Politician Famous for Slapping Rival Upends Colombia Election

A short-tempered 77-year-old entrepreneur who once physically assaulted an opponent has shaken up Colombia’s presidential election race in its final few days.

A week ago, Rodolfo Hernandez was seen as a long shot. But now he’s on investors’ radar after a last-minute surge in popularity that could potentially propel him into a runoff in June, and from there to the presidency.

Hernandez, a businessman who made his money in construction, has successfully harnessed voter rage by attacking Colombia’s political parties as corrupt and wasteful. His simple message is that Colombia is being bled white by “100,000 thieves” in and around the government.

He’s pledged to turn the presidential palace into a museum, and sell most of the aircraft and cars used by senior officials and lawmakers.

“Rodolfo has been able to tell that story that we’ve all grown up listening to: that this country is rich in biodiversity, in natural resources, and if it weren’t because everything is stolen, we’d all be rich,” said Pablo Lemoine, the head of pollster Centro Nacional de Consultoria, or CNC. “And he does it in language that everyone understands.”

TikTok Videos

In debates and interviews, Hernandez’s line is that most of Colombia’s problems boil down to a question of officials taking kickbacks.

He has pledged to lower taxes including the rate of value added tax to 10% from 19%. This, he says, would be financed by a reduction in corruption.

“When no one steals, there’s enough money,” he said in a radio interview Monday.

Despite his advanced age, Hernandez has shown great skill in getting his anti-corruption message across via social media platforms popular with younger Colombians, such as TikTok.

Beyond his anti-corruption message, it’s not easy to say what he stands for, said Silvana Amaya, an analyst at Control Risks consultancy.

“He’s asked about education and he ends up talking about corruption. Ask him about mining and the same happens,” Amaya said.

A spokesperson for Hernandez’s campaign didn’t reply to a message seeking comment for this article.

‘Adolfo Hitler’

Hernandez has shown a great ability to weather scandals that would end the careers of most other people.

Since he hadn’t made a habit of praising Nazism, many people accepted that it had been a slip of the tongue, and the comment didn’t do him much lasting damage.

Hernandez first became widely known outside his home city of Bucaramanga in eastern Colombia, when a video went viral of him slapping the face of a political opponent in late 2018.

Hernandez, who was mayor at the time, was suspended temporarily over the assault, but it gave him a level of national recognition that helped him launch his presidential run.

He was also suspended on another occasion, for allegedly influencing voters in the election to pick his successor.

And he is currently being investigated by the inspector general’s office for allegedly helping a company win in a bidding process related to waste disposal while he was mayor. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Hernandez sometimes loses his temper during interviews. Recently, he threatened to end an interview when he was asked about the inspector general’s investigation.

In recent weeks, the election had been seen as a two-horse race between the leftist front-runner, Gustavo Petro, and his conservative rival Federico “Fico” Gutierrez. But the recent surge in support for Hernandez could allow him to edge out Gutierrez to face Petro in the second round.

‘Populist Outsider’

Inequalities aggravated by the pandemic have been shaking up Latin American politics, and voters in Chile and Peru last year elected anti-establishment candidates.

That suggests “it would be unwise to discount late momentum from a populist outsider,” Ben Ramsey, an economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in a note last week.

The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Colombia will be the fastest-growing major economy in the Americas this year, helped by soaring prices for its energy exports. But many voters aren’t feeling the benefits of that growth, with unemployment above 12% and inflation at its highest rate in more than two decades.

Petro, 62, is running on a platform that centers on a radical shift in Colombia’s economic model away from oil and coal. Meanwhile Gutierrez, 47, who says he would run an investor-friendly government, is struggling not be seen as the continuation of the unpopular current administration of President Ivan Duque.

“Many see in Hernandez an option for change that doesn’t take it to the extreme which is what Petro represents,” said Amaya.

Hernandez doesn’t have much support in congress, and getting laws passed in Colombia involves doing deals with the very parties he says are bandits.

Much will depend on his “ability to make alliances with parties that in his world view represent the political class that he has campaigned against,” said JPMorgan’s Ramsey.



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