In Colombia’s Presidential Election, Leftist Gustavo Petro Is Up Against a Right-Wing Populist

On Sunday, Rodolfo Hernández, a right-wing populist, snuck into the second round of Colombia’s presidential elections. Leftist Gustavo Petro is still the front-runner, but the Right's unexpected success should be cause for alarm.

Gustavo Petro and his running mate, Francia Marquez, celebrate after the first round of presidential elections in Bogota, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images)

Left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro has made it to the second round of Colombia’s elections. In a surprising twist, he will be joined in the runoff by populist businessman Rodolfo Hernández, who pulled off a strong second-place showing. Hernández’s success represents a major setback for Petro, who must now convince voters that he represents the change they desire.

In recent weeks, construction magnate Hernández, often nicknamed “Colombia’s Trump,” has made a surprise surge in the polls indicating that he may be headed to second place, beating the more moderate right-winger Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez.

With most results in by late Sunday night, Hernández garnered an astonishing 28 percent of the vote. As predicted by the polls, leftist and former guerrilla Gustavo Petro won more than 40 percent of the vote. Given that most of Fico’s supporters, 24 percent of the voters, will back Hernández in the June 19 runoff, Petro who was anticipated to win the presidency comfortably, now faces a troublesome uphill struggle.

The former M-19 guerrilla and mayor of the capital Bogotá has been able to mobilize swathes of Colombians and maintain popularity after widespread anti-government protests erupted in May 2021 in response to the center-right government’s proposal to implement a regressive tax on public services.

Although he topped the polls for months, Petro has been unable to break through his ceiling of 40 percent — a number that may haunt him at the presidential runoff vote which requires a 50 percent majority.

Ruled for decades by the center-right elite, Colombia has never come closer to having a left-wing government. Discontent and frustration with the right-wing government have been growing since the onset of the pandemic.

In the country mired by a history of violence, income inequality is the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the second highest in Latin America, only behind Brazil. According to the World Bank, this inequality increased under outgoing president Iván Duque.

“Colombia has been going down a bad path for more than thirty years — we citizens have been completely abandoned by the government,” said Cesar Augusto Franco Salazar, a taxi driver. “The strikes last year have united Colombians whose working conditions have deteriorated, and we’ve now come together to seek a change by participating in the elections.”

Both Petro and Hernández’s campaigns have harnessed widespread discontent amongst Colombians. Some 75 percent of Latin American nations’ citizens feel that their country is heading down the wrong path.

Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have promised to address these concerns with an ambitious agenda focused on education, reshuffling the economy, women’s rights, and environmental preservation.

Hernández, compared, campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, becoming a popular figure on the social media platform TikTok, calling for an end to “the robbery in Colombia” in his videos.

Alleged of graft himself, as a former mayor of Bucaramanga, he will stand trial in July for improperly awarding a contract for the recycling of rubbish to one of his son’s companies. Hernández dismisses these charges as an attempt to smear his presidential campaign.

But despite little clarity on how Hernández would root out Colombia’s deep-seated corruption, his message and anti-elitist style resonates with angry voters.

Without a political party, the wealthy businessman leads the makeshift League of Anti-Corruption Governors movement and has financed his campaign using his own wealth. He pledges to radically slash the state budget, donate his presidential salary, and offer rewards to citizens reporting on corrupt officials.

Accepting defeat, Fico was quick to endorse Hernández and call on his supporters to vote for him and his running mate, Marelen Castillo, in the runoff.

Some Petro supporters now fear that they’ve run into a trap and see Hernández as a worse option than Fico. Others, motivated by fears stoked up by conservatives that their country might become “another Venezuela,” see Hernández as the only way to stop left-wing rule over the Andean country.

“Many Colombians are thinking about Venezuela these days. People want something different indeed largely because of the difficult global economic situation. Still, I cannot but feel concerned about the left in Colombia,” said Donelia Alvarez, a massage therapist from Colombia’s third largest city, Cali.

Opinion polls had suggested that Petro would have comfortably beaten Fico, widely seen as representing the deeply unpopular establishment, in the runoff.

But when it comes to beating Hernández in the second round, polls indicate a head-to-head vote, with both polling at 40.5 percent.

While Sunday’s elections raise many new questions, one thing that Colombians have ascertained is that they are hungry for change.

And change is now sure to come, but whether that will be in the way Petro envisages it is less clear today than before. Petro’s campaign team will now have to grapple with the new reality of beating someone who portrays themselves as more antiestablishment than Petro.

His team will require a radical shift in strategy if they are to emerge as the successful winners.

The significance of the 2022 elections has not been understated, and they are on course to become the most consequential in the country’s history. Satisfying Colombia’s hunger for meaningful change amid a global economic downturn and rising inflation will by no means be an easy task.