Colombia Is Facing an Unprecedented Presidential Election

Jun 16, 2022
3:45 PM

This combination of photos shows Colombian presidential candidates: Gustavo Petro, left, and Rodolfo Hernández, right. (AP Photos/Martín Mejía, Fernando Vergara, Files)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The final round of Colombia’s presidential election is scheduled for Sunday, June 19 and the clear winner is still difficult to determine. The latest polls predict a statistical tie between two candidates who embody different ideologies but still promise change.

The last four years in Colombia have been difficult. Not only because of the COVID pandemic but because of overall general fatigue. After a series of social protests last year in April, most of the population finally spoke out. The streets were packed and various sectors paralyzed the country, despite police repression and the pandemic.

A National Strike was the first warning that politics had changed in this conservative right-wing country.

The second warning was last March’s congressional elections. For the first time in history, leftist sectors organized under the flags of the Pacto Histórico became Congress’ main political force. And although they will have to form a coalition, they still obtained 20 senate seats out of 100.

The final warning came after the round of presidential elections earlier this year.

Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla and current leader of the Pacto Histórico, was the winner with 40.3% of the vote. Surprising outsider Rodolfo Hernández took second place with 28% of the vote. Former Medellín mayor and establishment candidate Federico Gutiérrez finished third and is not part of the June 19 runoff.

Sebastián Fagua, an anthropologist who has worked closely on issues of historical memory in a country celebrating five years of a faltering peace agreement, believes this Sunday election is crucial.

“The first thing is that there are not two political projects. The Pacto Historico is a project of convergence of several sectors. And he explains that it has been maturing (…) a need for progressive sectors that want to distance themselves from traditional ones,” Fagua told Latino Rebels.

For Fagua, Hernández is not about promised change but more a renewal of the political right, and the chances of an eventual Hernández government are incredibly high.

A New Bolsonaro?

In the leadup to the first round of elections, most polls showed a sure victory for Petro, but that scenario changed after the first round, when Hernández finished second.

Hernández, former mayor of a city in the Colombian Andes, has managed to win over followers with an anti-establishment discourse and a strong central message: the fight against corruption even though he was the only candidate accused by the Prosecutor’s Office in a corruption process for which he awaits trial.

The millionaire builder made his fortune with projects for the most impoverished sectors, and at 76 years of age, he is now aspiring to be president. The growth in the polls has been meteoric. Until a few months ago, he was unknown to most of the country.


Arlene Tickner, one of Colombia’s most important political analysts, said Hernández’s candidacy “is filling a void that no one else had been able to.” 

“Collecting the concerns differently, the grievances that Colombian men and women have,”  Tickner added, “and it has done so through simple and forceful messages such as the fight against corruption. And strategies to insult those of us who do not share your opinion.” 

Hernández’s candidacy has been marked by controversy. His misogynistic comments and insults to traditional politicians have paved the way for his successful electoral campaign.  He even made himself known after a video where he beat up a councilor from a traditional political party who accused him of being corrupt. 

“Trying to give Hernández well-known qualifiers simplifies his profile. He is a person whose only experience has been in the mayor’s office in Bucaramanga, without knowledge of the functioning of the state, and based on his pronouncements, he does not seem to have marked respect for the social state of law and constitutional norms,” Tickner said. 

According to Tickner, Hernández usually identifies himself with figures like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele.

“This gesture of recognition suggests a populist candidate who challenges the conventional conceptions of the right and left,” Tickner noted. “On the social issue, he tries to turn to positions that one would say from the left, while on security issues, he represents positions more to the right”

Hernández has proposed closing the congress and removing security for congress members. He does not even seem to have the intention of holding an inauguration ceremony if he were to win as a way, he said, to save money. 

“Right now in Colombia, there are unresolved issues in terms of human rights, the armed conflict is unsolved, and Hernández misrepresents what the state is. He also trivializes what rights actually are and the complexity of guaranteeing them,” Fagua said.

From the Left

Perhaps the best image that serves to relate what Petro meant to large sectors of the country was his closing election speech last month in Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar. The plaza was crowded, comparable to the first days of social mobilizations during the National Strike. 

His large team installed bulletproof glass between the crowd and the candidate, and his bodyguards listened attentively with bulletproof shields on each side. The day before, vice-presidential candidate Francia Márquez had a laser pointed at her in the middle of a public speech. Petro, who has received constant death threats, was the victim of espionage one week before.

His closest campaign team was infiltrated, and hours of private meetings were exposed through establishment media. For many, his campaign is the real challenge to power in Colombia. For others, he is just a candidate with social democratic ideas.    

“I would not describe Petro as a former M-19 guerrilla, but as a leftist politician who has dedicated himself to public life through the exercise of different positions of popular will such as mayor and congress,” Tickner said. “The coalition represented by the Pacto Histórico is the broadest of different progressive and centrist sectors in the history of Colombia.”

Various political and social sectors helped build his proposal, but Petro’s figure is still divisive. In Colombia, the stigma and demonization of the political left are typical. After decades of conflict, the establishment has framed the left as an internal enemy.

Those nararives present in the older generations are not in the younger ones who promoted the National Strike. That is the case of Jonathan and Karo, a couple in their 20s who were active community journalists during the Bogotá protests. 

“Gustavo Petro represents what he did. In his government in Bogotá, he helped young people and lowered the rates of violence. There is no point in comparison. He represents support for free education and animal rights,” Jonathan explained.

For Karo, Petro is possibly holding long-overdue discussions in the country on the dignity of employment, environmental issues, and the gender gap.

“I have a lot of criticism against the candidate, but I feel that he is Colombia’s best candidate. He knows the territory, he has a government plan, together with Francia Marques, he can guarantee Colombia a better quality of life,” Karo said. 

The Márquez Factor

Next to Petro is Márquez, his running mate—a Black environmentalist and feminist who has been the victim of strong racist attacks throughout the campaign. 

She is clearly a new figure in the politics of a country built on colonial, Eurocentric, and elitist foundations.

“[Márquez] represents a position that speaks truthfully to the power of different problems in Colombia, including racism, violence, and the concentration of wealth. That is historic in a country that suffers from structural racism that has not been recognized,” Tickner said.

María del Mar Narváez is a feminist activism, university professor and a Márquez support .

“Francia is like a breath of fresh air to this country, specifically with this dense history of paramilitarism and extreme right-wing power. She is an idea that there may be another possibility, a more humane way of doing politics,” del Mar Narváez said.

A New Colombia?

No one really knows who will win on Sunday, but Hernández has been empowered by an “antipetrismo” movement that is effective in a traditionally conservative country. In addition, Hernández appeals to sectors of the center who fed up with the establishment. 

“The fact that Hernández has passed on to the second round is the worst nightmare of the Pacto Histórico because it defies the conceptions of right and left,” Tickner said.

The fear of a Petro presidency has turned in Hernández’s candidacy into a loose and unpredictable coalition of varied interests from influential political sectors. 

This is the scenario that Colombia faces on June 19—two promises of change backed by different fears of the sectors that support them.

The country is polarized, and the campaign has been intense. The truth is that on June 20, the day after the election, Colombia will begin to follow a different historical path that it has likely never seen before.


David González M. is an award-winning conflict and human rights reporter for international media. Twitter: @Davo_gonzalez