Business Magnate Turns the Table on Petro in Colombia Election

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(Bloomberg) -- Gustavo Petro ceded his front-runner status for Colombia’s presidency to a little known 77-year-old construction magnate, in a sign of how voters are increasingly willing to gamble on untested leaders who promise change.

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Rodolfo Hernandez’s surprise surge to place second in Sunday’s election sets up a June 19 runoff with Petro, a former mayor of Bogota whose program includes proposals to phase out the oil and coal industries.

Petro, 62, had been tipped as the favorite to become Colombia’s first leftist leader, but the upset prompted other candidates to quickly offer Hernandez their endorsements, potentially tipping the balance in his favor. Markets are set to rally on Tuesday after a holiday on the belief that anyone would be better than Petro.

The outcome turns the tables on Petro, who portrayed himself as an agent of change unlike Federico Gutierrez, the conservative candidate seen as embodying the policies of the outgoing administration who placed third and failed to make the runoff.

“The uncertainty is now multiplied because we face a candidate who wants a deep change in policy and the other where we just don’t know what he proposes,” said Mario Gomez, managing partner for Colombia at public affairs and business consulting firm Prospectiva. “That fear and panic that Petro produces is so strong, that now it’s just about give me anything, just not Petro.”

Now, Petro, whose political journey took him from guerrilla to the capital’s mayor and a senator, suddenly faces a genuine outsider in Hernandez, a businessman with a short temper, foul mouth and populist tendencies whose only political experience is as onetime mayor of the provincial city of Bucaramanga.

“Today we have to decide what kind of change we want, whether to commit suicide or advance,” Petro said Sunday evening on stage during his campaign rally flanked by his wife, children and vice president.

In a sign of his potential unease at facing Hernandez, he repeated a campaign line Gutierrez had deployed against him, saying that “we can’t jump into the void.”

The result shakes up the presidential race in Latin America’s third-most populous country after voters in Peru and in Chile elected unconventional presidents within the last year. It’s another indication of how the desire for change driven by inequalities that were exposed by the pandemic and exacerbated by inflation are leading to unpredictable political outcomes.

Hernandez spent election day by a pool at his country home near the northeastern provincial city of Bucaramanga. His speech after the results were released was a streamed video of him sitting alone in the kitchen while supporters rallied in a public square in the city.

He’s adopted social media as his most effective communication strategy, going viral on TikTok for videos lambasting corrupt politicians and saying they should all be jailed. The virtual nature of his campaign means that he’s been able to largely avoid touring the country, preferring to spend weekends with family rather than hold street rallies and take pictures holding babies.

On Monday night, the candidate posted a long thread on Twitter vowing to leave “the neoliberal policies” behind and saying his administration would be “independent” from the recent governments that ruled Colombia.

Hernandez is being investigated for potential irregularities in tendering public contracts while mayor of Bucaramanga and resigned after being suspended in the post. He’s also been caught on camera slapping a political opponent and often using expletives in public arguments.

“Hernandez has entered the runoff race with an edge given the likely support of conservative voters, but his victory is far from a done deal,” said Maria Luisa Puig, an analyst at Eurasia Group. “Hernandez’s narrow advantage can slip quickly as he is a largely untested candidate whose liabilities have not yet been fully exposed.”

Petro, speaking Sunday evening, took digs at Hernandez by saying that he’s risked his life fighting corruption in Colombia and that graft can’t be stomped out with TikTok videos. Though it’s not clear how effectively he’ll be able to convince undecided voters to back him given concerns over his proposals to overhaul pensions, the health care system and raise taxes.

In a broadcast via Facebook on Monday evening, Hernandez reiterated that he’ll remain independent and won’t form alliances with other politicians.

What’s clear is that Colombia will veer away from its most traditional parties who have run the pro-market, conservative economic model for decades. But either candidate will still rely on many of those parties to get anything done in Congress.

“The one thing that’s certain is that there won’t be a ‘normal’ government in Colombia for the next four years,” said political analyst Andres Mejia.

(Adds Twitter thread by Hernandez in 12th paragraph.)

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