abducted and killed his daughter in 2004.

Freeman said that during the interview, Hernandez also expressed his admiration for two other Latin American leaders: Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele – both often seen as authoritarian populists but neither. them is from a right-wing background.

Hernandez made his political debut in 2016, running for mayor of his hometown of Bucaramanga. He said he was tired of complaining about corrupt local officials and was convinced by his brother, who is a philosopher, to try and change the way the town was run himself.

Leading a movement called “Logic, Ethics and Aesthetics” — which had the pi symbol as its logo — Hernandez won and eventually left office in 2019, with approval ratings above 80%.

But his tenure as mayor was also marred by an investigation into allegations he received kickbacks from a waste disposal contractor. Hernandez denies the charges and fights them in court.

As mayor, Hernandez became famous for publicly reprimanding police officers who sought bribes and notorious for slapping a councilman who accused his son of corruption. Hernandez was suspended for several months for this incident. He also caused an outcry by saying that migrant women from neighboring Venezuela had become “factories raising poor children”.

He stunned Colombians in 2016 when, in a radio interview, he said he was an admirer of Adolf Hitler. He later apologized and said he had meant Albert Einstein – a bizarre confusion that actually made sense because the physicist was the source of the statement Hernández had mistakenly attributed to the dictator during the ‘maintenance.

But the scandals didn’t seem to affect Hernandez’s standing with voters hungry for change in a country struggling to recover economically from the pandemic and overcome ongoing violence.

Inflation in Colombia is the highest in two decades, the poverty rate increased by 8% in 2020 and armed groups continue to fight in some rural areas in territory abandoned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia after this group signed a peace agreement with the government. in 2016.

Many Colombians blame these problems on the conservative parties that have ruled the country for decades. In Sunday’s elections, Federico Gutierrez, the candidate supported by the country’s traditional parties, won only 22% of the vote.

“The success of Hernandez and Petro is a harsh rebuke to the ruling class,” said Sergio Guzman, director of consulting firm Colombia Risk Analysis. “It also means Colombians want a radical version of change.”

Guzman said with just three weeks to go until the runoff, Hernandez is well-positioned to win over voters who backed Gutierrez but fear Petro’s economic proposals, which include higher taxes, pension system reforms and more spending. public. Gutierrez said on Sunday that he would support Hernandez because he didn’t want to “put Colombia’s future at risk.”

As a presidential candidate, Hernandez has said he will curtail government excesses, starting with a plan to turn the country’s presidential palace into a museum. Hernandez also said he wanted to sell buildings belonging to Colombian diplomatic missions abroad to finance loans for Colombian students.

The candidate railed against the country’s ruling class and promised rewards to citizens who speak out against corrupt officials. He also said judges should report to him on the progress of anti-corruption cases. And like Petro, he said he wants to renegotiate Colombia’s trade deals with other countries, to benefit local farmers.

Laura Gil, a political scientist at Javeriana University in Bogota, said many of Hernandez’s proposals are impractical and demonstrate he is a populist with “very little knowledge” about how government works.

“He’s a Colombian Trump,” Gil said, adding that if Hernandez wins, he will push Colombia’s democratic institutions “to the limit.”

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