Bucaramanga, Colombia – Millions of Colombian voters are ready to take a step into the unknown next week, investing their hopes in a controversial figure they believe will help the country reinvent itself politically.
Rodolfo Hernandez shocked much of Colombia by producing a surprising second-place result in the first round of the country’s presidential elections in late May, winning 28% of the vote.
This guaranteed his place in the next runoff on June 19 against former member of the leftist Gustavo Petro armed group.
“Hernandez wasn’t seen as a viable candidate until three weeks before the first round,” Sergio Guzman, political analyst and director of consultancy Colombia Risk Analysis, told Al Jazeera.
The 77-year-old construction mogul is not a typical presidential candidate in Colombia, where politics in recent decades have largely been centered on uribismo, a brand of conservatism introduced by former president Álvaro Uribe, who still retains significant political clout.
Hernandez is aware of their differences and brandishes them with pride. He is brash, controversial, and foul-mouthed, and has built his presidential campaign around his position as a political outsider and straight-up “normal Joe.”
This is what attracts a large segment of the Colombian electorate, namely low-income and less educated voters, Guzmán explained. “He represents a frustration with the whole system,” Guzman said.
“Many low-income and uneducated Colombians, who make up the bulk of the voting population, agree with this. They’re not very detail-oriented, they don’t care about fancy programs or fancy universities, they care about an old man who can do shit, and that’s the image that Hernandez has tried to sell quite effectively.”
Hernandez, the former mayor of the mid-sized city of Bucaramanga, about 400 kilometers north of the capital Bogotá, has distanced himself from traditional political circles and led an unorthodox campaign fueled by populist rhetoric and an ambiguous political program.
The septuagenarian held few political rallies and instead campaigned predominantly through his carefully crafted social media channels. He has styled himself the “King of Tik Tok”, a platform on which he has amassed over 500,000 followers.
Despite initially being seen as a right-wing candidate, he clarified his presidential program and expressed his support for liberal policies such as marriage equality, widespread drug legalization, abortion rights, and opposition to fracking.
He also expressed support for a 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, as well as his willingness to negotiate with armed groups still active in the country.
“[Hernandez] it’s a work in progress, it’s constantly evolving,” Angel Beccassino, the candidate’s top political adviser, told Al Jazeera. “Rodolfo’s program is not specific in several themes.”
Beccassino called Hernandez a candidate for “a new version of centrism” and described him as “a man of wisdom rather than knowledge.”
The candidate declined to participate in any of the presidential debates throughout the campaign, however, leaving many doubts about what kind of president he will be if he wins Sunday’s vote.
On June 9, Hernandez also canceled his remaining public appearances out of alleged fears for his life and remained in Miami for several days.
Frustration with the status quo
The vote comes as Colombian voters yearn for political change after the country saw massive national protests last year demanding an end to structural inequalities and police violence. Incumbent conservative president Ivan Duque has since seen his popularity plummet, reaching a 73 percent disapproval rate earlier this year.
“Colombians don’t want a career politician right now,” said Will Freeman, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University in the United States and an expert on politics and anti-corruption in Latin America.
And both Hernandez and Petro are “alternatives to the political status quo,” Freeman said.
“The reasons people are voting for Hernandez, despite his gaffes, are the same reasons people are voting for Petro,” he told Al Jazeera. “In both cases, people are saying, ‘Things are really bad right now, we can’t afford a few more years of continuity, so we have to bet on something different, although that comes with a lot of uncertainty.’”
Amid the lack of clarity in Hernandez’s presidential plans, one promise remained constant: his determination to address the country’s endemic corruption. He often pointed the finger at Colombia’s political elite and labeled them “thieves, thieves, scoundrels.” [and] delinquents”.
“He gives me confidence because he wants to fight corruption,” Alma Osorio Aguirre, a supporter of Hernandez de Bucaramanga and a volunteer in his campaign, told Al Jazeera.
“He is a self-made man who came from below, like many of us. He is blunt, confrontational and says things as they are.”
However, Hernandez is the subject of an active investigation and has been accused of corruption for alleged irregularities in the distribution of garbage collection contracts to a company linked to his son.
Hernandez and his campaign have denied the allegations. “It’s an investigation that has certain weaknesses,” Beccassino said, without going into more detail. A trial is scheduled for mid-July.
“The Engineer”, as Hernandez is also known among his supporters for his training as a civil engineer, is not oblivious to the controversy.
He has been criticized for making sexist and xenophobic remarks against Venezuelan migrant women, for labeling a local fire department “fat and lazy” and for expressing his admiration for the “great German thinker Adolf Hitler”. He later corrected himself on the last point and said he meant Albert Einstein.
At the beginning of the campaign, he said he didn’t know what the Colombian region of Vichada was, only to win there weeks later. And in an interview with The Washington Post, he compared his supporters to the “brainwashed” 9/11 hijackers.
In 2018, he was suspended as mayor of Bucaramanga for slapping a councilor in the face on video. “His personality is that of an autocrat, of a little emperor,” John Claro, the councilor he slapped, told Al Jazeera in an interview this month.
“[He’s] a simplistic, erratic, demagogic, misogynist candidate with a shallow agenda. He is easily carried away by his emotions and even more so when you tell him the truth, as I did,” said Claro.
According to the Office of the Inspector General, Hernandez is currently facing 33 open investigations for alleged actions, including defamation and workplace harassment.
‘We want a transformation’
Others questioned whether Hernandez will be able to deliver on his presidential campaign promises. While campaigning for mayor of Bucaramanga, he distributed letters promising to build new housing for low-income residents, a promise he never kept.
“I am outraged by the deception of your letter,” resident Jaime Nunez Duarte, who maintained the letter promoting Hernandez’s “20,000 Happy Homes” program, told Al Jazeera. “I believed the letter, but more than anything I believed Hernandez. It was a strategy to get votes. A perfect form of deception.”
However, Hernandez’s record and string of controversies have not stopped much of the electorate, spurred on by his desire for a clean break with the political system, from supporting him.
“Life is very bad in Colombia for most people right now and it has gotten a lot worse in the last couple of years. So do they mind that he has some gaffes? I’m sure that’s not on anyone’s mind,” Freeman said.
Polls are predicting a very fierce battle between Hernandez and Petro in the second round next Sunday, with both groups of fans frustrated by the same problems but divided over who is best suited to solve them.
There is also a reluctance among sectors of the electorate in Colombia – a country that has never been ruled by a left-wing government and remains marked by decades of armed conflict involving radical left-wing armed groups – to trust Petro, as many believe his political agenda is too radical and worries about his past as a fighter.
“We want a transformation, we don’t want more of the same,” Fernando Plata, a local resident of Bucaramanga, told Al Jazeera. “We want change, we want to see an engineer as president, not a guerrilla.”