Photo: Colombian Presidential Candidate Rodolfo Hernández. Source: Yaneth Jiménez Mayorga / Colprensa.
This article was originally published in Spanish in El Tiempo. Leer en español.
Colombia’s upcoming three-round presidential election is generating fatigue among voters. Since last year, Gustavo Petro has been leading the polls by a wide margin, which until now suggested that he was the only candidate who proposed a convincing change and spoke to the discontent felt by the majority of voters.
On Thursday night, the Centro Nacional de Consultoría (CNC) and Invamer, Colombia’s oldest polling companies, presented results that showed Rodolfo Hernández, the “outsider,” anti-politics, and anti-establishment candidate, a hair away from advancing to the second round of the election, which would substantially change the electoral landscape.
Change vs. Change
Colombia’s electoral narrative has until now been a contest between change and continuity. In this contest, the majority of voters have demonstrated dissatisfaction with the status quo, especially the government of Iván Duque, whose immense unfavorability has been reinforced by controversies that only strengthen the idea that governments benefit only a small group of people. The campaign has also exposed latent pessimism regarding corruption, cost of living, the economy, and security.
Petro and his running mate, Francia Márquez, have sought to personify change towards a model of Colombia that is very different from the one we currently live in: more diverse, with greater redistribution and transformative economic proposals. Since the beginning of their campaign, Petro and Márquez have sought to bolster their narrative with an air of inevitability, implying that Colombia is more than ready for a change. Even their party’s name, Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact) suggests that it will be difficult for anyone to campaign against history.
This narrative makes sense when campaigning against candidates who represent the current model of government, like Federico Gutiérrez, or even against establishment politicians who represent an alternative vision like Sergio Fajardo. But the narrative is weaker with the emergence—if only momentary—of a true “outsider” like Hernández, who campaigns mostly on social media and has based his narrative exclusively on the fight against corruption and the political establishment.
Hernández, who has had a modest campaign with a small team based on social media with little policy depth, uses colloquial and impactful phrases, and depends on airtime from traditional media—recently rose in the polls by 20 percent, allowing him to close in on Federico Gutiérrez, who occupies second place in voters’ preferences. Hernández, who is 77 years old, has selected a vice-presidential candidate who is virtually unknown to voters. He has a superficial government program and has few alliances with recognized political groups. These characteristics make him vulnerable in the second round of the elections, but at the same time they reinforce his anti-politics message, which has brought him to where he is today.
Hernandez’s campaign’s narrative cannot be “change vs. continuity.” Instead, he must propose a model of change that is different from Petro’s. (Fajardo already tried this strategy, but he was unsuccessful because of multiple errors in his messaging, coalition-building, and personality.)
Waves of Support Are Difficult to Maintain
The wave of support that Hernández is experiencing isn’t surprising. Rodolfo has the potential to grow because his name recognition is much lower than his competitors, his favorability is high among those who do know about him, and among the candidates most favored, the electorate would vote for him. Hernández needed a favorable context to achieve this level of support; in this case, a large part of the electorate felt uneasy identifying with the two options who are seen as “extreme,” and recent polls have made Hernández appear as a viable third option.
The problem with these waves of support is that they’re difficult to maintain. To retain support, Hernández will require a structure to gain votes from more sectors, as well as defend himself from attacks from competitors. Ingrid Betancourt’s support for Hernández’s campaign gives Hernández an additional boost, but he will need more than this to maintain enthusiasm among voters and make it to the second round.
The Center: Sacrifice Elections to Win the Government?
For Hernández, it will be key to not only showcase his chances of winning, but to also demonstrate his ability to govern a country as complicated as Colombia. Hernández can play the card of a strong cabinet, which he can create by promising discretion to potential ministers and launching negotiations with outside political groups. However, he will have to recognize this soon if he hopes to achieve his electoral goals.
This scenario creates an interesting possibility for the political center amid declining polling numbers for candidate Sergio Fajardo, who has the most solid government program but the lowest probability of getting to the second round. Although Fajardo failed to achieve an alliance with Hernández in the first round, creating an alliance with him in the second round would allow centrists to enter a potential Hernández government as ministers or other senior officials.
Reviewing past cases of political outsiders may serve as a guide for a potential Hernández presidency. As president, Hernández would frequently delegate and focus only on the topics he’s interested in and on major political controversies. This would echo the presidency of Donald Trump, who managed to build a competent team—despite the fears of the U.S. political world—promising his nominees that they would be the “most powerful Vice President or secretary in history”
The Results Are Around the Corner
During the last week of the campaign, many voters and analysts are mired in uncertainty, speculation, and predictions, especially given that polling is prohibited in the days prior to the first round election.
Without a doubt, the election is tighter than ever, and the result is more uncertain today than it was a few weeks ago. We will certainly see more action in the last three weeks of the campaign than we have seen the last year. The die is cast and it points towards change.
Andrés Segura is a Partner at Ennoia.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis.