Rodolfo Hernández is the Trump of Colombia and he may be going to the presidential palace

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s political landscape has changed remarkably in 24 hours.

For months, polls predicted that Gustavo Petro, a former rebel senator who was running for the country’s first left-wing president, would round out the June presidential election against Federico Gutiérrez, a conservative establishment candidate who had argued that a vote for Mr. Petro came down to ‘a leap into the void’.

Instead, on Sunday, voters gave the top two seats to Petro and Rodolfo Hernández, a former mayor and wealthy businessman with a populist anti-corruption platform whose outsider status, inflammatory statements and one-sided approach to politics have brought him comparisons. to Donald Trump.

The vote — for a leftist who has made a career out of attacking the conservative political class and for a relatively unknown candidate with no formal party support — represented a rejection of the conservative establishment that has ruled Colombia for generations.

But it also made the political calculation for Mr. Petro again. Now it’s mr. Petro billing himself as the safe change, and Mr. Hernández as the dangerous leap into the void.

“There are changes that are not changes,” Mr Petro said at a campaign event Sunday night, “they are suicides.”

Hernández once called himself a follower of Adolf Hitler, has proposed combining major ministries to save money, and says as president he plans to declare a state of emergency to tackle corruption, sparking fears that he could shut down Congress or suspend mayors.

Still, Colombia’s right-wing establishment is starting to line up behind him, bringing in many of their votes and a win for Mr. Petro look like a tough climb.

On Sunday, Mr Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellín, the country’s second-largest city, gave his support to Mr Hernández, saying his intention was to “protect democracy”.

But Fernando Posada, a political scientist, said the move was also the establishment’s last-ditch effort to block Petro, whose plan to remake Colombia’s economy “endangers many of the interests of the traditional political class”.

“The Colombian right has reached such an extremely disastrous stage,” said Mr Posada, “that they prefer a government that offers them nothing until it is Petro.”

Mr Hernández, who had received little attention in most of the country until a few weeks ago, is a one-time mayor of the medium-sized city of Bucaramanga in the north of the country. He made his fortune in construction, building low-income homes in the 1990s.

At the age of 77, Mr. Hernández built much of his support on TikTok, once punching a city councilor in front of the camera and recently told The Washington Post that he had a “messianic” effect on his supporters, whom he likened to the “brainwashed” hijackers who destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11.

When asked whether such a comparison was problematic, he rejected the idea. “What I’m comparing is that once you’re in that state, you don’t change position. You don’t change it.”

Until a few days ago, Colombia’s political story seemed simple: for generations, politics has been dominated by a few wealthy families, and more recently by a harsh conservatism known as Uribismo, founded by the country’s powerful political king, former president. Alvaro Uribe.

But voter frustration over poverty, inequality and insecurity, exacerbated by the pandemic, along with a growing acceptance of the left following the 2016 peace process with its largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, appeared to be shifting. the dynamics.

By 2022, Mr. Petro, long the combative face of the Colombian left, that this was his moment. And in the months leading up to the May 29 election, voters flocked to his proposals: a broad expansion of social programs, a halt to all new oil drilling in a country dependent on oil exports, and a focus on social justice.

The storyline was left versus right, change versus continuity, the elite versus the rest of the country.

But Mr Hernández’s improbable rise reflects a rejection of both the conservative elite and Mr Petro.

It also shows that the story has never been so simple.

Mr Hernández, who won 28 percent of the vote, has attracted a broad swath of voters eager to change and who could never get on board with Mr Petro.

mr. Petro is a former member of a rebel group called the M-19 in a country where rebels have been terrorizing the population for decades. And he is a leftist in a nation that shares a border with Venezuela, a country plunged into humanitarian crisis by authoritarians claiming the leftist flag.

Hernández, with his fuzzy orange hair and businessman’s approach to politics, has also attracted voters who say they want someone with Trumpian ambition, and don’t mind if he’s prone to tactlessness. (Years after saying that he was a follower of Adolf Hitler, Mr. Hernández clarified that he meant to say that he was a follower of Albert Einstein

Two of the country’s biggest problems are poverty and lack of opportunity, and Mr. Hernández appeals to people who say he can help them escape both.

“I think he sees Colombia as an opportunity to grow. And that’s what makes him different from the other candidates,” said Salvador Rizo, 26, a tech consultant in Medellín. house that’s on fire and that they want to put out that fire and reveal the house. What I think is Rodolfo’s view: that there is a house that could be a huge hotel in the future.”

He is also a ruthless critic of corruption, a chronic issue some Colombians call cancer.

Early on, he pledged not to take campaign funds from private entities, and he says he is financing his presidential bid himself.

“Political people steal shamelessly,” said Álvaro Mejía, 29, who runs a solar energy company in Cali.

He says he prefers Mr. Hernández over Mr. Petro, a longtime senator, precisely because of his lack of political experience.

The question is whether Mr Hernández will be able to maintain that outsider status in the weeks leading up to the second round as key political figures join his campaign.

Just minutes after he won second place on Sunday, two powerful right-wing senators, María Fernanda Cabal and Paloma Valencia, pledged their support for him, and Mr Posada predicted others would likely follow.

Mr. Uribe, who? supported Hernández’s candidacy for mayor in 2015 is an increasingly polemical figure that scares many Colombians. Mr Posada predicted that he would not throw his weight behind Mr Hernández, so as not to cost him voters.

if mr. Hernández can walk that difficult line – courting the voices of the establishment without tarnishing his image – it can be difficult for Mr. Petro to defeat him.

Many political analysts believe that the approximately 8.5 million votes Mr. Petro got Sunday, his ceiling is, and that a lot of Mr. Gutiérrez’ five million votes will be added to the six million Mr. Hernandez has received.

When the results became clear, Hernández’s supporters rushed to his campaign headquarters on one of the main streets in Bogotá, the capital.

Many wore bright yellow campaign T-shirts, hats and ponchos, which they claimed to have bought rather than being given out for free by the campaign, in keeping with Mr Hernández’s austerity principles.

“I’ve never seen anyone with characteristics like engineer Rodolfo’s,” said Liliana Vargas, a 39-year-old attorney, who uses a common nickname for Mr. Hernández, who is a civil engineer. “He is a political being who is not a politician,” she said. “It is the first time that I am completely excited to participate in democratic elections in my country.”

Nearby, Juan Sebastián Rodríguez, 39, a leader of Mr Hernández’s campaign in Bogotá, called the candidate “a rock star.”

“He’s a phenomenon,” he says. “We are sure we will win.”

Genevieve Glatsky contributed from Bogotá.

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