BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombia’s political landscape has shifted remarkably in a matter of 24 hours.
For months, pollsters predicted that Gustavo Petro, a former rebel-turned-senator making a bid to be the nation’s first leftist president, would head to a June presidential runoff against Federico Gutiérrez, a conservative establishment candidate who had argued that a vote for Mr. Petro amounted to “a leap into the void.’’
As a substitute, on Sunday, voters gave the highest two spots to Mr. Petro and Rodolfo Hernández, a former mayor and wealthy businessman with a populist, anti-corruption platform whose outsider status, incendiary statements and single-issue approach to politics have earned him comparisons to Donald Trump.
The vote — for a leftist who has made a profession assailing the conservative political class and for a comparatively unknown candidate with no formal party backing — represented a repudiation of the conservative establishment that has governed Colombia for generations.
However it also remade the political calculus for Mr. Petro. Now, it’s Mr. Petro who’s billing himself because the secure change, and Mr. Hernández as the damaging leap into the void.
“There are changes that are usually not changes,” Mr. Petro said at a campaign event on Sunday night, “they’re suicides.”
Mr. Hernández once called himself a follower of Adolf Hitler, has suggested combining major ministries to get monetary savings, and says that as president he plans to declare a state of emergency to take care of corruption, resulting in fears that he could shut down Congress or suspend mayors.
Still, Colombia’s right-wing establishment has begun lining up behind him, bringing a lot of their votes with them, and making a win for Mr. Petro seem like an uphill climb.
On Sunday, Mr. Gutiérrez, a former mayor of Medellín, the country’s second-largest city, threw his support behind Mr. Hernández, saying his intention was to “safeguard democracy.”
But Fernando Posada, a political scientist, said the move was also the establishment right’s last-ditch effort to dam Mr. Petro, whose plan to remake the Colombian economy “puts in danger lots of the interests of the standard political class.”
“The Colombian right has reached such a particularly disastrous stage,” said Mr. Posada, “that they like a government that gives them nothing so long as it is just not Petro.”
Mr. Hernández, who had gained limited attention in many of the country until just just a few weeks ago, is a one-time mayor of the mid-sized city of Bucaramanga within the northern a part of the country. He made his fortune in construction, constructing low-income housing within the Nineties.
At 77, Mr. Hernández built much of his support on TikTok, once slapped a city councilman on camera and recently told The Washington Post that he had a “messianic” effect on his supporters, who he in comparison with the “brainwashed” hijackers who destroyed the dual towers on 9/11.
Pressed on whether such a comparison was problematic, he rejected the concept. “What I’m comparing is that after you get into that state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.”
Until just just a few days ago, Colombia’s political narrative seemed easy: For generations, politics had been dominated by just a few wealthy families, and more recently, by a hard-line conservatism generally known as Uribismo, founded by the country’s powerful political kingmaker, former president Álvaro Uribe.
But voter frustration with poverty, inequality and insecurity, which was exacerbated by the pandemic, together with a growing acceptance of the left following the country’s 2016 peace process with its largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, appeared to shift the dynamic.
By 2022, Mr. Petro, long the combative face of the Colombian left, thought it was his moment. And within the months resulting in the May 29 election, voters flocked to his proposals — a broad expansion of social programs, a halt to all recent oil drilling in a rustic depending on oil exports, and a deal with social justice.
The story line was: left versus right, change versus continuity, the elite versus the remainder of the country.
But Mr. Hernández’s improbable rise reflects each a rejection of the conservative elite and of Mr. Petro.
It also reveals that the narrative was never so easy.
Mr. Hernández, who won 28 percent of the vote, has attracted a broad swath of voters anticipating change who could never get on board with Mr. Petro.
Mr. Petro is a former member of a rebel group called the M-19 in a rustic where rebels terrorized the population for a long time. And he’s a leftist in a nation that shares a border with Venezuela, a rustic plunged right into a humanitarian crisis by authoritarians who claim the leftist banner.
Mr. Hernández, together with his fuzzy orange hair and businessman’s approach to politics, has also attracted voters who say they need someone with Trumpian ambition, and are usually not troubled if he’s susceptible to tactlessness. (Years after saying he was a follower of Adolf Hitler, Mr. Hernández clarified that he meant to say he was a follower of Albert Einstein.)
Two of the country’s biggest issues are poverty and lack of opportunity, and Mr. Hernández appeals to individuals who say he may help them escape each.
“I believe that he looks at Colombia as a possibility of growth. And that’s how I believe that he differs from the opposite candidates,” said Salvador Rizo, 26, a tech consultant in Medellín. “I believe that the opposite candidates are watching a house that’s on fire they usually wish to extinguish that fireside and reveal the home. What I believe the view of Rodolfo is: That there’s a house that generally is a massive hotel in the long run.”
He has also been a relentless critic of corruption, a chronic issue that some Colombians call a cancer.
“Political people steal shamelessly,” said Álvaro Mejía, 29, who runs a solar energy company in Cali.
He says he prefers Mr. Hernández to Mr. Petro, a longtime senator, precisely due to his lack of political experience.
The query is whether or not Mr. Hernández will give you the chance to take care of that outsider status within the weeks leading as much as the runoff, as key political figures align themselves to his campaign.
Just minutes after he won second place on Sunday, two powerful right-wing senators, María Fernanda Cabal and Paloma Valencia, pledged their support for him, and Mr. Posada predicted that others were prone to follow.
Mr. Uribe, who backed Mr. Hernández’s run for mayor in 2015, is an increasingly polemic figure who turns off many Colombians. Mr. Posada predicted that he wouldn’t throw his weight behind Mr. Hernández, in order to not cost him voters.
If Mr. Hernández can walk that difficult line — courting the establishment’s votes without tarnishing his image — it may very well be difficult for Mr. Petro to beat him.
Many political analysts imagine that the roughly 8.5 million votes Mr. Petro got on Sunday is his ceiling, and that a lot of Mr. Gutiérrez’s five million votes will probably be added to the six million Mr. Hernández received.
As the outcomes became clear, Mr. Hernández’s supporters rushed to his campaign headquarters on certainly one of the most important avenues in Bogotá, the capital.
Many wore brilliant yellow campaign T-shirts, hats and ponchos, which they said they’d bought themselves as an alternative of being handed out free by the campaign, in line with Mr. Hernández’s cost-cutting principles.
“I actually have never seen an individual with characteristics like those of the engineer Rodolfo,” said Liliana Vargas, a 39-year old lawyer, using a standard nickname for Mr. Hernández, who’s a civil engineer. “He’s a political being who is just not a politician,” she said. “It’s the primary time that I’m totally excited to take part in a democratic election in my country.”
Nearby, Juan Sebastián Rodríguez, 39, a pacesetter of Mr. Hernández’s Bogotá campaign, called the candidate “a rock star.”
“He’s a phenomenon,” he said. “We’re sure that we’re going to win.”
Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá.